Pittsburgh native finds her perfect place in Eckley Village
"I don't sense that I'm alone, particularly in the summertime at dusk when I go out for a walk," said Karen Esak, who lives in the mid-nineteenth century patch town that is now Eckley Miners' Village. "You never feel alone or afraid. It's peaceful and beautiful."
"At times, you can feel the people that used to live here walking around. I can feel their coal and the immigrant history. If you reenact here enough, as I do, and you walk around here at night and the early morning, you can feel the people who once walked these streets. Some of their stories were very sad. They worked hard, and yet there was a lot of life here and a lot of love."
Esak not only lives in one of the dozen year-round occupied former four-room duplex company houses at Eckley, she is also a tour guide and a member of the Eckley Players, a group of 60 volunteers and 20 actors. They perform plays that have depicted an eviction, a strike, or the starting of the union. The Players visit schools and put on short plays or bring a traveling trunk filled with artifacts of a miner's life.
Located north of Weatherly and east of Hazleton, Eckley Miners' Village is a former anthracite coal mining patch town. In 1969, it was one of the movie sets for the Molly Maguires film. It is currently owned and operated as a museum by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Eckley village is on land first purchased by Tench Coxe, a member of the Continental Congress, an economist and real estate investor. In this forested land, a small shingle manufacturing business developed, and the community was called Shingletown.
After several veins of anthracite coal were discovered on the property, Richard Sharpe, Asa Foster, Francis Weiss and John Leisenring secured a 20-year lease for 1,500 acres from Judge Charles Coxe, executor of the Trench Coxe estate, and formed the Council Ridge Colliery.
The town was named for Judge Coxe's eldest son, Eckley Brinton Coxe. When the lease expired in 1875, John Leisenring, one of the four original partners, assumed the lease, operating the Council Ridge operations until 1886, when Eckley Coxe and his wife, Sophia Georgianna Coxe, took over the Council Ridge Colliery operations.
Strip mining was introduced around Eckley in 1890. Villages that had been located upon valuable veins of coal gradually disappeared, swallowed up by mammoth steam shovels. The introduction of new technology required fewer hands, and as a result, Eckley's population began to decline. From a high of 1,500 residents in 1870, population dropped to less than 600 by 1920.
Eckley village was separated from the mining operation in 1969, and bought by local businessmen, and deeded to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1971.
Fifteen years ago, Esak, a native of Pittsburgh who had worked as a transcriptionist for the military, with assignments in Berlin, Paris, London and Alaska, was looking for a quiet place to retire. She jumped in her car, left the New York metropolitan area, and headed west on Route 81 to Pennsylvania. Fate had her take the Hazleton exit. In downtown Hazleton, "a wonderful gentleman asked, 'Are you looking for something?'"
"I had lived in cities where people would walk over you before they would ask you if you were looking for something. I said that I wanted to know a bit about Hazleton. This man, a longtime resident, walked with me and pointed out every building and the buildings that used to be there. Right then, I thought this is a pretty nice place to live."
Esak, who enjoys history, began volunteering at Eckley Miners' Village. At Eckley, she became involved in event planning and fundraising. She became a tour guide and a member of the Eckley Players. When a house became available in the village, she moved there.
"Because it is a historic site, residents of Eckley are not allowed to put up anything modern that is visible outside the building," Esak explained. "All utilities are underground, so you can't get hardline telephones. Everyone uses cell phones. Internet has to be a mobile wireless."
"The advantages are that it is a beautiful, quiet place to live. I have chickens, a garden ... every morning I get up and before I have my coffee, I walk over a mile around the village."
Esak has been developing a company store exhibit at Eckley. She has been referring to photos from the Molly Maguire film. She has gathered scales, registers, fabric, dried goods, canned goods, and period merchandise for the display which is designed to reflect operations from 1860 to 1900.
She is working to create an exhibit to tell the story of the village's cobbler shop. After a young man lost a leg in a mining accident, Sophia Coxe set him up as a shoemaker. He learned to make prosthetics and people from all around who had lost a leg or a foot would come to him.
Esak is also working to renovate the home of Richard Sharpe, a founder of the Council Ridge Colliery and had the largest home in Eckley. She is also helping to coordinate the Victorian Christmas, on Saturday, Dec. 3 and Sunday, Dec. 4, and Saturday, Dec. 10 and Sunday, Dec. 11, at the Eckley Miners' Village.
Eckley Miners' Village is open throughout the year. Visiting hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The museum is closed New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
For additional information, telephone (570) 636-2070, or see: www.eckleyminers.org.