In every part of the world there are legends that get passed down from one generation to the other. This story from the Pennsylvania coal region is no exception. I feel it’s a story worth telling because it reflects the rich cultural heritage of the region.
The Shenandoah Miner
Alfonso and Angelina arrived in New York City in 1931 as third class passengers from Italy. Angelina was pregnant at the time with her first child. She prayed during the voyage that her child be born in America so that he or she could have a better life and future as an American.
In New York City they were at the mercy of kind Italian families that took them in and taught them the ways of large city life. The simple things that we take for granted were difficult for them such as getting on a bus, riding a trolley, and purchasing food. Angelina would become confused with the American currency and at times was taken advantage of with purchases.
Little educational skills and not knowing the English language made finding employment in New York City virtually impossible. Alfonso heard about the coal mines of Pennsylvania and so he and his wife and new born son traveled to Shenandoah where he obtained employment as a coal miner.
He would rise in the morning six days a week before the sun would rise and enter the coal mine. In the evening after the sun set he would leave the mine. After a hard day’s work the miners would gather near the Maple Hill colliery and ride a trolley for a single penny to Shenandoah.
Covered in coal dust, and wearing the mining equipment that was leased to him by the mining company. Alfonso would hop off the trolley on the second hundred block of Coal Street in Shenandoah. He could wash the coal dust down with a cold mug of ice cold beer at Giuseppe's Tavern. Some of the Italians played Italian music and sang Italian songs on an old piano in that character filled place. On occasions Alfonso sang and played along with an accordion to entertain the patrons.
He would then walk a few blocks from Giuseppe's Tavern to his home which he also rented from the mining company for $10.00 a month. Angelina would not start cooking until he arrived home and washed up and it was always the same meal. Pasta with his favorite Pasta De Fagula soup. It was an economical meal for them because after the mining company made their deductions from his pay for the leasing of his equipment and his rent for his home. He was lucky if he cleared 50 cents a week. Eventually two more children came along and to make ends meet Angelina worked in a shirt factory, baked and sold bread. They also opened the attic of their home to a young Italian border named Francisco. He moved into their home in 1941 and he became a member of their family and eventually he became a miner as well.
Alfonso and his family looked forward to Sundays where they attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. The Miners and their families would also gather at the Glovers Hill Park which at that time was called the little Italy of Shenandoah. It was there on Sunday afternoons during the summer months that the Families shared food, played music, sang songs, played various games and told mining stories to their children and what their lives were like in the old country prior to immigrating to America.
Mining is a dangerous occupation and the miners quickly learned that the mules in the mines were more valuable to the mining companies then the miners. The miners were just expendable labor for the mining companies. They dealt with cave-ins, gas explosions, mine flooding, and many miners died and suffered physical ailments from breathing in the coal dust. Alfonso was no exception and on a Saturday in 1947 there was a cave-in at the Maple Hill mine and four miners were trapped in the deep darkness of the mine shaft. It was damp, cold, and the miners were frightened and unable to see.
They heard Alfonso's voice coming through the mine shaft in the cold darkness. He told them in Italian that everything is going to be okay and not to worry.
He told the miners to un-strap their mining belts and to buckle all the belts together to make a long leather rope so that they have something to hold on to. It was to prevent them from becoming separated in the pitch blackness of the deep mine shaft. He told them to follow his voice and to hold on to the leather belts.
His voice guided them down a long winding shaft.
Francisco with frustration in his voice yelled, "Alfonso, how da hell do you know where you go, you get us more lost."
Alfonso told him, "shut you face I know what I do."
Eventually they came to a pile of large rocks and slabs of coal. Alfonso told them if they move the coal slabs they will be able to work their way out of the mine shaft and he told them to hurry.
Francisco once again with anger and frustration in his voice yelled, "Alfonso how do you know this? you craze, how do you know this?"
“If you ah want to stay alive,” said Alfonso “you work the coal and shut you face.”
Moving the rocks, coal, and large pieces of slate in the pitch damp darkness of the mine shaft was no easy task. Alfonso told them once again if they want to get out of the mine alive they must hurry.
A few hours of moving the stones and slabs of coal they felt an opening and Alfonso told them to stay together and continue going forward in the mine shaft. They soon began to see lights from lanterns and they heard the voices of other miners coming in the opposite direction of the mine shaft.
Francisco yelled out "thank you Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the holy Donkey, how da hell did you know what shaft we in?"
"Alfonse told us" came the reply "he told us to hurry and get you guys out because the shaft is about ready to give way."
"You craze Alfonso is here," yelled Francesco, "tell him Alfonso you here,” but there was no reply from Alfonso.
As the miners exited the mine they could hear the loud rumbling of the mine caving-in behind them and the dust and suet rising from what was once the entrance to the mine.
"Jesus" said one of the rescuers.
"You gota that right" said Francisco "I start praying Rosary and start Novena as soon ah as I get home."
"Where is Alfonso" asked one of the rescuers, "he was with me."
"He was ah right next to me the whole time," said Francisco, "you craze."
The mystery of Alfonso's disappearance remained a mystery for two weeks because that was when his body was found at the original cave-in site. Miners however swore they saw him getting on the trolley each morning to go to work and getting off the trolley to enter Giuseppe's Tavern at the end of a hard day’s work. Some Italians even swore they heard him singing along to his favorite songs in Giuseppe's Tavern.
Angelina told Francisco and her children that she could hear Alfonso hanging up his mining equipment each evening except for Sundays. She said that she hears him hanging up his mining equipment as if he is getting ready to wash up for a hot meal. She also told her family years after Alfonso's death that she can still feel his presence in the house and him lying down next to her at night.
From 1947 to the closing of the mines in 1954, there have been numerous sightings of Alfonso warning the miners about the presence of gas in the mines, mine flooding, and impending mine cave-ins.
Alfonso has been a mining legend since his death in 1947, and the Italians who knew him told his story to their Children and they in turn told their Children the same stories.
The miners and their families also implicitly understood which I believe is becoming lost in today's society that it takes a village to raise a child. They brought a part of their villages from their native countries to the Pennsylvania coal region. It was also their ethnic values in the mining communities that were instilled in the children within those communities. They in turn instilled those same values in their children and their neighbor's children. The Italians reflected that when they built little Italy and their church in Shenandoah.
It wasn’t just the Italian miners though it was all the immigrants that settled into the Pennsylvania coal region that gave the region its rich character. They didn’t move to the coal region because coal mining is such a great job. On the contrary they made sacrifices and they labored so that their children and their children’s children can have better opportunities and better lives as Americans. Their ethnic values and their heritage have been proudly passed on and it is now our responsibility to keep their heritage alive.
I believe the greatest gifts that we can give to children are stories that will help them gain a deeper understanding and an appreciation of our nation's history and ethnic diversity. They in turn will keep our history alive when they tell their children the same stories. The stories of how our ancestors immigrated to America, labored, and made sacrifices, so that their children, grandchildren, and their grandchildren's children can have a better educational opportunities and brighter future.
There is no longer a little Italy in Shenandoah and the last of the old Italians have passed away and the mines have been closed for over 50 years. However, those who know the history of Shenandoah and the history of the miners in the Pennsylvania coal region can learn from the miners’ work ethic, their loyalties to their families, their communities, their churches, and their overall values.
Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O?Neill