Mitch Troutman's Blog

DIY Coal Dredgers & the Hard Coal Navy

By Mitch Troutman

The bootleggers weren’t the only ones reclaiming company coal for their own. For a century or better, river towns downstream of the coal fields were making a living off “river coal.” As coal breakers and washeries dumped their waters into creeks and streams, the coal contained in them was slowly washed downstream. Due to it’s weight, it naturally separated from other sediment on the riverbottoms. Townspeople built their own DIY barges to pull the coal back up and sell it.

Historian and musician Van Wagner (Danville) has delved deep into this history, even recreating his own paddlewheel dredger with instructions from an elderly man who did that work, once upon a time. See Van’s 35-min video, his song/music video “Hard Coal Navy” (both videos below) or Anthracite Unite’s interview with Van.

The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an Industry, 1925–1942