Backbreaking Work

Coke ovens burning at night (2019_01_22 16_45_08 UTC)

When I think of hard labor, I think of the people I knew from my childhood who worked in the coal and coke industry of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Coal miners worked in dusty dangerous conditions deep in the ground. Once the coal was brought to the surface, it was burned in coke ovens for a period of time to get the gasses out of it leaving a pure carbon that burned hotter than coal. Shoveling coke from the ovens was exhausting work. The heat from the ovens made working conditions barely tolerable. In the early days it was all done by hand as you see in the photo below. Later they had machines to help with the loading of the ovens and the train cars. Many workers died young from Black Lung, created by breathing the coal dust. Today most of the remaining ovens are buried beneath the overgrowth of nature.

Hard labor // coal dust

Brings early death for many

Cars and bridges built

Coke oven workers

Coke ovens Larry cars

Photos from: Ed West

Last September my two brothers and I made a trip back to our home community to see what was left of our memories. A friend told us about a set of coke ovens that was not far off the highway. We climbed through the weeds and brush and found them deteriorating, but still in tact. It was a wonderful find. See the photos below.

Ovens and tombstones

Still remain to tell the tale

Backbreaking labor

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Photos: Dwight L. Roth

On this Labor Day at d’Verse. Frank Tassone asked us to write a Haibun that relates to labor.  I decided to remind all of us how many people worked in hard labor conditions to provide the materials necessary to make steel. Much of this country was built with steel made from the work of these hard working men.

Join us at:



How important is a brick? Guest host Q-bit asked us to do an exercise in murmuration. We were instructed  choose a collection of any item we choose and then examine how an individual part fits into the larger collection. I decided to choose the  bricks in the ceiling of an old Pennsylvania coke oven. Coke ovens were used, from the late 1800s to the late 1950s, to change coal into coke by burning off the gasses leaving pure carbon, which burned hotter than coal in the blast furnaces of Pittsburgh Steel Mills.

Today, I am focusing on the bricks used to construct this coke oven that my two brothers and I found, when we went back to our hometown for a visit a few weeks ago. The photo above show the hole in the top of the bee hive oven where a coal charge was dropped into the oven to be partially burned. As it burned, this was the chimney hole where the smoke poured out into the atmosphere around us.

Notice how the bricks were laid in a defined pattern gradually coming in more and more until all that was left was the hole. The bricks in the hole were placed in such a way that the pressure of the dome held them all in place. Each brick was very important. As you can see in the photos, the door collapsed long ago, but the dome and the hole remains in place now for almost a hundred years. Remove any brick in the circle and the roof will eventually collapse.

Bricks laid with great care

Burned coke one hundred winters

Each brick important



My younger brother standing inside the oven.


Every brick makes a difference, These bricks were made on site!

Photos: Dwight L. Roth

Join us at d’Verse:

Coke Ovens on the Mononghela

My Coke Ovens painting as they might have been,

along the Mononghela River, in the early 1900s

Coke ovens burning at night

Photo of Coke Ovens burning provided by Ed West


Digging Up Bones


We woke this morning to rain and autumn winds whipping the trees. By lunchtime the rain had moved out for a brief recess. A friend of ours took me and my two brothers down by the river to what was once a coal patch of houses on the hill side. We were told we could find some old coke ovens still in tact up in the brush. As we drove slowly along the railroad tracks we scanned the wooded areas. Suddenly, through the trees, we saw some glimpses of holes in the side of the hill that looked like abandoned coke ovens. We waded through the weeds and brush and sure enough, there they were. The fronts were gone but the brick work inside was still holding it together. We actually crawled into the oven and took photos which you can see below. It was a great day for finding skeletons of the past.

Autumn wind and rain

Not enough to hinder us

Coke Ovens still there







Photos: Dwight L. Roth

Coke ovens burning at night

Coke Ovens Burning in the early 1900s – Photo provided by Ed West

Frank Tassone suggested we do a Haikai challenge using either autumn or spring winds. Come join us at:



Hometown Smokin’

Coke ovens painting

Rows of beehive coke ovens dotted the hillside belching out black smoke. At night they looked like rows of jack-o-lanterns glowing orange on the hillsides above the mines. Coke is coal that is half burned to get the gasses out. When it is reburned in the steel mills, it burns much hotter than coal. Ovens burned day and night when I was a small boy, growing up in Masontown.

Masontown, Pennsylvania, nestled in the Pennsylvania Mountains, is about an hour from Pittsburgh and almost that far from Morgantown, WVA. The region around Masontown had rich bituminous coal deposits, with some veins up to nine feet thick. The town lay just above the Monongahela River, which transported the coal and coke on flat barges to the steel mills in Pittsburgh.

Around the town and along the river, were rows and rows of houses called patches. They were built by the coal company, along with a company store that sold just about everything. It was a very hard life and many people literally owed their soul to the company store.  Each patch had a coal mine and rows of block and brick ovens, where the coal was converted to coke and loaded on barges or train cars. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, Sixteen Tons, was about this kind of life.

Coke ovens // long gone

Black lungs residuals stay

Clean air // still they choke


Painting of Coke Ovens: Dwight L. Roth

Today we were asked by Mish, at d’Verse Poetry Pub, to write a Hai bun about our hometown. This includes up to three paragraphs of pros followed by a Haiku that compliments the pros. This is my story.

You can look up the song Sixteen Tons on YouTube.

Choking on Coke Smoke

Coke ovens painting

Coke Ovens

This is my painting of Pennsylvania Coke Ovens that I finished today. When I was young, in the 1950s, coke ovens burned all across the surrounding hills near Masontown. Smoke poured out without filters of any kind, as coal was partially burned to make coke for the Steel Mill in Pittsburgh. Coke was shoveled into train cars or loaded onto barges in the river for transport to the mill. During the depression some desperate people lived in the abandoned coke ovens for a period of time.

Along the Mononghela River there were many coal mines, each with small “Patches” of houses built by the coal company and rented to the workers firing the ovens. They were pretty much all the same and looked like a patchwork quilt when viewed from the sky. A company store, owned by the coal company, provided basic needs. This is where the song Sixteen Tons, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford came from. Behind each of these patches were rows of coke ovens like those in the painting. It was an extremely hard life for those people.

Coke smoke fills my lungs

Ovens fired and belching soot

Amazed I’m still alive


Painting of Coke Ovens: Dwight L. Roth

Listen to the song:

The Pennsylvania Dragon

I grew up in the generation of Steam Trains. I was in awe of the power those engines produced as we sat and watch them go by. This poem is a tribute to the trains of my childhood that I loved so well.

The Pennsylvania Dragon


Steel wheels keep on turning

Keeping rhythm perfect time


Hauling coke from the ovens

Hauling coal from the mines


Down along the winding river

Monongahela was its name

Comes the “Pennsylvania Dragon”

Belching smoke & shooting flames

Making the Grade - train

Engines 29’s a coming

See the light and hear the steam

As she passes Martin crossing

 You can hear that whistle scream


Whistle blowing at the crossing

Black smoke pouring from her stack

On to Pittsburgh she’ll be rolling

Tomorrow she’ll be coming back


Counting coal cars as she passes

 Waving to the engineer

100 cars hauling heavy

 Red caboose at the rear


Now the trains of my childhood

 Are all silent lost in time

And those “Pufferbilly Dragons”

 Are just memories on my mind


Down along the winding river

 No more smoke or shooting flames

Just the rumble of the diesel

 …but it’s just not quite the same


All paintings done by Dwight L. Roth

Paintings enhanced for effect.