St. Nicholas Central Breaker is a former historic coal breaker built by the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company near Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.
Anthracite coal mining began in 1790 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania and by 1795, an anthracite-fired iron furnace had been built nearby along the Schuylkill River. The first commercial mine opened in early 1808 near Plymouth, with much of the early extracted coal shipped to small factories and residences.
It was discovered that anthracite coal had a high carbon content with few impurities and could burn smokeless, making it ideal for a wide variety of industrial uses. With the invention of the hot blast for ignition in pig-iron furnaces in 1828, which used waste heat to preheat combustion air, anthracite became a preferred fuel. Anthracite coal began to be sent to steel mills across the state, helping to fuel the industrial revolution of the northeast.
The first St. Nicholas Breaker was constructed in 1861, 2 and allowed large, hard-to-ignite chunks of anthracite coal to be broken into smaller sizes suitable for smelting iron, fueling steam locomotives, and heating buildings. 1 A conveyer carried raw coal from the top floor through a variety of crushing and screening mechanisms until it became pea-sized at the bottom floor. It was then loaded onto rail cars.
St. Nicholas was named for the initial run of coal that took place on Christmas Day. 8 The breaker was supplied from a mine that had opened in 1858 by Henry Geist.
The Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company (P&RC&I), a subsidiary of the Philadelphia & Reading Rail Road (P&R), was founded in December 1871 to allow the parent corporation to control the transportation of anthracite coal mined in eastern Pennsylvania. 12 Before the formation of the P&RC&I, the P&R transported coal mined by independent operators.
The existing coal operators in the region opposed the creation of the P&RC&I, fearing a monopoly in coal shipments and higher prices. 12 Several independent operators formed the Laurel Run Improvement Company on May 18, 1871, only to be acquired by the P&R to form the P&RC&I.
The P&RC&I bought approximately 100,000 acres of property at speculative prices, leading to the company declaring bankruptcy in 1880, 1884, 1893, and 1896. 12 The final reorganization scaled back some of the vast debt and placed the railroad and the coal and iron company into a new holding corporation, the Reading Company.
A Modern Breaker
The Reading’s control over a large percentage of the nation’s anthracite coal reserves and the cartels formed by the railroads led to the U.S. government filing an antitrust lawsuit against the Reading in 1923. 12 Proceedings, under the Sherman Act of 1913, led to the desegregation of the railroad and coal company in 1920. It was not until December 19, 1923, that Reading sold all of its interest in the P&RC&I to a new holding company, the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Corporation.
Eager to improve its bottom line and to make its processes more efficient, the P&RC&I proposed in March 1929 to expend $30.8 million in bonds to construct two central coal breakers at Locust Summit and St. Nicholas, to centralize all coal preparation at those two plants, to modernize some of the existing breakers, and to close nearly all of the antiquated wooden breakers. 5
The St. Nicholas breaker would service the P&RC&I Mahony District, approximately 10 square miles large, encompassing Shenandoah, Mahanoy City, Gilberton, and Girardville. 9
Construction of the new St. Nicholas breaker began under the supervision of Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation 10 in May 1931, where 2,500 workers toiled for more than 150,000 worker-days. Erection of the building took longer than expected because of mine subsidence. 11 Old underground mines had to be filled to support the construction of the new facility.
The new St. Nicholas breaker did not open until October 3, 1932. 9 Built of 3,800 cubic yards of steel and 10,000 cubic yards of concrete, it contained 1½ miles of conveyor lines, 20 miles of pipes, 25 miles of conduits, 118 miles of wire, and 26,241 square feet of rubber belting, 2 fed by 20 miles of new railroad track. 9
St. Nicholas was capable of processing 12,500 tons of coal per day. 1 2 9 Divided into two sections that could operate independently, coal could be handled in just 12 minutes from load-in to load-out. 3
An auxiliary high-pressure steam plant was also constructed using mechanical stoking equipment. 9 Fine sines of coal, formerly sent to refuse piles, were salvaged, cleaned at St. Nicholas, mixed with water, and pumped through a 1,500-foot pipe to the steam plant. At the steam plant, the coal was dewatered and fed into boilers. The water removed from the coal was used to carry out ash from the plant. The steam plant was used to supply steam to collieries adjacent to St. Nicholas.
Operational problems plagued St. Nicholas’ conveyor systems as they were not able to handle large volumes. 6 Water issues also caused blockages in the pipes. Additionally, a design flaw prevented the breaker from handling small coal sizes.
Post-World War I
By 1917, over 100 million tons of anthracite coal was being mined per year, with the coal being broken down in nearly 300 coal breakers in Pennsylvania. 1 The anthracite coal industry employed approximately 180,000 in just a few counties. The P&RC&I produced 11.5 million tons of coal in 1923, although this declined to 9.6 million tons of coal by 1928 and only 6.7 million tons by the end of 1933. 5
By the mid-1920s, the P&RC&I could produce more coal than the market could bear. 5 The company’s mines and breakers were underutilized, making the company’s costs of production higher and profit margins slimmer. The advent of the Great Depression only further exaggerated P&RC&I’s financial troubles.
Several factors led to anthracite coal’s decline. In the early 1900s, coking ovens began dotting the western part of the state, fueled by low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal. The high-carbon, low-impurity coke was used as a replacement for anthracite coal as a fuel for blast furnaces. In the mid-to-late-20th century, oil and natural-gas-fired heating systems for buildings began replacing earlier models that were fueled by coal.
The cost of anthracite coal was also becoming prohibitive for commercial power plants. While anthracite coal delivered high energy per ton with little soot, it was cheaper to add pollution control devices to power plants.
Between 1933 and 1940, the annual production of anthracite coal averaged just over 7 million tons, but the P&RC&I between 1935 and 1938 lost an average of $6 million per year. 5 In a desperate attempt to pay the interest on its bonded debt and squeak out any profit, the company closed underground mines and breakers and began strip mining to reduce labor and overhead costs. On February 26, 1937, the P&RC&I filed for bankruptcy protection. 12 Less profitable mines were sold in 1938-39, and the Pottsville Shops were closed in 1939. By 1940, the company had sold off a significant amount of its land holdings, operating only seven active underground mines and 11 strip mines.
The holding corporation was dissolved on April 1, 1941, and the courts approved the company’s reorganization plan on July 10, 1944. 12 The Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company was reincorporated on January 1, 1945, which absorbed the Reading Iron Company via a merger.
The anthracite coal industry collapsed in the mid-1950s. Seeking a path out of the industry, the Coal & Iron Company was renamed the Philadelphia & Reading Corporation on September 1, 1955. 12 It then proceeded to acquire the Union Underwear Company. The coal properties and operations were transferred to a new subsidiary, the Reading Anthracite Company.
Reading Anthracite was sold to local owners in February 1961. 12 With demand for anthracite coal slumping, St. Nicholas was mothballed in 1965. 2 The company then proceeded to build a smaller, automated coal breaker near Minersville. 1 6
In the early 2000s, there was a push to make the St. Nicholas Breaker a historical site 1 as part of the Schuylkill River Valley National Heritage Area. 7 Approximately $250,000 was proposed for a feasibility study, economic assessment, and plan for the future use and interpretation of the coal breaker. It was found that to stabilize the breaker and convert the grounds into a park would cost tens of millions of dollars. 1
With St. Nicholas Breaker structurally unsound and with no economic value, demolition of St. Nicholas began in 2013 and was essentially completed by 2018. 2
Maple Hill Changehouse
- Rubinkam, Michael. “Massive coal breaker, Pennsylvania’s last, is coming down.” Morning Call, 28 May 2015.
- Pytak, Stephen J. “Parts of historic St. Nicholas Breaker being demolished.” Republican & Herald, 24 Sept. 2013.
- Kiehart, Carissa. “St. Nicholas Breaker.” Underground Miners, article.
- “Old Coal Breaker in Schuylkill County Coming Down.” WNEP, 31 May 2015.
- Dublin, Thomas, and Walter Licht. “The Anthracite Miners’ New Deal.” The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century, Ithaca, Cornell, 2005, pp. 75-76.
- O’Boyle, Shaun. Modern Ruins. University Park, Pennsylvania State Press.
- Wallace Roberts & Todd, et al. Schuylkill River Valley National Heritage Area Final Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. National Park Service, July 2003.
- “About Blaschak Coal Corp.” Blaschak Coal Corp, article.
- “St. Nicholas Central Breaker.” Shamokin Dispatch, 3 Oct. 1932, p. 10.
- “Big Breaker at St. Nicholas in Full Operation.” Shamokin Dispatch, 3 Oct. 1932, pp. 1, 10.
- “Work PRogressing on Construction of New Breaker.” Mount Carmel Item, 28 Nov. 1931, p. 1.
- “Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company.” Snac, article.