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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Buck Run: Unexpected Treasure


“How to present, in language, the shimmering, ever-shifting life of a place? The most obvious means, the documentary film, has its limitations: the filmmaker can record hours of visual imagery, he can interview subjects, and we can overhear subjects speaking, but we cannot hear their inner voices, and we cannot see the world inside their heads. A kaleidoscope of fascinating and “authentic” images can pass before our eyes as viewers, but we can’t interpret these images through the prism of consciousness, with its myriad histories, that is the soul of a place. We are forever viewers, voyeurs.” From  Joyce Carol Oates review of Zadie Smith’s new novel NW (New York Review of Books, September 27, 2012, pp 20-24)

In 1983 the Human Studies Film Archives received a collection of amateur films documenting coal mining and home life in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania—a way of life no longer lived.  We had a name of the person who created the film, Benjamin Harrison Hay.  And that was all. 

Come 2012 we know much more thanks to the research of Father Elijah Bremer (priest/historian, adjunct instructor, Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, Johnstown, Pennsylvania) who has now published a book, The Great Chance: James B. Neale and the Anthracite Industry’s Forgotten Experiment on this remarkable community that no longer exists.  Still, we may not know the inner most thoughts of the inhabitants of Buck Run, in the Foster Township approximately 4 miles west of Minersville Borough and 1 mile east of Minersville Exit off Interstate 81 but we do know that this “kaleidoscope of fascinating” images have the power to profoundly move people.

Created by two 1896 graduates of Yale, Buck Run was an anthracite company town built for the operators, manager, and employees of the Buck Run Coal Company (1902-1950).  James Neale set about to create an idyllic town for the benefit of his workers with a new school, a health clinic, running water, electricity, steam heat and more enlightened amenties.  The only remnant of the town that remains is Neale’s mansion which was slated to be demolished by the township.  Benjamin Harrison Hay was the general manager and vice president of the company who was also Neale’s brother-in-law. 

James Neale Mansion
Photo courtesy of Fr. Elijah Bremer

To announce the publication of his book in 2011, Fr. Bremer hosted a local screening of the coal film and some of the home movies.  The response of the “viewers” and “voyeurs” is captured in Fr. Bremer's July 19, 2012 email:

“The most immediate result is nothing short of a miracle.  After seeing the film at my public presentation in Trinity Chapel, Buck Run, an affluent Virginian (born in Buck Run) committed $525,000.00 to the purchase and restoration of the Neale Mansion!  It's a preservationist "dream come true."  Additionally, a preservation group has been working with the Foster Twp. Supervisors to plan grants, hiking trails, and tourism initiatives.  We're plugging ahead with an archive facility for the town, and I myself have become quite a collector of National Fuel Administration artifacts.  I have even arranged for the local water authority to recover two sections of the wooden water pipe pictured in the video--it's still there!

On a more personal note, one of my audience members (80+ years old) met the video with tears--she identified her father in a shot that panned over the miners faces.  A student of mine helped create a 17 minute synopsis of the film (with full credits given to Hay & the SI) set to music.  Overall, it has been very well received.  Every US History II class I teach gets to see Ben Hay's film!”

From a more recent email asking permission to quote from his above email, Fr. Bremer wrote:

“Your work is invaluable, and the combined efforts of the Smithsonian, Foster Township, and my own "Great Chance" has produced so many unexpected good works that I can hardly believe it!  My mind keeps returning to the scriptural quote from Matthew:  "May thy light so shine before men, that they may see thy good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven..."  Quite fitting for miners, who spent their working days in darkness, but whose "light" produced so many good things for society.”

Although it is true that we cannot “see the world in their heads” we can learn about the world around them through these personal films that survived when so many others have not. Although, “we can’t interpret these images through the prism of consciousness, with its myriad histories”, we can, because we, like them, are defined by and define the place in which we inhabit, identify through our longings and imaginations with “the soul of a place” long gone.


  1. Beautiful encapsulation of the essence of the enduring value of the Documentary.

  2. Unfortunately, the mansion is burning and is expected to be a total loss. It must have been a beautiful home and it's such a shame to be destroyed by fire.

  3. I am at a loss to understand how this coal company was noble. I have a box of Pop's pay stubs from the Buck Run Cosl Company, and month after month, after being docked for dynamite, supplies and broken tools, his pay check was zero. I know Pop loved Mr. NeAl and fondly remembered getting a nice Christmas present from him every year.

  4. I have an idea of what some of the miners depicted in the film thought. I have a list written in pencil, in which Pop recorded the salaries of the President, Congress, and other government employees. The anger at the disparity between their wages and his is palpable. Not everyone was thrilled to be doing backbreaking, dangerous work for little or no money.