A WINDBER PRIMER

I come from Windber, Pennsylvania–a small town about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh (and 8 miles south of the somewhat infamous Flood City of Johnstown). It’s a kind of funky little place with lots of history–plenty of weird/sometimes wondrous/sometimes horrific and always fascinating stories are connected to it. I’ll be blogging about various aspects of the place from time to time. Today: A kind of primer.

Windber got its start in the 1890s, courtesy the Berwind-White coal company (a huge part of America’s industrial history). Till the company came to town the area was mostly woodlands (which provided needed timber for the operation) and farmland. The oldest surviving building in town is the farmhouse where the man who sold Berwind-White the land had lived and is now the town’s quaint museum).

In fact the exotic-looking name itself has to do with trying to “suck-up” to the Big Boss, company co-founder Charles Berwind. Folks thought to name the place after him. Only trouble was another of this Philadelphia-based outfit’s several company towns (Berwind, West Virginia) had the same bright idea and beat them to it.

So the locals simply flipped the syllables.

Yeah, Windber is Berwind, spelled . . . SIDEWAYS?

Tens of millions of tons of high quality coal came out of Windber over the years, contributing more than its share to the rise of the United States to the foremost industrial power of the 20th Century. Windber coal was also exported through the Berwind-White loading docks in Jersey City, New Jersey (in fact, it’s said that the fuel bunkers of the Titanic were filled with Windber coal for its disastrous voyage).

The mines were the absolutely dominant reality of early Windber’s life. Each mine opened had row after row of cheap houses built around it for the workers. And since Berwind-White had the habit of simply numbering all the mines in their multi-state operation in the order that they opened, the outlying area included neighborhoods with such names as Mine 30, Mine 34, Mine 35, Mine 40, etc.  Those mines are now long-closed, but the rows of company-built houses that sheltered around them are still referred to by their number.

Life for the (mostly immigrant) miners and the families was often hard, frequently dangerous and pretty always dirty. Added to the ‘normal’ threats to miners’ safety and well-being from the occasional accident and the longer-term specter of chronic black lung disease was the frequently violent battle the company fought against the union movement in the first decades of the century. The especially brutal aspects of one extended strike in the 1920s led to widespread controversy which led out-of-state newspapers and various activists to compare life in the town to actual slavery.

The company’s method of controlling and exploiting its workers was ingenious, as well as ruthless. Miners were recruited en mass from one part of Europe at a time. They would arrive in town via railroad, but promised housing would “happen” to not be available yet, so they were put up in several company-owned hotels (which also featured bars and access to, ahem, ‘female companionship’). Accordingly, by the time the next set of row houses opened up, most of the new miners were already in debt to the company and its surrogates.

Miners had little choice but to do business with the company stores and company-allied banks–independent competitors were seldom even tolerated. Stories like the one in which a certain miner bought furniture from an out-of-town store only to have company thugs bust in and smash it all up served to keep people in line–or else.

Bringing in wave after wave of miners, each time from a different ethnic group that was put up in its own particular area was also part of the company’s divide and conquer (or at least control) strategy. At first, the Russian miners–for example–couldn’t even speak the same language as, for example, the Italians–or the Poles–or the Germans, etc., etc. Mistrust was actually, subtly encouraged–so that they wouldn’t unite. And when a given group had been around long enough to wise up to the manipulation, and started talking ‘union’–why there was always another flock of new miners to bring in from somewhere else.

Yet the 1920s were also the boom-town years of Windber. The population approached 10,000 at its peak (today, it hovers around 4,000).

The hard-nosed and youthful pride of the town in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s was the high school football team, which so dominated teams from surrounding communities so regularly and utterly that for a time many refused to play them. That forced the team to travel ever farther for games, and take on squads from schools with far bigger enrollments. Perhaps the most extreme example was the home-and-away series they played for several seasons with Hoboken, New Jersey’s Central High (which was not only located hundreds of miles to the east of Windber, but also had more students in its Senior Class than Windber had in its entire High School).

Thus these early ‘Ramblers’ earned the nickname that the school’s athletes carry to this very day.

The ethnic diversity the mining company promoted for its own benefit led (eventually and largely by accident) to a unique cultural  blending and enrichment (especially when barriers eroded) and from which a number of fascinating people arose–I plan to expand on this point in future blogs, profiling interesting people, places and things with a Windber connection.

Coal mining began a slow but steady decline in the 1950’s and by the time I graduated from Windber High (in 1976–yes, folks, I’m rapidly approaching old fart status!), most all were closed. Foreseeing this, Berwind-White changed its name to the Berwind Corporation in the 1960s and got into other businesses, without doing much to ease the transition for towns like Windber. (They were too busy buying up other companies–including the one that makes Elmer’s Glue).

Today, Windber is mostly a bedroom community. The last mine Berwind opened in our area (Mine 78) closed then re-opened a couple times under new ownership and is presently poking along. But the single biggest employer is now the Windber Medical Center (an outgrowth of the hospital that–to give Berwind-White its due–was one of the company’s best and most enduring contributions to the community. Some quite important and promising medical research seems underway there.

And what does the future hold for my hometown? Maybe once I’ve written more about it, I’ll have insights to offer. For I must say, having lived my whole life around here, I think Windber is too tough, too stubborn and yet too full of life to simply fade away and die…

 

 

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