First Posted: 8/11/2014
When philanthropist Jim Burke first saw “The Anthracite Miners and Their Hollowed Ground,” he admits the work of Dallas artist Sue Hand left him in awe.
“I’ve collected art for 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It tells the story of an industry, in art.”
Burke purchased the bulk of the 300-piece exhibit — he’d rather not reveal the cost — and spent the next seven or eight years looking for a place to display it.
“I didn’t buy it to hang it in my living room. I don’t think Rockefeller’s living room would be large enough,” he said. “I bought it to give it away, to educate the masses.”
Finally, Burke said, he found the perfect space — the newly remodeled building known as King’s on the Square, formerly the Ramada Hotel. The building will be open in time for the start of classes later this month, King’s spokesman John McAndrew said, and the public will be welcome to come in and see the artwork when the building is open.
“This is fantastic,” said Hand, who spent seven years researching and creating the exhibit, painstakingly including details about large-scale tragedies such as the Baltimore Tunnel Explosion that killed 92 miners in 1919 Wilkes-Barre and the 1959 Knox Mine Disaster that effectively brought anthracite mining to an end in Wyoming Valley. She also depicted the smaller traumas, such as the story of a youth trapped in a cave in for days with several men who decided they had to kill and eat the mule that had become his friend.
“It’s absolutely the most emotional project I’ve ever done. I lived and breathed it,” said the artist, who at one point accidentally spilled blood into her work when she was incorporating a sharp piece of coal. The shard cut her skin and she started to cry, not from her own pain, but from the pain of thinking about young breaker boys whose hands were cut by sharp rocks every day.
Burke wants people to learn about — and feel grateful to — those boys with the bleeding hands and their elders who dug and dug in the darkness, risking death all week to be paid in scrip that was redeemable only in the company store.
“I regret so few folks today know about local history,” Burke said. “There’s sort of an amnesia that exists in Wyoming Valley among the present generations regarding the sacrifices their ancestors made when they trekked into coal patches and endured for 100 years the oppression of the coal barons. Their lives were little more than slavery.”
“Some 35,000 of them died in cave-ins and accidents and two or three times that number were mutilated, losing an eye, an arm, a finger,” said Burke, who grew up in the Wilkes-Barre area with a great-uncle who had lost his fingers in a mine accident.
King’s new building, located at the intersection of Public Square and North Main Street, is an ideal place for the exhibit, Burke said, because it is in a heavily trafficked area in the center of town, has nearby parking and is owned by a college the Holy Cross order of priests founded in 1946 to educate the sons of coal miners. He is a member of the school’s first graduating class, the class of 1950.
The college community is grateful to Hand and to Burke “for their creativity and their generosity,” college president the Rev John Ryan said, adding that inside the revitalized King’s on the Square building, “learning will not only be delivered through our new state-of-the-art classrooms and labs, but also through collections that capture and pay homage to our community’s unique people and history, such as ‘The Anthracite Miners and Their Hollowed Ground.’ “