Former Huber Breaker employee John Zubkoff of Ashley remembers what conditions were like in the local mining industry.Times leader staff photo/pete g. wilcox
ASHLEY – For John Zubkoff and others, the Huber Breaker isn’t just a symbol of the area’s rich anthracite heritage, it’s a piece of their past.
Zubkoff, 81, is one of a dwindling number of surviving former employees of the Glen Alden Coal Co.’s Ashley breaker. He believes it’s important to preserve the structure so future generations can learn how coal miners supplied the anthracite that kept America running for decades.
“For them to rip the breaker down is not right,” the Ashley man said. “They should turn it into a museum. Once it’s down you’ll never get it back up.”
The 68-year-old breaker is destined for the scrap heap if its current owner, No. 1 Contracting Corp., opts not to accept an offer to turn it over to the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority.
For years, preservationists have talked about transforming the Huber into an anthracite history museum.
Constructed in the late 1930s by the Glen Alden Coal Co., the Huber breaker replaced a wooden plant built in the late 1890s.
The Huber revolutionized the coal industry, utilizing machines to separate coal from rocks and other impurities before the participles were crushed in the breaker.
Previously this had been done by breaker boys.
The Huber breaker was considered the fastest anthracite processing plant in the nation, processing 1,000 tons of coal per hour in 1939, according to Coal Age Magazine.
Mixtures of coal, slate and stone were carried to the top of the 134-foot Huber breaker on a 10-by-48-foot conveyor belt to be processed into smaller manageable pieces before being shipped to Philadelphia ports.
To support their families, men would venture deep into the mines surrounded by dangerous working conditions, and many lost their lives to mine accidents.
Some explosions in the mines were sparked by electric static and sparks from machinery. Others were human induced, John Wharton said during an interview for the book “Chapters in Wyoming Valley History.” Wharton, who worked in management at the mines, started off as a mail boy in 1918 at the age of 16. He began working at the Huber in 1930 after the Wilkes-Barre Coal Co. merged with Glen Alden.
Wharton’s brother and father worked deep in the mines, but John Wharton said he was too scared to venture into the mines for fear of an accident.
Zubkoff said working conditions eventually improved as he neared his retirement in 1969, after working there for 25 years.
“They used to pump water to the coal, so it wouldn’t be dusty,” he said, noting that the mine used a 500-gallon water tank to cut the dust to make it easier for the men to breathe.
After returning from serving in World War II, Zubkoff went into the mining industry because no other jobs were available.
“Like everything else a dollar was a dollar,” he said.
During the Huber breaker plant’s silver anniversary celebration in the mid-1960s all the workers were paid with bags of silver dollars. Zubkoff said it was the only time they were paid in bags of cash.
Helen Przewlocki’s husband, John, worked for several years as a fire boss at the Huber.
“He would go in early and check out the place to make sure it was safe,” she recalled, noting that he often left for work at 3 a.m.
The anthracite processing plant closed in 1976.
For more information on helping preserve the Huber breaker visit www.huberbreaker.org.