They stroll the narrow, shabby streets, chat at the corners, lean against the peeling pillars of the town saloon, the St. Michael Hotel & Restaurant, and they look more like movie actors than real human beings, because something is wrong.
Then you ask for one of them by name, in this town where it is obvious that everyone knows everyone else, and you get the reply, “Oh, he’ll be along any minute. Today’s sign-up day.” And it is borne in upon you that these men are subsisting on unemployment insurance checks, that this is a community where practically all of the able-bodied men have been out of work for many months. Where are the children? In school, although most of these people are older and no longer have small children. Where are the teenagers? Looking for work, moved away, trying their luck elsewhere. Where are the women? Working, many of them—which is a story in itself.
St. Michael is a company town (of the Berwind-White Coal Mining Co.) tucked into one of the many folds of the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. It is as American as any town you could want, by any standards you could name. But the menfolk are practically all out of work, and have been ever since the 24th of April, 1958, when Maryland Shaft #1 closed down. This may be why there is not much travel agency business for Caribbean cruises. In its own way, however, it is a tourist attraction, or would be, if tourists could ever find their way to it over the winding, rutted, poorly-marked roads that tie it to all the other little mining communities of the region: for it was here thousands drowned in the Johnstown Flood. Today the old boathouse then used by wealthy summer residents from Johnstown and Pittsburgh stands high and dry on the St. Michael hillside—now a weather beaten saloon, it is one of the four hangouts for the miners of St. Michael, who are proud of the tragic story of the area, just as they are proud of the tragic history of their calling.
Six hundred and fifty of these men were working at Maryland #1 when the company started to mechanize. The number was gradually reduced to 400; then, after two layoffs and six months of part time operation, there came a day which none of the miners had really believed could really come, even though there had been signs, hints, warnings. The mine shut down.
It is not practically relevant whether the closing was a result of there being too much coal or too many men. What matters is what is happening to the people. Later on we shall return to the larger issues of increased productivity resulting from mechanization and concomitant shifts in fuel usage. For now let us stay with the men.