I have this recollection of grandpa looking at me as our family gathered one sunny day on the brick porch of the house he built. Considering he died before my first birthday, I’m pretty confident this is a “false memory,” something someone described to me in my impressionable youth that my eager mind converted into a vivid image of an event I couldn’t really recall.
Truth is, I have almost nothing of my grandfather beyond stories my parents told of how he came to America, worked in the coal mines, and – thanks to a grasp of math – landed a promotion to foreman.
That good fortune surely spared him many risks and allowed him to afford the three-story structure I grew up in. Gramps made it as a boarding home for other miners; it eventually became a small apartment building. For a few years I ran a bicycle shop in a store front he had included when designing it. In fact, the availability of that space was a core reason I took the chance and tried my hand at retail.
After college, one of those third-floor apartments became my first home of my own, and I moved later to the second-floor flat where I first hosted my then-future wife (to show I could cook, and to force myself to clean the place).
This is how the region’s coal veins spider through our lives today, long after the mighty industry collapsed, the mines shut and the breakers crumbled. People who rent apartments in that building never know its origins, but the black rock of the abandoned shafts reaches across the decades to touch them all the same.
Our region may slowly be sloughing off the physical remnants of that history – sometimes eagerly, sometimes with a shrug – as collieries and culm banks fade. But heritage hangs around like DNA, shaping lives and livelihoods whether you acknowledge it or not.
Such is the case with the Huber Breaker, now facing extinction despite years of struggle by dedicated preservationists to restore it and turn it into a museum. Seemingly out of the blue, owner Al Roman has abruptly set a Dec. 7 deadline for those saviors to come up with a sweet enough deal, or he’ll sell the hulk for scrap.
Let’s start by pointing out that the mammoth landmark’s impact on our area’s soul and psyche is already sealed, even if its physical fate is suddenly in serious doubt.
Also keep in mind that it was born from capitalism’s incessant quest for profit. Should it die by the same motivation, that would surely be somewhat fitting, if not preferred.
And yes, let’s call Roman’s tight and unexpected deadline something akin to blackmail, as he pushes the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority to up its ante of a land trade in exchange for the breaker, from an offer of 6 acres to 27 acres. But this is America, and if he holds the deed he holds the high cards.
I believe that, properly restored, run and marketed, the breaker would be a terrific asset, a unique tourist draw, and a key part of any efforts to adequately preserve our mining heritage.
Sadly, progress toward that dream has been scant. We have been collectively unwilling to pay the price of such a project, and no white knights with fat checkbooks have charged over the horizon to champion the cause. So Roman has the upper hand, and we will get the fate our culture has allowed.
If the breaker gets scrapped and reused, at least it will continue to serve industry. But another piece of our history will become memory, our children forced to only imagine something they could have actually touched.