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When coal was king: Nanty Glo struggles to envision change

November 17, 2018

NANTY GLO, Pa. (AP) — Once a booming coal-mining epicenter, Nanty Glo is now quiet, the silence broken occasionally by the snap of an American flag on a front porch or the creak of a barren playground swing.

The Pennsylvania Railroad trains that once rumbled through town are gone. Now motorists driving through on state Route 271 pass a Rite Aid and Shop ’n Save before hitting the town’s main intersection where residents sometimes linger at the fire station or hardware store. There’s little to prompt visitors to stop, except maybe Al’s and Marlene’s, the locally renowned pizza shops.

“This is basically a depressed area,” said Janet Louise Llewellyn, assistant librarian at the Nanty Glo Library. “We’ve lost steel and coal, which were two of the major employers around here.”

Nanty Glo, which means “streams of coal” in Welsh, has suffered economically like many of the communities around Johnstown, which is 12 miles to its south. Surrounded by the Allegheny Mountain range in what locals call “The Valley,” for Blacklick Valley, Nanty Glo has a population of about 2,500 — only 40 percent of what it was in 1940.

The decline is attributed to the closing of Cambria County’s mines, which at their peak in 1918 produced over 20 million tons of coal. Cambria joined Washington, Fayette, Greene and Westmoreland among the top five coal-producing counties in Pennsylvania.

Heisley Mine, later renamed Bethlehem Mine 31, was the last one operating in Nanty Glo when it closed in the early 1980s. Since then, the town has suffered from a steady decline, according to local residents and officials.

“Everything’s gone,” said Janet Toth, 85, a Nanty Glo native who returned in 2007 from living elsewhere in the area. “It’s just different.”

As historian and treasurer of the Nant-Y-Glo Tri Area Museum and Historical Society, Toth remembers the town of her youth as a social hub, or “a dancing town.” There were department stores, bowling alleys and six movie theaters, all operating with the consistent sulfur smell from the seven major coal mines and several strip mines located in the town.

Along with the area’s mine closures came the demise in the late 20th century of steel mills where many residents of Nanty Glo and surrounding areas worked. Among those was the Bethlehem Steel plant in Johnstown, where Llewellyn’s husband was employed until it closed in 1992. She said her family had to go on food stamps and sell its car for income.

Thousands of workers in the Johnstown metropolitan area were unemployed in similar straits, and many left in search of work.

“The people that live here now are a lot of transients,” said Toth. “Nobody gets a chance to establish a backyard relationship where you can come out and talk over your fence with your neighbor for awhile. You don’t know them, and they don’t know you, and they don’t want to know you.”

Nanty Glo is now home to at least 10 abandoned, decaying buildings that pose as eyesores and safety hazards, said Karen Lytle, vice president of the local borough council. She estimated that it costs about $8,000 to $10,000 to remove a blighted property. Only three buildings have been taken down so far, she said, because the process of applying for state grants and acquiring ownership of the property often takes several years.

Toth’s son, James, a retired Navy officer, said Nanty Glo will have difficulty recapturing even “15 percent of its former glory,” and he blames local officials such as those on borough council.

The Toths are among local residents who are optimistic, however, about their first-year mayor, former state police trooper William “Billy” Ray, who won election as a write-in candidate. Ray considers himself outspoken about the town’s problems. His main goals are to encourage local business and expand police presence. The latter is important due to incidents related to the opioid epidemic, he said.

“What I saw is that the town needs to progress; we need to move forward,” said Ray. “The only people that can save Nanty Glo are the people that live here and care about it.”

He said one boost would be to market the Ghost Town Trail, a 36-mile-long hiking and biking trail following abandoned coal-mining communities through Indiana and Cambria counties, with one of its access points in Nanty Glo. Ray said he’d like to get hikers to stop in the town by appealing to them with local shops and eateries.

Lytle said that the borough council has prioritized encouraging local business and has seen small successes in the opening of a car repair service and a flower shop. However, she said the condition of local buildings has been a deterrent to prospective new businesses. The council is considering offering tax incentives in order to encourage economic activity.

Jobs created by business expansion would appeal to recent college graduates looking to make a living in or near town, such as Allie Garver, a reporter for Nanty Glo’s local paper and a 2012 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Garver, 28, said many young adults do end up sticking around due to family ties and their preference for a close-knit community, despite the difficult job market.

“I can’t see myself moving more than an hour away,” said Garver, who lives in nearby Jackson Township. “Eventually I plan on having kids, and I want them to have that relationship like I had growing up with their family.”

Garver said she worries, however, that Nanty Glo, which celebrated its 100th anniversary as a borough in July, may not have a future if the economic situation worsens.

“You see it celebrate its 100th year, and you’re like, does it have another hundred in it?” she mused.

Throughout her eight decades, Ms. Toth has seen the town both thrive and struggle. Nanty Glo’s downfall, she said, would be if people would just want things to continue as they are, which is sometimes the case in such communities.

“It’s an old coal mining town that is dying,” Ms. Toth said, “and when people are established in a place, they don’t want to change.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2JVyNeo

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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