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Writer traces town's mining history

Sunday, June 03, 2001

By Dave Zuchowski

It's difficult to imagine that Nemacolin, a quiet Greene County river town, once was billed as a "model mining community of the world."

The entrance to what was once one of the world's largest coal mines has been sealed, and most of its buildings have been torn down. Today, about the only remaining vestige of the mine's prodigious output is the massive slate dump that stands mountainlike on the edge of the village.

Fortunately, the rich history of the town has not been lost. Lifelong resident Robert Korcheck, 65, has written a book titled "Nemacolin, The Mine -- The Community, 1917-1950." Now in its second edition, the paperback traces the history of the mine and community in which he was born and raised.

"The first wagon load of coal came out of what was originally named the Buckeye Mine in 1918," said Korcheck, an English professor at California University of Pennsylvania for 33 years before his retirement last year. "To accommodate the growing number of miners, the managers of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, which owned the mine, planned a model community."

Korcheck said company management expected "Nemacolin would eventually include 800 wood frame single homes and duplexes as well as an adjacent steel mill. Although the steel mill idea was scratched, 440 houses were built by 1923."

While the other coal towns in the region had outdoor privies, unpaved streets, shanty houses and communal water pumps, Nemacolin would have amenities far beyond its time.

"We had bathrooms with running water, central heat, garbage pick up, and a sewer system and a storm sewer system that are still operating today," Korcheck said. "Nemacolin had the first hospital in Greene County, one of the first movie theaters in the area and one of two swimming pools in the county. It was also the first electrified town in Greene County and had one of the finest elementary schools in the state from 1920 to 1990, during which time about 50,000 students passed through its doors."

As a child whose father spent 52 years as a worker in the mine, Korcheck remembers an attractive community of uniform houses whose cedar wood exteriors got regular coatings of creosote to create rows of black dwellings with white trim.

"As a boy, I had a lot of fun growing up, swimming in the [Monongahela River], riding my bicycle, and playing baseball, football, and basketball," he said. "We had a bowling alley and pool tables in the basement of the theater."

In 1946, the company sold the houses to owners, who in most cases were the resident miners. Today, about 360 of the original houses are occupied, but Korcheck estimates fewer than 25 residents out of a population of around 1,300 can trace their roots to the opening of the mine.

Korcheck became the author of the town's history in the 1970s when a social studies textbook was published and included a long article on mining and Nemacolin. Soon, students from all over the country began sending the town's postmaster letters requesting more information.

Eventually, the volume of mail got so heavy, the postmaster asked Korcheck to write a 12-page history. Ironically, Korcheck's wife, Toby, also a lifelong Nemacolin resident, was asked to write a research paper on her hometown in a college class. The work came in handy when the mine superintendent was asked to write the town's history by mining officials in 1978.

"Bill Hanley, the superintendent, asked me to help out," said Korcheck, who had been given the mining company's detailed engineering reports from 1917 through 1950 when officials realized the mine was going to be closed. "Eventually, he let me take over the project entirely."

The result is a 225-page history on Nemacolin and its mine first published in 1979. Subsequent demand for the book mandated a revised second edition, which was released in August.

Although Korcheck has since donated his mining reports to the Youngstown Historical Society, he still retains 30,000 photos and negatives of the town that date to 1917 when the area was farmland. Korcheck is working on a pictorial history of Nemacolin and its mine, which closed in 1987.

Anyone interested in purchasing his book ($18) can do so at Gabler's Drugstore in Carmichaels or by calling Korcheck at (724) 966-7900.

Dave Zuchowski is a free-lance writer.

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