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Sharing the story of our past

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS A cannon ball was found by privy diggers.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS A cannon ball was found by privy diggers.
Published June 25. 2010 05:00PM

Maxine Vermillion, curator of the Summit Hill Museum, was waiting at the door to greet visitors from the Palmerton Area Historical Society which was on its annual mystery trip planned by Betsy Burnhauser.

On this day, the Palmerton Historical Society paid a visit to the Summit Hill Historical Society.

Vermillion said the building had an earlier life as a drug store. The shelving is original and some of the other furnishings are reproductions.

Coal is what started Summit Hill. Philip Ginter (or Ginder) found black rock upthrust and realized it was coal. "You can dig it up everywhere here. We're sitting on top of the richest vein of anthracite coal in the world, but the town is on bedrock," said Vermillion.

At one point, one of the mines began burning - there are various methods by which people claim it started. It burned from 1859 to 1941 when it was finally extinguished. Smoke and occasionally flames could be seen. But in the meantime it was a major tourist attraction.

The switchback railroad, developed to take the coal from the Panther Valley to Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe), became a forerunner of roller coasters in its 60 years of operation.

The cars that carried coal were cleaned up and seats were added for carrying people. It was an 18-mile round trip from Jim Thorpe to Summit Hill. In the beginning people had to ride evenings or weekends when coal was not being delivered. When the railroads began hauling the coal, the Switchback could run more often. One of its riders was Thomas Edison. When asked, he said nothing could be done to make it better.

One of the unique things is that the town had 13 cemeteries. Land in the valley was subject to subsidence so bodies were brought up the mountain for burial. Each cemetery was specific to a church or ethnicity such as the Polish, Slovak, Byzantine, Irish or Grand Army of the Republic cemeteries, said Vermillion.

The historical society was founded in 1997 and three years later a museum was begun. A bottle with the words Summit Hill embossed on it was the starting point for the museum.

The Walking Tour brochure gives the reason for the museum as, "We house memorabilia collected from the community and historians to display for the purpose of sharing the history of Summit Hill which, according to historians, helped to bring the Industrial Revolution in America."

The brochure and one for an auto tour of the Panther Valley coal areas are available at the museum.

Vermillion said the first settlers came to Summit Hill in 1820. Now descendants are returning to clean out the houses when relatives die. Many of the old things are donated to the museum.

There are several privy diggers in town. The most unique thing found is a cannon ball, but a collection of bottles grew by means of the digging. A delicate cup survived to make it into the museum.

Charles Cunningham carved coal. Usually items made of coal are by compression of coal dust, but Cunningham actually carved it and polished it in a manner that it is clean to the touch. He carved a rocking chair for John L. Lewis, best-known United Mine Workers Union president. He also made a golf ball for Ben Hogan. The museum has many samples of his work.

Noble Henninger built a blacksmith shop in 1927. It has become part of the Panther Valley Mining Museum, open by appointment - (570) 645-7422, for small groups only.

Lee Mantz, president of the historical society, said there were 30 years between Ginter's find and actual mining. He showed PowerPoint pictures of the museum's collection. The oldest is from 1875 - a picture of the town including the Lincoln School and Eagle Hotel, which was the first business in town. Basketball was played upstairs and the Mule-drivers Ball was held in the dance hall.

The first trolley was installed on Ludlow Street in 1897. Bodies were brought from the valley on the trolley to the cemeteries, with people paying a 50-cent fare.

An armory designed like the French Bastille was built in 1854 and burned in 1908. It was used for the Civil War and is now the site of the municipal building.

The fire company burned in 1908. Everything but two walls was gone according to a picture, though the fire trucks were saved.

There are a handful of people alive who rode the Switchback. Perma Snyder, with the group from Palmerton, was one of these. "It was a wonderful ride," she said.

When the Switchback was sold for $18,000, it was dismantled and sold as scrap. Nothing was just torn up and trashed.

The GAR and a Town Improvement Society had different ideas about the kind of veterans' memorial they wanted. When the Society's design was dedicated in 1914 veterans said they would not attend, but some apparently changed their minds because there are uniforms in the picture.

The historical society is replacing veterans' gravestones when necessary and when there is no one left in the family. The government issues them from Washington and they are shipped from Mississippi.

The Society has a model of the Switchback and Lou Vermillion was talking about it to members of the Palmerton Society. When Jim Thorpe built a working model, the old one was donated to the museum. The Mt. Pisgah Plane in Jim Thorpe has become a biking, hiking and cross-country ski area.

The motto for the museum is "Where it all began," referring to the Industrial Revolution. It is open Friday, 4-7 p.m., or by appointment. For information call (570) 645-9772 or 645-3634. It is located at 12 East Ludlow Street.

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