Jim Burke knows a thing or two about the movies.
During his tenure at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, the 1950 grad of King’s College learned that it takes one blockbuster to make up for nine failures in Tinseltown. In the late 1960s, he brought the filming of “The Molly Maguires” to Luzerne County, where Eckley Miner’s Village served as the backdrop for the movie which features the exploits of rebel coal miners fighting their tyrannical leadership.
The sparkle in his eye, the boom of his voice and his passion for our mining heritage served Burke well as he stood in front of a group of Wilkes-Barre business leaders last Friday, telling the tale of how Wyoming Valley’s past can be the gateway for its future.
You see, Burke and some of his friends are convinced it’s destiny that a vacant building on Public Square is the perfect place for a museum that pays tribute to the men who journeyed into the dark depths of the regions anthracite mines in order to earn a living for their families. With pride, Burke recounts the contribution of those who put aside their fear of the unknown in order to earn enough money so the next generation could attend college or do something to limit their exposure to the rough and tumble world they knew so well. At the meeting, Burke asked the assembly if someone in their family had been a miner and almost every hand went up. He then asked them how many had lost a loved one to mining and many hands remained in the air.
A brochure he’s created shows the former bank building on Public Square, re-imagined as the Anthracite Heritage Museum. Burke says a mosaic in the building’s lobby from the early 1900s shows the image of a miner, a detail that sounds like it’s right from a script.
The narrative that Burke would like to see play out in Wilkes-Barre includes a building filled with the living history of the mining era to educate our children, a partnership with Eckley Miner’s Village and the Lackawanna County Anthracite Heritage Museum so tourists can see all three attractions in one day and a “black box” theater where local groups can stage their plays. He insists the project will bring thousands to the city and the kids will go home and share their knowledge with their parents over dinner.
The museum’s exterior renovations would be funded from Pennsylvania’s gaming revenue, and Burke envisions the inside of the museum will be paid for by area benefactors who want to honor their grandfathers, brothers and cousins who did what they had to do in the days when coal was king. He proposes a “wall of honor,” where family members can purchase a plaque with their loved one’s name. He says although the museum is in the preliminary stages, many are interested. He also says that Luzerne County has one museum, whereas Lackawanna County has ten.
Burke says he has some powerful friends behind him, including Father Thomas O’Hara, the president of King’s College, whose grandfather and father were miners. In fact, the specific reason for the founding of King’s was to educate the children of blue collar workers who were seeking a better life for their offspring.
So, what’s wrong with this picture? The stop sign seems to be held by Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton. The City of Wilkes-Barre owns this building, and Mayor Leighton says others have expressed interest.
The building has been dark and vacant for 37 years. There has been no public pronouncement of a project that could trump the significance of a cultural diamond in the barscape that Wilkes-Barre has become. Yes, restaurants and bars are nice, but their clientele largely dwells in the shadow of the night. Why not shine a light on our unique heritage?
Those of us lucky enough to have learned history firsthand need to step up to the plate and publicly support Mr. Burke’s vision. Yes, museums need to be sustained, and maybe the recent troubles at the Jimmy Stuart Museum and the financial difficulties of the Liberace Museum might give people pause. However, mining is bigger than one individual. Our grandfathers did what they could to give us a brighter future above ground. It’s time to return the favor by insisting that this plan gets the same kind of welcome that other ventures are receiving in the city.