The Huber coal breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania is a spectacular monument of the modern industrial society. Initially founded in 1892, the breaker as it stands today is from 1939. The main building is an impressive forty meter, eleven story tall steel beam structure. The role of a coal breaker is to crush large lumps of coal, which was brought up from the adjacent mine, into smaller pieces and then sort these into various fractions depending on the indented usage. Some fractions are washed where the inevitable coal dust is removed. This residual, together with the coal powder at the last sifting stage is then typically sintered into briquettes. It furthermore appears that the power plant at the Huber breaker used this less valuable coal powder as fuel.
Back in the early days of the coal industry, north-eastern Pennsylvania was by far the largest US coal producing state where the anthracite mined there was primarily used for heating purposes. The high energy density with low contents of volatile compounds and ash makes anthracite an excellent fuel for heating as it burns while releasing very little soot and smoke, leaving small amounts of ash in the ashpan. One can envision that these were all much appreciated benefits in the towns of the 1800s where wood was extensively used for heating purposes.
With the expanding coke industry, driven by the needs of the modern steel industry from around 1880 and onwards, there was a shift in demand towards bituminous "fatty" coal which is less expensive and also yields coke gas as a byproduct. This in turn led to coke being more popular for heating purposes while the byproduct became popular as household gas. Pennsylvania as a coal producer has over the years fallen considerably compared with other states where coal can be mined elsewhere in enormous pits rather than by deep mining.
Apart from the increasing use of coke for heating purposes, the post-WWII surge in global oil- and gas supply with rapidly sinking prices caused was an overall shift away from anthracite as a fuel for heating and one can imagine that this accelerated the trajectory downwards for the Pennsylvanian coal industry. With increasing wages and a falling demand, the outcome was given and the breaker finally closed in 1976. It must haven been an absolutely awful workplace with coal dust and the omnipresent sound of rattling machinery, conveyor belts and jaws crushing the hard anthracite. Maybe this contributed to the end of this particular breaker as well.
The years since the closure in 1976 have been harsh to this magnificent steel structure. Although there have been some attempts to preserve the entire site, the undertaking seems overwhelming. Apart from looting by scrappers and acts of vandalism, air pollution together with the elements of nature makes the naked steel beams to rust violently and large sections of the structure have collapsed. It does not seem too far away that the entire main building gets structurally unsafe and some action is needed. Very sad indeed to watch it all perish.
UPDATE: Demolition of the site started i January 2014