My summer job working in coal – or, how I learned about class in America

by Bill Benzon


Coal, by Alexander G., April 7, 2012

No, I wasn’t a miner. But the job WAS all about coal. And you know what? I for damn sure know more about the coal business than President Trump.

Let me explain.

I spent the first three or four years of my life in Ellsworth, Pennsylvania, but I don’t remember much, if anything, of that life. It was a “company town”, as they called it. The company was The Bethlehem Steel Corporation. My father worked for the mining division, Bethlehem Mines Corporation.

Ellsworth was a coal town. The steel industry used coal to make coke. Used coke to fuel the blast furnaces that turned iron ore into iron. From iron, steel. From steel, mighty industries. Jobs: the United Steelworkers of America, the United Mine Workers too.

It’s a brutal business, and a dirty one.

When I was four the company moved my father to its headquarters in Johnstown, Pa. You may have heard of it, flood city – three floods, 1889 (the big one, the one that put Johnstown on the map), 1937 (my mother – whose folks came over from Cornwall some time in the 19th century – lived through that one, though she lived in Westmont, a suburb high on a hill), and 1977 (by which time I was gone, so was my family). We settled in Geistown in Richland Township: 315 Cherry Lane. Like Westmont, a suburb. Whereas Westmont was high class, more or less, Geistown was middle class, a mixture of blue and white collar workers.

For a number of years our house was heated with coal. There was a coal bin in the basement, a small room with a hatch opening to the driveway outside. A truck would pull up and dump a load of coal down the hatch. It was up to Dad to shovel the coal into the furnace that heated the boiler that heated the house. I suppose Mom shoveled the coal when dad was away on business, as he often was – visiting coal mines and coal cleaning plants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Sometimes I’d help.

My father was a white collar worker, an engineer, son of a Danish engineer who'd left Europe early in the 20th century. He had a management title, Superintendent of Coal Preparation, but he didn’t do much managing of people. He was in charge of the technology, the design and upkeep of the plants that cleaned the coal used to make coke [1]. Our neighbors to the left and right on Cherry Lane were also white caller; that is, the man, the husband and father in the family, was white collar. One was the Johnstown postmaster; the other, I don’t really know what he did, but it was management I’m sure. My best friend in those years, Jackie Barto, was the son of a steelworker; his mother worked as a records librarian in a local hospital. I couldn’t off hand give you the demographic mix of white collar and blue collar in the area, but there certainly was a mix. A lot of steelworkers, a lot.

There was one Jewish family in the area; owned the local bowling alley. Otherwise it was all white – yes, I know, but recall that back in the 1920s Jews were brown (you can find it in Hemingway). The only ethnic matter than had any impact on my daily life was the difference between Protestant and Catholic. The local Catholic high school was a football powerhouse, but then so were we, the Richland Rams. I was in the band [2]. There was a black section of Johnstown; we drove through it on the way downtown; but that wasn’t my neighborhood. For a number of years, though, a black woman helped my mother around the house once a week – a common arrangement in those days, still is. I don’t know where this woman lived.

Early in those years we would drive down into downtown Johnstown, through it, and out the other side and go up into Westmont ¬– the somewhat higher class neighborhood where my mother grew up. The parents of her best friend from childhood still lived there and we’d visit them when Louise was in town. My father played golf at the country club there, Sunnehanna Country Club. It’s an Indian name – Native American, I know, but usage varies and back then it was “Indian” 24/7/365. We’d go there for dinner and for the annual Christmas party. I remember the magician; don’t remember what tricks he performed (rabbit? hat? cards?); I just remember that he was there.

But then a golf club was established in Windbur, not far from us. My father quit Sunnehanna and joined it; in fact he was a founding member. For one thing, it was closer to home. But I also think he thought the Sunnehanna crowd was a bit pretentious.

So, my summer job.

I graduated from Richland High in 1965 and that summer I went to work for Bethlehem Mines. Other friends went to work for the steel company. But I didn’t work in the mines. I worked in the coal preparation laboratory, three summers: 1965, 1966, and 1967.

The lab was somewhere else, but I forget just where. Conemaugh perhaps. There were three small buildings at the lab, called No. 1, No. 2, and No 3.

For the first couple of weeks I worked in No. 1 building. It was the dirtiest, a hardhat job. Coal samples would come in from the mines and be taken here to be crushed. When you crush coal, you get dust, lots of it. All over the place. On your face, in your hair, and seeping down your butt crack. Mike Karoly – I believe that was his name – worked there.

After a couple weeks there I was moved up to building No. 2. Not literally up, as all three buildings were within 50 or 70 yards of one another on the same ground. But there was a status hierarchy that was the inverse of the numbering. No. 1 building was lowest on the totem poll while the second floor of No. 3 was highest.

Everyone knew I was the boss’s son. Couldn’t hide it, didn’t try to. But like everyone else who worked at the lab, at least those without college degrees (only two of those at the lab), I had to start at No. 1 building and then No. 2.

That’s where the crushed coal was cleaned. You’d float the crushed samples in a medium, such a perchloroethylene, aka perc, and run it over a sieve. The coal would go over the sieve while the rock would go down through it. The cleaned coal was then put in some suitable container and taken to the basement of No. 3 building for further processing.

Perc was nasty foul-smelling stuff, a Group 2A carcinogen, whatever that is. That’s why its use was confined to a separate building. It’s also used as dry-cleaning fluid. Man, you do not want to be around that stuff eight bleeping hours a day. No you don’t. Nasty – worse, in fact, than the dust at No. 1. That was just dirty and could get in your lungs (we wore respirators). But perc, shit, perc felt like it crawled into your blood – which it did [3].

After a couple of weeks breathing perc in No. 2 building I was moved up to the basement of No. 3 building, where I remained for the rest of that first summer and all of my second summer (1966). In addition to the work we did, the basement was also a hang-out spot. When things were slow in No. 1 and No. 2 the guys would come over and we’d just hang around and chat. Perhaps listen to the radio.

A number of guys worked there in No. 3. The was G. Lionel Bower, lanky guy, we called him “Gee Lionel” or “George” – both were used. There was P. J. Shmeer (or was it Schmeer?) and his dad, Joe. Joe used to chauffeur some Bethlehem executives. Then he developed heart problems or something – I don’t really know the story – and was retired to the lab, mostly as a kindness to keep him on the payroll. Because that’s how those big companies did it back in the day. P. J., what’d he do? Things and stuff. He was just a guy. But, as I remember, he was fond of Johnny Mathis.

Aside from shooting the shit, we did two things in the basement of No. 3. One thing was to size the crushed and cleaned coal. We had a stack of screens attached to the bottoms of steel hoops. The top screen had a coarse mesh (an eighth of an inch, a bit larger? not much smaller though) and then successively finer meshes down the stack until we get to the bottom where there’s a shallow pan to catch whatever coal made it all the way though. That stuff was finer than sand. Maybe even finer than dust.

Gee Lionel showed me how to place a sample of coal on the top screen and put the whole stack on a device that would vibrate it. You’d jiggle the stack for awhile – 10, 15 minutes, a half hour – and the coal would trickle down through. Then you’d take the stack into a back room where there was a heat lamp to dry it thoroughly. Once that was finished the coal in each screen would be placed in a small sample can and be labeled. Those sample cans went upstairs for analysis.

Why’d we have to separate the sample into various sized particles? I don’t really know at this point, though my father must have explained it to me. It surely had to do with getting things properly tuned at the cleaning plants, which dealt with wet coal by the tens and hundreds of tons. Also we needed to know just how much sulfur remained in the coal that was eventually going to be coked (that is, turned into coke). And that, I’m guessing, varied among different sizes of grains. Anyhow, we were supposed to do it, so, like everyone else, I did what I was told.

Most of the time.

The other job had to do with a gas chromatograph. Frankly I forget just what was done and why because I never had to do it. I was strictly a shaking and drying guy. The chromatograph was a vertical apparatus with a lot of glass tubes and rubber hoses. One of those tubes was, say, three, four inches in diameter, three feet high, and filled with water. It did something useful and important but don’t ask me what, ‘cause I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it cooled a small tube that ran through it.

Joe Schmeer operated the chromatograph. I’m sure he didn’t know what it did either. But he knew how to operate it and that’s all that mattered.

Anyhow, one day Gee Lionel and I had an idea. You see, the lab was located near a small creek (pronounced like “crick” as in Francis Crick, the Nobel Laureate). And that small creek had some small fish in it. Guppies perhaps? One day at lunch we went down to the creek and caught some of those little bitty fish and put them in a glass jar. We went back to the basement of No. 3 and sneaked the fish into that tall tube in Joe’s chromatograph. We watched them swim around, swim swim swim. And then we all waited.

“Hey! What’s this?”

Joe looked a bit distressed, then smiled, then started chuckling.

Cracked us up. We were rolling on the floor with laughter. Well, not really, not literally. But we where sure pleased as all get-out.

Vick came down. Vick Pierce, he’s the boss. Was he pissed! Maybe he chuckled a bit inwardly, but basically he was pissed. “Get those outa’ there! Who did this?” Threatened to dock the pay of whoever’d done this. Surely Vick must have suspected that the boss’s son had something to do with it – anyone with half a brain would suspect that. But no one said nothing. No one’s pay was docked.

Now if it had just been Gee Lionel, George, that is, he might have gotten in trouble. But since it was me as well, what was the point? Nothing was really harmed, no one was hurt, everyone had a laugh. What better thing for the boss’s son to do than to run interference for a little prank. Heck, probably doubled our productivity for the rest of the day.

That would have been in my second summer at the lab, 1966. I moved up to the top floor of No. 3 in my third summer – climbing the corporate ladder, one rung at a time! Vick had his office there, a small room. I don’t know, maybe Val had an office as well – she was the other college graduate, a chemist. There was a larger room where most of the action took place. That’s where the coal samples were burned to collect the ash, but also, I assume, to collect and analyze the gasses that were driven off of coal that was heated up in the absence of air.

That’s how you make coke, which you need to smelt iron ore into iron. Iron into steel. And steel into jobs.

There was another small room, long and narrow, the balance room. That’s where samples were weighed on analytical balances. These were the old-style balances with two pans hung from a balance beam and the whole thing enclosed in a glass case. The beam pivoted on an agate wedge.

Analytical balance, from Wikimedia Commons

The elegance of those devices was enough to take your breath away. All that craftsmanship, just to weigh things to an accuracy of a milligram or so. Sometime us naked apes do cut things very fine indeed.

My job was to weigh samples on one of these balances, there were two of them. At this point I forget whether we had to prepare samples of a precise weight, or had to determine the weight of given samples. For all I know we may have done both. It was twitchy nudgy work. Often tedious, but sometimes fun.

Often I’d be working next to Dick – I forget his last name. Tall beefy guy; buzz-cut hair. He played drums. So we’d scat sing while weighing samples. Whistle while you work. Yes, more fun.

But not as much fun as putting itty bitty fish in the gas chromatograph. Not as much fun as that. Well, it wasn’t actually putting the fish in that had been so much fun. That was but a minute or two of stealth. It was the thinking and the planning and the sneaking and the laughing and the sense of secret triumph when it was over. Remember, no one got caught.

Everyone knew. No one talked.

And that’s as close as I’ve been to working in a coal mine. Not very close. Still, coal is very real to me.

We heated our house with it when I was a kid. And once upon a time I played a small role in the process that turned coal into coke, coke helped make iron, and from iron comes steel. From steel, industrial America. Now rusting away.

The once mighty Bethlehem Steel Corporation finally went bankrupt in 2001 and its remaining assets were finally sold in 2003.

I don’t expect Trump to do a thing about any of that. He doesn’t know diddly-squat.

* * * * *

[1] About my father: My Father Cleaned Coal for a Living, Truth and Traditions, blog post,

William Benzon, 1912-1998: He Went Out Swinging and Smooth Shaven, New Savanna, blog post,

[2] About my experience in marching band, Leapin’ Lizards: Three Lessons from Marching Band, New Savanna, blog,

[3] According to Wikipedia: “Like many chlorinated hydrocarbons, tetrachloroethylene is a central nervous system depressant and can enter the body through respiratory or dermal exposure. Tetrachloroethylene dissolves fats from the skin, potentially resulting in skin irritation.” Accessed October 10, 2017,

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