PUNXSUTAWNEY — The black and gold tiles on the side of the road on West Mahoning Street, near the Punxsutawney Area Historical and Genealogical Society, extend back in time to tell a story.
Each piece of the puzzle honors someone who worked in the coal industry — miners, coke workers, railroaders and iron workers. Gold lettering is inscribed in black marble, and a symbol is placed on the tile if the worker was killed. People can also include an etched photograph.
Historical names can be found on these tiles, such as Sam Light, who was president of the Groundhog Club. People are encouraged to purchase tiles in honor of family or friends who have worked in the various coal industries, said Shirley Sharp, president of the Punxsutawney Area Coal Memorial Committee.
About 10-15 years ago, members of the Punxsutawney Revitalization Committee initiated the idea of honoring those who worked in the coal industry and lost their lives through a memorial site.
“When people come into town, it’s a place to visit and look for family members, and say ‘my dad worked in coal,’” Sharp said.
People began advocating for a railroad in Jefferson County in the 1800s, but needed a means to transport coal. In 1881, a railroad was brought to the area, Sharp said, and the coal industry grew “like crazy.”
By 1888, there were several mines, and everyone was trying to build a railroad, Sharp said. There was lots of competition, since people discovered there were “riches to be made” in the coal industry.
Sharp, a history enthusiast, has several items she collected from earlier times. Her favorite part is telling stories and educating people on the history of Punxsutawney through the articles she writes for Hometown Magazine.
“I have a diary from back then, and it’s so interesting to read about how the miners went to work every day,” she said.
In detail, she discusses famous miners and figures of the local coal industry, people who were instrumental in the development of its success.
“I write feel-good stories, but I try to make them real,” she said. “I want to help people understand what happened.”
Coal workers included early area settlers, such as new arrivals from Great Britain and southern and eastern countries.
“They spoke a multitude of languages, established new churches and prepared the same food items in different ways,” Sharp writes. “They evolved the multicultural social structure of the area. Work in the coal fields gave them opportunity to make a better life for their families.”
The Coal Memorial Exhibit, which is not yet finished, takes viewers into the basement of the PAHGS museum on West Mahoning Street, where they experience a “mine like” environment.
Displaying memorabilia like tools, equipment, mine records, photographs and historical information, the exhibit takes people back as many as 150 years.
There is a real railroad car, as well as information about mining towns, mules and the coke industry.
Viewers can see what life was like for a miner back then, such as what they wore, like knee pads and oil-wick caps.
Organizers aim to make the Coal Memorial Exhibit handicapped accessible before debuting it, Sharp says.
“The history is not yet written, but it’s being written,” she says.