Seltzer City, Pennsylvania.

An Immigrants’ Grandson Remembers: Life and Death in a Pennsylvania Coal ‘Patch

Reminiscences of Bernard Terway about his youth from 1940-1959 in Seltzer City, Pennsylvania, composed by Sandy Baksys.

In June 1940, when I was just five weeks old, my father Joseph Tirva, 45, was buried alive in an accident in a “bootleg” coal mine. Dad’s so-called “coal hole” couldn’t have been much more than a few tunnels that he and his brother George had picked and shoveled into a rocky hillside.

But the country was still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. And somewhere nearby, on some plot of land no one was using, my father and uncle must have felt there was coal for the taking.

Even a vein too small or badly located for harvesting by a big corporate entity could be lifesaving for a growing family like ours struggling to survive. But did Dad know the risk he was taking?

A local newspaper reported his death as the 37th area fatality from bootleg or “independent” mining operations in just the first five months of the year.

I never knew my father. But based on what others have told me of his generous and unselfish character, I think I can imagine his reasoning.

Joseph and George Terway at their bootleg mine.

Our Landscape of Mines

Even before the first Lithuanian immigrants arrived, the anthracite region of Pennsylvania had been dominated by large, corporate-owned “open-pit” mines. Huge steam shovels (as they were still called long after they were powered by steam) devoured the earth and destroyed the landscape in search of buried veins of coal. 

Open-pit mining was so extensive that Pennsylvania towns like Shenandoah, long-capital of “Lithuanian America,” were hemmed in not just by rivers and hills. They were also circumscribed by acres of chewed-up land and mountains of mine-waste called culms. Open pits that the coal companies had abandoned pocked every village and neighborhood, filling with water.

Child Labor in the Collieries

From the open-pit mines, trucks would haul their loads to massive collieries to be picked over and processed. Sadly, the first-line workers in these collieries were typically six, seven, and eight years old: children who balanced on planks suspended over falling cascades of rock and coal.

The children’s job was to keep their balance while picking out and discarding useless rock, called slate, amid the chunks of coal streaming down a chute. All it took was a slip from the plank into the chute for a young child to meet an untimely end.

Our Pennsylvania collieries also were fed by the same kinds of deep-shaft mines common in other parts of the coal belt, such as Illinois. Danger lurked everywhere in their infernal dark: danger of a cave-in, danger from toxic gases, danger of punching through rock holding back millions of gallons of sub-surface water, only to drown in a darkness like no other, 200 feet below ground.

Catherine Terway.

Enter My Lithuanian Grandparents

Into this world, in the 1890s, came all four of my Lithuanian immigrant grandparents, whom I never got to know because, just like my father, they all died before – or only shortly after – I was born.

The specific reasons for my grandparents’ departure from Lithuania are unknown to me. Still, the biggest reasons people left at that time were poverty, oppression, and the fear of being conscripted into the Army of the Czar of Russia since Lithuania was then part of the Russian Empire.

My paternal grandfather, Antanas Tirva, came with his brother Adomas. Antanas first landed in the small patch of Mount Laffee, Pennsylvania; Adomas in Pittston. My maternal grandfather, Jacob Barkauckas, arrived with his wife and young child in Shenandoah.

Both my grandfathers worked in the coal mines. My grandmothers were housewives who sometimes also worked as domestics. What little I know is that both my grandfathers suffered from black lung disease. But despite that disability, they continued working various jobs to support their families right up until they passed away.

A Fateful Decision

My father, Joseph Tirva, was born on March 11, 1896, in the coal “patch” called Mount Laffee. Due to starting work at a young age, Joseph didn’t have the opportunity to go to school for very long, but what education he had, he always put to good use.

In his short lifetime, Dad had his own shoe store (which went bankrupt during the Depression as he gave away shoes to those in need.) He was active in local politics and even ran for office (but lost). Mainly, he was a contract miner for corporate operations until sometime in the late 1930s. 

That was when he made the fateful decision to go out on his own with his brother George in the bootleg “coal hole” that took his life. The idea was to dig for coal to sell to a colliery.

A Father’s Pride

The day I came into the world, my mom and sister told me Dad was so proud to have another son. I am sure he held me lovingly in his tired arms and gave me soft kisses on the forehead while I slept. Too soon, tragedy intervened.

On the day Dad died in June 1940, my second oldest brother, Francis, graduated from Pottsville High School. Hundreds of friends attended our father’s funeral; he didn’t seem to have an enemy. I was sent off to my aunt’s for the day. My next-oldest brothers whined and cried for their daddy not to be taken away.

My mom, a widow at 40 with seven children, faced a bleak future. She cried and cried until one day, sitting in the dining room holding me in her arms, she said my father Joe appeared to her, stood in the doorway and smiled.

From that day, Mom overcame her paralyzing grief and fear and got on with rearing her children. Luckily, my two oldest brothers could help support the rest of us by working in a Philadelphia machine shop making precision parts for airplanes.

As a young teen, my third-oldest brother began working in a local dairy, and my only sister went to work in a factory. Our mother raised chickens and sold eggs. She gardened and canned prodigiously, in addition to making and mending our clothes.

Ronald, Lawrence, and Bernard Terway and Joyce Anne Klevence in front of a massive steam shovel.

Missing the Father I Never Knew

There’s no doubt that Mom saved us. But how I wish I could have known the man who was my father. How I wish the mines could have been safer places to make a living.

Yet, no amount of wishing could ever bring Dad back. And all I have, instead, are a few photos of a handsome young man who never got to grow old. My small collection of “Dad” artifacts also includes two dried-up, yellowed newspaper clippings:

From Page one of the Pottsville Republican, June 14, 1940:


Jos. Terway, 45, of Seltzer City, an independent miner injured when he was entombed in a coal hole near Greenbury Wednesday afternoon, died in the Good Samaritan Hospital at 3:20 o’clock Friday afternoon of internal injuries and multiple fractures.

He is survived by his wife, Catherine nee Burke, and these children: Francis, a member of the graduating class of the Pottsville High School, Elwood, Genevieve, Anthony, Lawrence and Ronald. The youngest of the children is two months old.

(Notice the name change to Terway and the shortened version of my mother’s maiden name, Barkauckas. Also, the mistake about my age and the omission of my name.) 

Next, from the Shamokin, Pennsylvania, newspaper:


Seltzer City man dies in Pottsville hospital of body injury

Joseph Terway, 45, of Seltzer City near Pottsville died late yesterday afternoon in Good Samaritan Hospital, Pottsville, from injuries received Wednesday afternoon in a bootleg mine operation in Greenbury. Terway was working at the face of a gangway when a heavy rush of coal trapped him and partly covered him with rock and earth.

He was rescued after two hours by fellow miners from nearby workings and taken to the hospital. No hope was entertained for his recovery from the time he was admitted. His injuries included crushed pelvis, fractured leg, and fractured ribs, several of the latter having punctured his lungs.

The deceased was a prominent man in his home community and was engaged for some years as a contract miner before abandonment of the operation at which he worked. He is survived by his widow and several children. A son, Francis, graduated this week from Pottsville High School.

The death yesterday of Terway brings the fatality toll of the bootleg mining industry to 37 since the beginning of the year.

Singing Canaries & Wailing Sirens

Bernard and Genevieve in the old kitchen.

Yes, mining was dangerous, and there was little protection for the miners from cave-ins like the one that killed my father. As for toxic gases, miners would carry a small cage with a canary. A watchful eye was kept on the unsuspecting bird for early warning of deadly gas that would first take the more sensitive bird.

I only know this from my mother and my siblings, but my father used to raise canaries that he undoubtedly shared with his fellow miners. I remember the cages my mother used to keep that breeding operation going. Apart from those “working” birds, we always had a pet canary in the dining room, singing beautifully.

At the other end of the spectrum were the alarming wails from the siren atop the village’s volunteer fire/rescue building. Every evening at six, the siren went off – two short blasts – just to make sure it worked. But if it sounded at any other time, we knew there was a fire, or more likely, a mine accident.

The Wreath on the Door

Seltzer City was mostly miners, and if there was a death, we could find out whose by simply walking around the village and looking for the funeral wreath on the door. The victim’s body would be readied and laid out in the family’s parlor for three days for the family to keep vigil and for relatives, friends, and neighbors to visit.

Since most of us were Catholic, a priest would come and say the rosary on one of the night vigils with a large gathering. The church service was usually well-attended, as was the trip to the cemetery for interment.

However, untimely death or injury wasn’t limited to working miners;  danger lurked across the mining landscape, especially for children. For example, one day when I was four or five, my two brothers and their friends left me at home and went to explore a water-filled pit close to our house.

Sadly, one of my brothers’ friends, young Tommie Griggs, slipped down the steep bank of loose rock and gravel right into the water. Because he couldn’t swim and the other boys couldn’t reach him, he drowned.

My Own Mine-Related Accident

My next-oldest brother was four years older than me, and our next oldest brother, after him, was four years older, still. So, I was often an unwanted tag-along. Like many local children, I ranged alone across the mining landscape from a young age.

But I had watched with excitement as my brothers took the shell casings from 22 caliber bullets, put wooden match heads inside, then hit the casings with a hammer. This made a firecracker-like explosion that the older boys enjoyed while never allowing me to be the one swinging the hammer.   

One day, I saw what looked like a shell casing on the sidewalk. I went home, got an ax that was bigger than I was, and went back to give that casing a whack to hear the noise it would make.

Little did I know that I was whacking a discarded blasting cap for a charge of mining dynamite. Sure enough, there was a big noise, but I ran home bleeding and screaming, dragging the ax behind me.

My mother took one look and ran me over to a neighbor who drove me to the hospital, where many lead fragments were picked out of my face. Fortunately, my eyes were spared.

Life in the ‘Patch’

Bernard’s mother.

I was born in the back bedroom of our family home in the tiny village of Seltzer City (pop. about 370), where both my grandparents’ families had moved in time for my father and mother to meet and marry. (With my dad’s death, I became the last of six boys and one girl.)

All the small immigrant coal-mining settlements back then were called “patches.” Ours was built of nearly identical two-story frame houses, about 1,200 square feet each.

The Tirva home consisted of three bedrooms, an attic, basement, living room, and kitchen dominated by a coal-burning stove that was good both for cooking and heat. Outside was a two-story coop and fenced area for Mom’s chickens, ducks and geese, a cement-lined pond we made for the birds to swim, and Mom’s expansive vegetable and fruit garden.

The garden had three mature apple trees: one crab apple, one baking apple, and one for fresh fruit. The crab apples would be jarred for the winter. The baking apples went into Mom’s wonderful apple pies, made from scratch. 

Home & Farm

We also had a sour cherry tree and a sweet cherry tree. I ate all the sweet cherries but had to pick and pit the sour cherries for her cherry pies.

In the spring, we went out into the woods to pick huckleberries. We would bring home a bucketful, and then the pie-making would start. Mom would also make a fantastic huckleberry/peach pie when there were peaches.

Many families in our village kept animals, from chickens and geese to pigs, goats, or cows. During Prohibition, I am told people kept goats because the smell would mask the fumes of the mash used to make moonshine.

As for Mom, she really knew her animals and took good care of them. This was to ensure the family would not go hungry and that our mother would have products to share. She was always a very generous person. After World War II, I remember many men tramping across the countryside to find work. None who stopped at our house were denied a good meal.   

Miners memorial.

‘Stomping’ the Kraut

There was a constant supply of eggs from our chickens – enough to sell – and many a Sunday chicken dinner. From the ducks and geese, besides meat, Mom drained and saved blood for neighbors’ blood soup. Feathers would go into our pillows and bedspreads – the softest and the warmest you would ever find.

Mom bought chicken feed in 50 or 100-pound bags and always went to the feed store to pick them out. The reason was that the cotton bags had different prints on them, and after they were empty, Mom would use them to make clothes with her pedal-operated Singer sewing machine.

What Mom did not grow or raise in our yard, she got from a farmer who would come by in his truck. In the fall, she would buy bushels of cabbage, and we would go down into the cellar and shred it, put it in a huge crock, stomp it, put a weight on top, and wait for it to ferment. Tastings were always a good time. And there was nothing like that sauerkraut, fresh out of the crock.

Settling Drunken Squabbles

In our little working class, mostly Lithuanian village, there were three bars and two stores. Almost across the street from our house was the bar run by Frank Audukaitis and his wife, where miners would take a shot of whiskey on the way home from work, usually followed by beer.

The locals would gather and drink…and drink…and get into inane, alcohol-fueled arguments. The warring parties would sometimes come over to our house to “settle” before coming to blows. 

I remember once they were arguing about how many sardines were in a can and wanted my mom’s answer. She told them that the whole fight was stupid because the answer depended on the random size of the fish in the can.

Another time, they asked my brother Francis to settle some argument, and then the guy who lost huffed off, saying, “Aw, just go look at your stars!” (My brother had built himself a telescope.)

Lithuanian Language & Letters

Our village was so small that “Seltzer, Penn” was the only postal address required for its residents for many years. And the Seltzer Post Office was run by my maternal aunt, who knew everyone in town.

As postmaster, Aunt Anne also became translator for many letters from Lithuanians to American-born relatives, who could not read the language. After the first two children in our family were raised speaking Lithuanian at home through the 1920s, starting in the 1930s, English became our family’s official language.

But this was supplemented by Lithuanian instruction during the first three grades at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in Minersville, operated by the Lithuanian Sisters of St. Casimir. The three youngest children in our family, numbers five through seven, went to St. Francis after the first four attended an English-only grade school in Seltzer.

Enduring Traditions

We would have either “blynai” (pancakes) or “kugelis” (without bacon) on meatless Fridays. Mom would start grating the potatoes and adding the ingredients early in the day. She would add coal to the stove, get out the cast iron skillet and the lard (yes, lard).  

Like most families in the village, ours also observed the Lithuanian Christmas Eve dinner, Kūčios. (The making of holiday krupnikas, a whiskey-based honey and spice liqueur Lithuanians in Pennsylvania called “boilo,” is another story.)

My mother and sister made all the traditional Lithuanian meatless dishes, though I would never drink any of the poppy seed milk.  

After dinner, it was off to bed for me while the grown-ups pulled gifts out of hiding places all over the house, including from under the beds, a commotion that made it hard to fall asleep. 

Christmas Eve, Christmas Awe

When I got a bit older, I was taken to midnight mass at the Lithuanian Catholic church, St. Francis in Minersville, founded in 1895.

Later, I remember serving as a Christmas Eve altar boy in a white cassock, marching into the church in a procession with lighted candles. The church was festively decorated and packed with people, the choir in full voice with the most beautiful Christmas carols in English, Lithuanian, and Latin.

The feeling of the whole Christmas season is now difficult for me to express from the standpoint of a child. The closest description I can give, after all these years, is that it inspired awe.

 We never got to open our presents until Christmas morning. There were never a lot of gifts under the tree, but each was cherished: a toy, some clothes – maybe another toy and some more clothes.

The Christmas stockings were hung behind the coal stove in the kitchen. They were always filled with little treasures, mostly nuts and – and as a boy from hardscrabble Pennsylvania coal country, I must emphasize – never any coal!

Bernard Terway holds degrees in German and linguistics and formerly worked overseas for the Army and the CIA. For 19 years, he was a high school teacher in Houston, Texas, where he also helped organize the local chapter of the Lithuanian American Community.   

On left, Terway home, Seltzer, Penn.

The article was published in “Draugas NEWS”, April 2022 edition.