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