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"Company housing" was not uncommon in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but the term usually referred to crowded, substandard wooden houses, hastily built by wealthy industrialist owners for their low-paid workers. The Pennsylvania Railroad was notorious for its inferior company housing, and many new immigrants and American-born laborers came home from grueling twelve-hour shifts to poorly built dormitories and houses little better than shacks. A 1916 federal survey of Pennsylvania's anthracite coal regions determined that 34 percent of laborers lived in company housing. Most of these structures (nearly all were frame-built), county assessors classified as "shanties."
Concrete was a novel material at the dawn of the twentieth century. And Pennsylvania railroads were using it to build a wide variety of projects. The largest were the high viaducts that the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DL&W) built along its New York-Scranton-Buffalo main line. At its opening in 1915, the 240-foot-high Tunkhannock Viaduct north of Scranton was hailed as the largest concrete structure in the world. The DL&W also made extensive use of concrete to line the trenches and the embankments it created when it depressed or raised its tracks from street level through several New Jersey suburbs of New York City.
In the early 1910s the DL&W decided to build model worker housing alongside its Truesdale colliery near Nanticoke. Determined to combine the latest technologies with the best notions of progressive social thinking, railroad authorities decided the houses would be built of concrete. Extolled by its designers as the "Garden City of the Anthracite Region," Concrete City was built in 1911 to house only a select few of DL&W's employees. Prospective tenants had to speak English as their first language, and also had to be employed in positions of "high value," such as foreman, shopman, or technician.
The grandly named Concrete City was in actuality a square of twenty double houses. Only forty of the Truesdale mine's 1,700 employees would receive a spot in the wondrous new community, which featured sidewalks, electric street lights, a concrete swimming pool (emptied in 1914 after a boy drowned), playgrounds, a baseball field, and tennis courts.
To build this cutting edge residential complex, the DL&W hauled in materiels on railroad track built around the construction site, and mixed the component sand, cement, and cinders on flat cars. An innovative system of portable hinged steel molds, designed and patented by the New York firm of Read and Merrill, allowed the company to build an entire two-family house in a single day.
Each house (half of a double) rented for $8 per month, and had seven rooms: living room, dining room, and kitchen downstairs, with four bedrooms above. A coal stove between the living and dining rooms provided heat, as did a coal cook stove in the kitchen. Concrete outhouses, complete with coal bins, were located in the rear of each house
Social expectations were implied if not required. E. E. Loomis, company president in 1913, contended that the "model surroundings" were the just reward for company workers, and assured the "health and safety of its employees above ground," conveniently ignoring the thousands of employees who had no hope of securing such rewards. Among the first to move their families into Concrete City were James McGuire, chief of the power plant, Anthony Early, chief clerk of the colliery, fire bosses William Dixon, James Murray, Charles Speary, and John Williams, Thomas Lewis, the head electrician, and Joseph Reynolds, the foreman in charge of all surface operations.
The Concrete City homes, however, never lived up to the hopes of their builders. Although the engineers had added coal cinders and crude oil to the building material to inhibit moisture absorption, the interior walls dripped with condensation. One former resident recalled that her father's shirts froze in an upstairs closet during the wintertime, and her mother had to iron them every morning just so he could put them on. By 1920, paint and plaster were peeling from the walls. By 1924, a mere eleven years after its construction, Concrete City was abandoned. Demolition of the so-called "Garden City" was halted after the new owners, the Glen Alden Coal Company, discovered that the implosion of 100 sticks of dynamite in one of the buildings had little impact.
In later decades, the Luzerne County Volunteer Fireman's Association used Concrete City as a training center. Recently, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has undertaken a mission to save the buildings, recognizing their important role in one of the failed technological experiments in Pennsylvania railroad and coal mining history.
Robert A. Janosov, "Concrete City: Garden Village of the Anthracite Region," Pennsylvania Heritage:23 (Summer 1997): 32-40.
Duration of Investigation:
Two digital recorders
samsung video camera
History/ Background Information:
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