“It would be great if you made a dance about the coal miners from this town,” Dan said. The miners he was referring to were known as the “Molly Maquires” and the town is Jim Thorpe PA, or Mauch Chunk as the locals call it. “We could pack the opera house,” he was visibly enthused. He was the producer at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, which sits on Broadway, the main street of this little town, about half way between the railroad station at the bottom of the hill, and the old state prison at the top of the hill.
I wasn’t quite sure what Dan had in mind exactly, but I believed I could make a dance about anything. And I really wanted to perform at the historic Mauch Chunk Opera House. Mauch Chunk, now known as Jim Thorpe, was built as the county seat of Carbon County in the middle of Pennsylvania coal country. Because of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains, they used to call the area Little Switzerland.
A Group of Irish Miners called Themselves the Molly Maquires
It was Christmas in this cozy town, with candles in each window, bells ringing from a steepled church, little shops closing early and what looked like an original five and dime store selling penny candy. We had traveled from Chicago to visit Dan for the holidays. On our final evening in town, we decided to take a walk on Main St. before stuffing ourselves, again, with left over venison and all the trimmings.
Dan was wearing hiking boots with thick socks. He showed off his long underwear over which were thick corduroy pants. He completed his ensemble with Scandinavian wool mittens, a red wool scarf and a hat lined with bunny fur. He looked like a giant four-year-old ready to play in the snow. I put on my fashion boots, shiny black with style and my urban insulated puffer coat. It had a hood attached for warmth, but often it blew off my head when it was windy. We stepped outside. The icy snow flew incircles around us. Some landed on our noses. We were part of a Victorian Christmas card.
As we returned from our walk, which, because of my fashion boots, lasted all of fifteen minutes, Dan continued his story of the Irish miners and the historic preservation of their houses in a mining camp outside of town. These Irish miners came to be known as the Molly Maquires, or Mollies for short. The idea of a production with a Mollies theme had taken hold, and it was clear if I was going to be successful at the opera house the performance would have to be about coal miners. As we entered his house Dan said, I want to take you to the miners’ camp after dinner.” I began jumping up and down. My feet were numb from the cold, and I had to get the blood moving again. Dan may have interpreted my jumping as jumping for joy at his invitation to see the mines.
A Miners’ Camp Outside of Town
I walked along with Dan that evening as he gave me a tour of one of the old mining camps a short drive outside of town. Irish immigrants began arriving in the mid-1800s, and they lived and worked in this camp. They were escaping the great potato famine, and came to Pennsylvania in a search of a better life. Isn’t that always the story?
The situation these people had come from was so desperate they saw working underground in the mines from dawn to dusk as a life-saving opportunity. Any work was better than starvation. Being claustrophobic as I am, and walking near the mine entrance as the sun went down, I began to panic at the thought of being lowered into that gaping, black hole in the ground. I looked away.
We followed a wide dirt path past the mine and up to the top of a small hill and turned to look back at the miner’s houses clustered along the path from the mine. A full moon was coming up and its light glinted off little specks of hard, shinny coal mixed in with the dust on the path. These houses built for the miners and their families where small, square, wooden houses with rough wooden steps and doors that entered off the path. They had little dormer windows on the second floor where they poked out from the sloping roofs. I pushed away a feeling of dread. This camp was not part of the charming post card town in which we were staying. I knew I was looking at slave cabins. I squeezed my eyes shut hoping the feeling would dissolve. It was a cold, moonlit night, “I’m letting my imagination get the better of me”, I said to myself.
The cabins were set close together, and opposite each other on either side of the path. The path was iridescent in the moon light, sparkling with coal dust left behind by miners walking home from their shift in the mine. Standing there facing the old mining works, I imagined groups of men just lifted out of an underground pit, walking up the path on similarly moonlit nights, to their roughly made houses. This mining camp and others like it were where the Molly Maguires started to organize and fight back against the mine owners and the bosses. The Mollies were some of the first to protest for workers’ rights in the United States.
The miners were now gone but something I could not yet name was still there. Standing in the cold on this winter night, I shivered and jumped into our heated car. The next day on our way to the airport, we passed the old state prison at the top of the hill. Dan in a voice both matter of fact, and melancholy said, “The Molly Maguires were hanged there. Almost everyone from around here is related to them in some way.”
Story of the Mollies is Part of Irish-American History
The next day, back in Chicago, sitting at my cramped, messy desk in my university office, where getting organized was always a chore, I pleaded with the universe to send me help. How could a make a dance out of what I had seen? What had I taken on?
My office door was open, and I saw my friend and colleague Kathy Cowan coming down the hall humming an Irish folk song. I immediately thanked the universe. Pushing my chair back, and leaning with one arm on my desk for balance, I raised my other arm reaching out to her. I had to stop her. “Kathy!” I shouted,”what do you know about the Molly Maguires?”
Stopping abruptly, she turned toward me, adjusted her glasses further up on her nose and leaning in to tell me something of great importance, she said, “Oh the Mollies – It’s terrible what the Irish miners suffered.”
I am from Chicago. To me being Irish meant, St Patrick’s Day, when everyone is Irish, when everyone affects a brogue, everyone wears green, drinks green beer, and sings Danny Boy. And to top it off, the city dyes the Chicago River green. To celebrate the day there are no less than three St. Patrick’s Day parades. Looking at Kathy, her eyes sparkling with sincerity, I realized I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the Irish in America, or the story of the Mollies.
The universe had sent me Kathy. She would make this work possible We began our search for the musical story of the Mollies in January. By March we were getting close to having a score for the kind of dance, I hoped Dan could get excited about. St Patrick’s Day came, and I, like the rest of Chicago had done for years, found something Kelly green to wear, fained an Irish brogue and drank green beer. But this year was a little different I felt a deep responsibility to the Irish relatives of the Mollies. I needed to tell their story with an insightful compassion. Laughing and crying at the same time.