Rock-Fuel and Warlike People: On Mitch Troutman’s “The Bootleg Coal Rebellion”

In an essay that takes off from Mitch Troutman’s “The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an Industry,” native son Jonah Walters finds something entirely too innocent about the tales told about the anthracite industry’s origins.

Rock-Fuel and Warlike People: On Mitch Troutman’s “The Bootleg Coal Rebellion”

The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an Industry, 1925–1942 by Mitch Troutman. PM Press. 0

“CULM,” A CURIOUS WORD, comes from the Welsh “cwlwm,” meaning knot. But if you hear it spoken nowadays, it’s probably in one of the micro-accents of the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region. The language is English, but the intonation could be any combination of Welsh, Hungarian, Sardinian, and who knows what else, admixed with one or another variant of the mongrel German we now call Pennsylvania Dutch. Even today, the region is an archipelago of patch towns, kept separate by the anthracite’s distinctive geomorphology, with each patch containing its own formula of imported idiolects left over from the company town days.

Like all carbons, coal is best understood as a process. The process starts with the compression of decayed plant matter into peat; with more pressure, peat may become jet (as in “jet black”), which the Romans wore as jewelry, and which further transforms, under still more pressure, from lignite into soft coal, then hard coal, then graphite, and finally diamond. Anthracite is hard coal, the midpoint of that conversion. It is the purest of all coal varieties: upwards of 80 percent carbon. Its blue flame is smokeless, which is a hell of a thing to see.

In Pennsylvania, the same tectonic process that turned the coal hard also concertinaed the ground, creating the long ridgelines that today isolate the patch towns. Unlike soft bituminous coal, which sits in horizontal seams at a generally consistent depth, anthracite is found running down the ridges in vertical stripes. The miners enter the coalhole through a diagonal channel. Once underground, they blast the slope, then muck out the broken rock and load it into a buggy a ton or so at a time. A hoist draws the buggy to the coal breaker on the surface. The coal breaker is not a person but a towering conglomeration of conveyor belts and sieves. It drops the buggyfuls of rock through a series of mechanical obstacles to sort the coal by size.

The waste left over—slate and shale and limestone gravel, coal specimens too small to be sorted—is culm. Pile it up for generations and you get a culm bank. Culm bank, “boney pile,” same thing. What we’re talking about is the greatest heap of coal spoil you can imagine: that dusty black whaleback you can see from anywhere in town is the Biggest Man-Made Mountain in the World.

“The only trees you’ll find growing in a culm bank are stately grey birch and crooked pitch pine,” Mitch Troutman writes in his extraordinary book The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an Industry, 1925–1942 (2022). These are “pioneer species”—they thrive in the unrejuvenated spaces of ecological disaster. “The people who moved through the Coal Region,” our local historian continues, “are a lot like those trees: hardy, flexible, resourceful.” And “short-lived,” he adds, with “roots shallow but tight.”


Troutman is a self-described jack-of-all-trades from a part of the coal region known as the Lower Anthracite, whose patch towns are characterized by slumping wood-frame houses on steep and pockmarked streets. “There aren’t a lot of hospitals around,” Troutman told me in 2020 when I interviewed him about his political organizing in the area (he is a co-founder of the working-class organization Anthracite Unite). “We have super old housing, frequent fires, a lot of poverty,” he continued. The population skews old and sick. But if you grow up there, as he did, you learn your history young. Here is some of what you learn.

By the mid-1800s, the once-wooded hillsides of New Jersey and Connecticut had been denuded of trees. Yet each winter, the populous eastern cities called out for ever more stove fuel. Only the Pennsylvania coal could solve this problem. The country’s finest engineers devised a contraption for burning anthracite indoors, and shortly the smokeless coal was like a savior to the frigid urban masses. Meanwhile, the engineers continued their tinkering; in Baltimore and Sunbury, in Wilkes-Barre and New York City, anthracite-fed steam engines soon puttered and whirred. The coal was a miracle. It was a font of wealth, ingenuity, and pride.

But land speculators had been buying up the hills and ridges for years, laying claim not only to railroad and canal routes but also to the great subterranean treasure chests of coal. Thus formed the coal monopolies. The ensuing struggle between those monopolies and the miners they employed, many thousands of whom arrived on great gray ships from Europe, would usher in the 20th century.

But then it all stopped. By the interwar years, the forward rush of history, or maybe the upwards gush of oil, had made the hard coal obsolete. One evening, the shift bells sounded their final tones across Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields. The workingmen, now unemployed, went home to emaciated wives and sclerotic children, where they did what they could to avoid starving. Some will tell you that they have been living that way ever since.

Everyone has heard this story in the coal region. What people haven’t heard, according to Troutman, is its final chapter, which he sets out to recover in his book.

The “bootleg coal rebellion,” to take up Troutman’s phrase, was a wave of unauthorized small-scale coal mining that swept the anthracite region during the long 1930s, at precisely the moment the coal monopolies withdrew and the industry supposedly died. From the northern “Panther Valley” coalfield to Troutman’s Lower Anthracite, ordinary miners banded together, making use of the bonds forged in earlier waves of class struggle to occupy and illegally mine company land. Anthracite coal stoves remained in use for home heating throughout the Great Depression, and so a vast network of highway smugglers delivered the fruits of the miners’ insurgent labor to places like New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In this way, the laid-off miners survived, even flourished.

At the same time, their collective appropriation of the means of production challenged capitalist legality in the coal region. By mining and marketing coal in the absence of capitalist investment, the self-organized bootleggers undermined the very property relations that maintained the monopolies’ power. The bootleg coal rebellion lasted from about 1925 until the Second World War. While the reversal of fortunes it engendered could only be partial and temporary, as a collective experience it was deliriously dramatic—and instructive—for the people involved. While the ballad of the bootleggers is nowadays a story seldom told, its cultural aftereffects still linger. There remain a handful of headstrong “independent miners,” hometown heroes all, on the Lower Anthracite field today.

Troutman narrates this history with the careful pacing of a novelist, drawing on a voluminous personal archive as well as a precious set of oral history recordings made decades ago by the deceased local historian Michael Kozura. (Like Kozura, Troutman can identify a bootlegger or two in his family tree, a fact which may have facilitated his access to these closely guarded materials.) In successfully rewriting the final chapter of the anthracite story, The Bootleg Coal Rebellion is an undeniable triumph. It gives the lie to the bourgeois fantasy of a cowed and starveling class of dirty-faced miners who stoically accepted their lot by fading pacifically into the past.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something missing from Troutman’s book, another mistold story that deserves some revisionist attention too—one that sits closer to the fecund beginning of the anthracite industry than to its austere conclusion. The laid-off miners banding together, their reclamation of the home soil’s underground resource, their heroism in the face of capitalist intransigence—all this I have no trouble believing. What I can’t believe is the conventional wisdom about the anthracite industry’s beginnings, with its emphasis on steam transit and efficient home heating. Something about that story is too innocent.


I’ve traveled with The Bootleg Coal Rebellion for a while now. Its pages are well thumbed and yellowed. It sat on the dashboard of my car for so long that its spine began to shed white flakes of dried glue. The truth is, I can’t help but take the book personally: I was born and raised in Central Pennsylvania, just a short drive from Troutman’s Lower Anthracite (which expresses my full qualifications for writing this review).

Back then, in the mid-2000s, my country was at war. The early “war on terror” saturates nearly every memory I have of my childhood in Central Pennsylvania. In part, this is because I would go every Saturday morning with my gentle, introverted father to the front steps of the post office in downtown Lewisburg where a clump of parka-bundled souls clutched homemade signs: “GIVE PEACE A CHANCE” and “WHO WOULD JESUS BOMB?” and, less frequently, “NO BLOOD FOR OIL.” Among them, I would observe my fearless, smiling mother transform into something spectral and malevolent, like a cloud of mustard gas, in the eyes of the townsfolk who hurried past her—she had only wanted to offer them a leaflet; it was there in her outstretched hand.

In the Central Pennsylvania of the 2000s, as in Ichabod Crane’s Sleepy Hollow, the air itself “breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.” Needless to say, my memories of this period are not to be trusted. Still, I recall the stars-and-stripes snarling atop its flagpole in even the limpest breeze. I recall holding a votive candle in the hard-nosed cold. I recall the passing motorists who hissed and hollered at our vigils, and the sour embarrassment that gathered behind my eyes each time I recognized one of these motorists as the parent of a classmate. Out of step with history, like the Hessian ghost-rider in his woods, I became cynical. Every gesture from a neighbor, each utterance over a backyard fence, invited my suspicion. I fled as soon as I could.

But in time, I came to realize the place I fled was a fantasy. I can’t seem to find it anymore.

Last year, I drove the short distance from my childhood home to the familiar patch towns of Troutman’s Lower Anthracite. The review you’re now reading was already scandalously overdue. I thought the road trip might knock something loose in me.

The first thing I saw, driving around the coal region, was that the monopolies still exist. Today, their incomes are supplemented by rents derived from local pleasure-seekers who wish to travel at great personal velocity across vast swaths of ruined land. On historic mining grounds now stand astonishingly popular ATV parks where, in exchange for purchasing a day pass, signing a personal injury waiver, and taking a solemn if unenforceable oath not to consume alcohol, you are permitted to ride your dirt bike up and down the great sloshy banks of culm. Just outside Coal Township, I encountered the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area, established by a community group for this purpose, and a little further on was the 22,000-acre Famous Reading Outdoors, operated privately by the now-wizened Reading Anthracite Company, whose present-day administrator belongs to a patrilineal string of company barons that predates the bootlegging days.

The next thing I saw, and then remembered from my childhood, is that here lives a people schooled in war. In the small city of Shamokin, I parked the car and set off walking along a grandly spaced thoroughfare called Lincoln Street. Next to me, in a ditch, the sluggish waters of a shallow creek stained each stone a loud and indelible orange (a normal effect of acid mine drainage). Next to the ditch ran a long string of war monuments, most of which were statues, but others of which were decommissioned artillery machines: I passed a full-tracked M60-A3 battle tank; later I saw what looked to be a 155mm howitzer (in fact there were two such long guns, mutely guarding either side of a low-slung bridge); and still further along were several Civil War–era cannons, anchored to the street by concrete plinths.

Driving home, I realized why the anthracite industry’s origin story rings false to my mind: it is incongruously pacifistic.


Anthracite is a martial resource. It has always proposed, from the earliest moments of its exploitation, to assist in the conduct of violence. In fact, it was the rock-fuel’s extraordinary utility in warlike endeavors that first motivated the colonists’ development of the Pennsylvania coalfield.

Consider, for example, an account presented in 1890 to Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Historical and Geological Society by the ethnologist George B. Kulp. Kulp tells of “a gunsmith,” who in “about the year 1750 to 1755” could be found living proximate to the muddy settlement of Nazareth, on the eastern littoral of the Lehigh River. This gunsmith, “upon application being made him by several Indians to repair their rifles,” replied that, as he was “bare of charcoal,” his forges could not be lit. Perhaps these “Indians” were exasperated by the man, since no sooner had their application been denied than “they demanded a bag […] and having received it, went away, and in two hours returned with as much stone-coal as they could well carry.” They “refused to tell where they had procured it.”

There was good reason to hide the rock-fuel’s location: it turned out to be fantastically well suited to the manufacture of guns. Within decades, this was a fact widely acknowledged among the settlers of the Lehigh Basin—and, more consequentially, by the supreme executive council of the proprietary government of Pennsylvania, which amid the hostilities of 1775 “found itself so pressed for firearms that […] boats were sent up to Wyoming [near Nazareth] and loaded with coal at Mill Creek, […] floated down the Susquehanna […] and employed in furnaces and forges to supply the defenders of our country with arms.” This transit “was done annually during the revolutionary war,” Kulp notes, with a hint of hometown pride.

In fact, to appreciate the importance of anthracite to the Revolutionary War, one need only trace the progress of the colonists’ celebrated rifle brigades across its battlefields. It should not escape our attention that, in the main, these storied riflemen were from Pennsylvania. (Others hailed from the Virginia frontier, where a semi-anthracitic specimen known as Valley and Ridge coal was found.) The Pennsylvania provincials, as these country marksmen were known, would take on a nearly supernatural significance to the redcoats, who fled their lethal volleys not only in Pennsylvania and New Jersey but also in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Saratoga, New York. The novel long gun the provincials wielded was superior in range and accuracy not only to the smooth-bore firearms that predominated in Europe but also to the short-barreled flintlocks that had been manufactured in the colonies to wage King Philip’s War a century earlier.

To the colonists, the long-barreled musket was a homegrown marvel. It originated in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “some time after the end of the first quarter of the 18th century,” following the mass arrival of skillful Swiss and German gunsmiths. Their reasons for choosing Lancaster have unfortunately gone unrecorded, but it seems reasonable that craftsmen flocked to the city because it sits along the Susquehanna River, near a landing point where waterborne anthracite could likely be obtained.

I can produce no worm-eaten ledger book to prove that anthracite was, for certain, available for purchase in Lancaster before the Revolutionary War. But I can say that one Matthias Hollenback, a precocious land baron, was by 1769 arcing hard coal from headwater mines near Wilkes-Barre down a tributary called Mill Creek. Hollenback’s shipping route would have picked up the Susquehanna superhighway at Pittston before diverting at Harris’ Ferry (present day Harrisburg) to navigate the marshy Conodoguinet Creek to the cannon foundries of Carlisle. Lancaster lies just a few klicks downriver from Harris’ Ferry, with no falls or rock-breaks in between. It would be odd if such a shrewd profiteer as Hollenback never thought to direct a barge or two onwards to that nearby town.

In any event, the superior muskets developed in Lancaster featured substantially longer barrels than antecedent firearms. Smithing something so long and straight required craftsmen to sustain a very high level of heat for what in the 18th century must have seemed like an extraordinary length of time. Anthracite provides such heat and duration much better than wood charcoal or soft coal. (As the gunsmith David Hess of Northampton would attest in 1814, anthracite “is the only coal I can depend on for welding of gun barrels, as with it I am always sure of a true and uniform result.”)

All of this—Kulp’s tale of the Nazarene gunsmith, Hollenback’s riverine shipping route, the innovation of the Lancaster long gun—occurred a generation or more before the period when historians typically locate the origins of the anthracite industry. (Troutman makes this error, too, but he hardly deserves the blame.) Almost uniformly, the pivotal matter of anthracite’s military significance in the 18th century is relegated to the era of predevelopment. Why?


Regional folklore includes several canonical stories of anthracite’s “discovery” in Pennsylvania, none of which takes place prior to 1790. Of these, historians tend to take most seriously the tale of a certain German miller by the name of Philip Ginder. According to folklorist George Korson, Ginder was a real person—an elderly homesteader who, in the years after the Revolution, lived at a site called Mauch Chunk with a wife 35 years his junior. Ginder is said to have stumbled upon an exposed section of anthracite along a streambed, from which he chipped some representative samples to bring down the mountain to his neighbor, an industrialist. Together they formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company. In time, the story goes, Ginder’s discovery made folk heroes of them both.

It is my belief that the Philip Ginder fable displaces the real “discovery” and early development of anthracite by a good half century or so. This feat of time travel has the effect of dulling any glint of gunmetal in the hard coal’s history, obscuring entirely the resource’s military genesis. Again, the question is why.

I’d like to suggest that in this erasure we may detect a hint of shame.

Does it change your opinion of Kulp’s Nazarene gunsmith to learn that he was probably a Moravian? The Moravians were a pacifistic congregation of dissident Protestants, not unlike the Quakers, who stood out for the fictile humility of their evangelical style. Faith commanded them to live peaceably upon the thresholds of their spiritual adversaries, which in the British colonial period led the Moravians to establish a triad of towns along the Lehigh River in the foreboding wilderness known then as Towamensing. These towns were Nazareth and Bethlehem, which still exist, and the ill-fated Gnadenhütten, which exists now under a different name, on account of what happened there in 1755.

In 1755, the Moravians of Gnadenhütten suffered what at the time was called a massacre, and from one perspective I suppose that’s what it was. Lenape insurgents effected a raid that killed 11 settlers and forced several more to flee. Prudently, considering the order’s historic pacifism, the ecclesiastical debates this experience surely prompted went unrecorded by the Moravians. But we know they soon accepted arsenals from the provincial government, contrary to their moral eschatology. Shortly thereafter, it seems (if we read between the lines of George B. Kulp), some of those panicked, pious people began digging pits for the rock-fuel their Indigenous neighbors had previously kept hidden. Then, they directed it downriver to tilt hammers in places like Carlisle, Lancaster, and Northampton, where it was used in the casting of guns.

This, I believe, is how the trade in anthracite truly originated. Before upstarts like Matthias Hollenback, or even Philip Ginder, there first came the aggrieved Moravians, scared and newly warlike, to muck out the rock-fuel in the shadows of their country forts. The Moravians are not a people who believe in saints, but maybe we can nonetheless think of Ginder as something like the patron of their communal guilt. His fable would seem a capacious vessel for their shame. (Theirs, ours, same thing. I wear this dirt on my shoes too.)

“The legacy of mining surrounds us, literally, draped in myth and rumor,” Troutman writes. The most arresting passages of The Bootleg Coal Rebellion capture the abiding eeriness of this cultural drapery. Near the end of his book, for example, Troutman takes stock of the world the bootleggers preserved for their children. “Miles upon miles of ghostly gangways that lead from one town to another,” he records. “Steel doors, behind which glow endless embers of an unmarked mine fire. […] A strip mine lake so deep that a fully erect crane sits at the bottom but can’t be seen from the surface.” He goes on, conjuring still more stark and unsettling tableaux. It seems that for Troutman, as for me, a haunted aura is cast over nearly every vista in the coal region. The Bootleg Coal Rebellion is his attempt to get to the source of the miasma by peering hard at the past.

It puzzles me that no historian, not even one as sensitive as Troutman, seems all that interested in the earliest traffic between anthracite and organized violence, the first encounter of rock-fuel and a warlike people.


Slightly away from the patch towns, up on the ridges, is where you’ll encounter the cemetery plots. From the road, these miniature graveyards are recognizable not for their headstones, nor even for their modest obelisks, but rather for their preponderance of pocket-sized American flags. The flags are displayed in the ordinary holsters found in every American cemetery, with standardized brass insignias that advertise the combat theater of the deceased.

On a knuckly switchback near the entrance to Famous Reading Outdoors, I pull off the roadway to walk among some graves. This is an old, orphaned plot, the community having long ago pulled up stakes. It is tiny, as is typical, probably fewer than 30 graves. A number of them belong to infants. Of the remaining, more than half bear a flag and service insignia.

From my vantage point between the headstones, I look up to observe a line of ATV riders scrolling through the woods in front of me, just inside the tree line. They don’t acknowledge me. In the mirrored plastic of their face masks, I glimpse the reflection of my own wobbly, ghostlike self.

LARB Contributor

Jonah Walters is a writer from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and currently a postdoctoral fellow in the BioCritical Studies Lab at UCLA. His reporting and criticism have appeared in Full Stop, The Guardian, Jacobin, and elsewhere.


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