A Trip Upstate

My mother’s family is from Pottsville, PA, in Schuylkill County. Some residents of southeastern Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia metro area, still refer to that section of the state as “upstate”, or the Coal Region, owing to its history as the chief anthracite coal mining area in the country during the pre-WW2 era. At one time, Pottsville had one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country and even fielded an early NFL team, the Pottsville Maroons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1925_NFL_Championship_controversy

My sisters and I decided to drive up on a beautiful fall day to see the family cemetery, which I’d never visited, and to see our first cousins, whom I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. Our cousin Anne met us at the cemetery and we later met her brother, Ned, for lunch at an Italian restaurant in town.

Pottsville is famous as being the hometown of celebrated American novelist John O’Hara, who changed the name of his birthplace to Gibbsville, most notably in the book Appointment in Samarra (1934). It is also the home of the Yuengling Brewery, America’s oldest brewer. From its peak of 24,530 people in 1940 its population has declined to around 13,000 today. Ned told us that two-thirds of the students are on free or reduced-price meal programs. Its decline mirrors that of vast tracts of the country, although its former wealth can be seen in impressive limestone and granite buildings downtown and mansions on the hillside. If gentrification ever arrives, the gentrifiers will find great structural bones.

We also stopped in Deer Lake, where my grandmother owned a family cottage where we often spent parts of the summer as children. In the ‘30’s, it was a summer refuge for well-heeled Pottsville residents. Now it’s likely a drug-addled little place, although the lake has been dredged and restored.

The cottage itself looks desolate. We saw no one on the streets and found a cottage that we remembered as children with a shocking lawn ornament. The isolated towns and villages in this area of the Appalachian region are home to what might be referred to as relict populations.

To avoid the perennially under-construction I-78 with its endless semi traffic, we took the scenic route on Old Route 22 from Hamburg, PA, in Berks County.

We’ve always had a morbid interest in abandoned institutions and asylums, so my sister mentioned a massive institution that housed hundreds of children with disabilities including microcephaly. It happened to be on our route, so I jumped out and snapped some photos.

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