Sometimes great museums and exhibits are off the beaten path. That’s the case with the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State – Fayette, just north of Uniontown along U.S. 119.
No, this museum isn’t right along the National Road, nor is it within the limits of a National Road city or town. However, this museum highlights an industry that brought phenomenal growth to Fayette and Westmoreland counties in Southwest Pennsylvania.
Like many areas of Appalachia, the stretch of land along the western base of Chestnut Ridge, roughly from Latrobe, Pa., in the north, to Fairchance and Uniontown in the south, was built on coal. This area was sometimes known as the “Connellsville Coalfield,” due to the city of Connellsville being the epicenter of activity within the field. What made this particular seam of coal special was its extremely pure quality – making it optimal for coke production (“coke” is essentially baked coal – like charcoal is to wood).
At its peak, as many as 44,000 beehive coke ovens operated in the area, making the sky glow at night (there are photographs to prove it!). The last ovens closed in the 1970s, and little remains of the evidence of coal in the area, except for historic buildings and structures in Connellsville, Uniontown and smaller areas. If you are able to take a side trip to Connellsville, it’s interesting to see so many large buildings for a city of about 7,600 (at its height, Connellsville was about twice as large population-wise as today). However, both Uniontown and Connellsville are working to evolve their economies without coal. In Connellsville, the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail is rapidly becoming a major generator of tourism to the city, and last year, a new Amtrak station was opened.
At the museum, I was given a tour of the exhibits and the history behind those exhibits by one of the curators of the museum, Oral Historian Elaine Hunchuck DeFrank – the daughter of a local coal miner and a lifelong Fayette County resident. DeFrank told me that the museum has its origins in the late 1970s by the mining program at PSU – Fayette. Three professors realized that students, particularly boys, weren’t getting much out of reading literature like Shakespeare, so the professors started assigning readings about coal mining instead. Those professors then sent out the students to interview and record oral histories of local still-living coal miners and their families.
The project has continued, DeFrank said, to include over 1,200 oral histories today. In addition, miners and their families began giving memorabilia and artifacts to the school, which were being stored in the library. Then in the 1990s, when DeFrank began working with the project, the museum took the form it is today. Memorabilia were organized, and a professional designer laid out the exhibits, and the museum has continued to expand. Interesting fact – the museum is located at the very center of this historic coalfield.
Today, the museum takes up about one-fourth of the basement of the PSU-Fayette library, and features a main room, which contains exhibits from a model coke oven, to household items typically found in coal company towns. There is also a working model of a shaft mine, and a full-size mannequin displaying the types of clothing miners wore. There is also a research room, which contains hundreds of historic maps and documents as well as interviews from miners themselves.
I think the part of the museum most interesting to me was learning about Connellsville and the region and its impact on the coal industry. Learning local history growing up in Cumberland, I knew that several railroads (especially the B&O, the Western Maryland) connected Cumberland and points east with Connellsville, but I wasn’t sure why. It’s always cool for me to see connections between places I visit and my hometown.
The Coal and Coke Heritage Center is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It can be reached by phone at 724-430-4158. There is no charge for admission to the museum. Penn State University – Fayette is located on U.S. 119 just north of the beginning of the controlled-access part of the Uniontown Bypass. I found non-restricted parking near the Community Center – the large building at the back of the campus. To get to the library, just cut directly though the Community Center, and the library is the square, flat-roofed building on the left. A PSU-Fayette campus map can be found here.
Yes, the museum is small, but there so much information contained in the exhibits and people like DeFrank, that it’s well worth a visit by anyone interested in history, particularly local or coal history.