Coal mining was central to the lives of the people in Eastern Pennsylvania especially during the era of 1870 to 1895 when photographer George M. Bretz (1842-1895) lived and worked in Pottsville, the gateway to the Anthracite Coal Mining Region. Bretz achieved distinction if not fame for his photographs related to coal mining and the people who depended upon coal for their livelihood.
Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Bretz worked at local businesses in Carlisle before heading to New York City where he worked successively for two companies in 1859. Letters of reference indicated that he had become a fine young businessman. He worked briefly in 1862 for a photographer before receiving an appointment as a clerk in the quartermaster’s department of the Union Army in Tennessee during the Civil War. Although he was not on the front lines, he was close enough to the war that being captured was often on his mind. He even wrote a will describing the disposition of his body in case he was killed. Serious illness rather than capture or death took him away from the war in 1863. He was sent home to Carlisle to recuperate, and did not rejoin the service until the next year when he became a clerk in the provost marshal’s office, a job that he held until the end of the war.
Photography became Bretz’s focus after the war. He and a friend opened a studio in Newville, Pennsylvania, and continued in operation until 1867 when Bretz went to work in the studio of A.M. Allen in Pottsville. In 1870, Bretz opened his own studio in Pottsville, and made sculptures as well as photographic portraits and landscape views. Among the portraits that Bretz made were images of the alleged Molly Maguires, radical coal miners who turned to violence against unfair labor practices in the coal fields. Bretz made portraits of the alleged Mollies in 1877 on the day before the ten men were to be hanged. Such iconic photographs became the rule rather than the exception for Bretz. In 1884 at the request of the Smithsonian Institution, Bretz descended into a coal mine to photograph miners at work. Using a dynamo that had been set up in the mine, electric light was generated to provide illumination. One critic at the time wrote: “Even in direct sunshine one would hardly undertake to photograph a heap of anthracite coal.” So successful were Bretz’s photographs in the mines, that he gained notoriety for his accomplishment. The photographs were displayed at the New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884, and again with additional images at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. For the rest of his life, Bretz was considered an authority on coal mining and articles about him were periodically published in newspapers and photography magazines.
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