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abandoned places

st. nicholas coal breaker

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A Wintry Return to the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker

The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, mid-demolition

The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, mid-demolition

The Pennsylvania coal region was once dominated by 300 breakers–mammoth factories that crushed and cleaned raw coal into the consumable commodity that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Today, a few modern plants meet the drastically reduced demand for the stuff. Of the old glory days when coal was king, only St. Nicholas remains.

The structure once held the distinction of being the largest coal breaker in the world, and its sheer size must have played a part in staving off the wrecking ball for the last 50 years. But according to the president of Reading Anthracite, the building’s owner, the place has become an “eyesore and a liability,” and its total demolition is imminent. A state-funded study to determine the cost of transforming the ruins into a historical attraction came up with a figure in the tens of millions.

With exterior walls removed, skeletal views of the plant's interior come to light.

With exterior walls removed, skeletal views of the plant’s interior come to light.

The demolition won’t happen in one cataclysmic, cathartic crash. Rather, the breaker is being dismantled piece by piece, and mined for valuable scrap metal along the way. The process is expected to last into next year, having been underway since Fall 2014. With a bit more of it gone every day, visitation has picked up as folks have poured into the region for one last look. Security positioned outside aim to ensure they respect the No Trespassing signs.

I took my “one last look” in February on a day that was way too cold to spend in an abandoned factory. Much of the metal siding had already been removed, opening up dollhouse views of the interior. Inside, light poured into corners that had been pitch black before. Elsewhere, panoramas of the surrounding landscape spread wall to wall and floor to ceiling.   

After 50 years of abandonment, the old St. Nicholas Coal Breaker still inspires awe and commands respect.  The interior of the breaker is noticeably free of graffiti. Visitors have stuck to more temporary means of commemorating their presence, tracing initials in the grime of a dusty control panel or chalking them up on a blackboard, avoiding outright acts of vandalism out of reverence for the building. It’s impressive not only for its physical size and beauty of design, but for the time and place in American history that it represents, a coal industry that employed 180,000 workers and enabled a young country to rise to the forefront of the industrialized nations.  As St. Nick falls, little remains to tether that heritage to the here and now.

Otherworldly views of the frozen coal fields outside the breaker.

Otherworldly views of the frozen coal fields outside the breaker.

Coal dust mingles with snow drifts where the structure is open to the elements.

Coal dust mingles with snow drifts where the structure is open to the elements.

Names scrawled in a dusty control panel.

Names scrawled in a dusty control panel.

Abandoned cemetery in the woods.88 control room in the upper reaches of the breaker.

A control room in the upper reaches of the breaker.

Empty shelves in a maintenance room.

Empty shelves in a maintenance room.

Enormous wooden molds for replacement parts litter this floor.

Enormous wooden molds for replacement parts littered this floor.

St Nicholas Coal Breaker Demolition Will Ellis Abandoned NYC-7

Construction vehicles stalled in the snow, seen through an upper floor of the breaker.

The conveyor, where raw coal began its journey through the breaker's machinery.

The conveyor, where raw coal began its journey through the breaker’s machinery.

Salvaged machinery strewn about the rear of the breaker.

Machinery salvaged from the breaker prior to demolition.

For more history on the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, see the original post:

St. Nicholas Coal Breaker

The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, pictured in April 2014.



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