Not Cease from Exploration

Monday, November 2, 2015

Shamokin Is Dying (a.k.a. the long-term impact of depopulation)

It's not just stories like THIS that I'm referring to either.

(from THIS site)

Shamokin is an interesting place.  I've actually been there once or twice in my life.  Not necessarily a destination, but it does make for a decent metaphor when speaking about the decline of hard coal country in Pennsylvania.

First, some basics:  Shamokin is a town Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.  It is situated on the western side of Northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region.  Traditionally, anthracite coal was mined deep underground, with the actual work of mining being very dangerous and fairly low paying (historically speaking).  Anthracite coal production began to decline before World War II and effectively ended in the early-mid 1960's as other fossil fuels (such as oil and natural gas) gained prominence as heating sources.

Two sets of statistics tell you a lot about Shamokin.  First is population.

As anthracite coal production declined, so too did Shamokin's population.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (source HERE) Shamokin's population in 1930 was 20,247.  By 2014 the estimated population had declined to 7,233.  That's something of decline, but what makes it even more stark is when you compare this change to another statistic.

The second important set of statistics relates to housing values.  According to City-Data (source HERE), in 2013 the average value of a house or condominium in Shamokin was $39,409.  By way of a few comparisons:
  • The average retail price paid for a 2015 Chevrolet Suburban (according to Edmunds) was $64,700.
  • The average value of a house or condominium in similarly sized (and fellow anthracite coal town) Nanticoke, Pennsylvania for 2013 was $90,258 (source HERE).
  • The average value of a house or condominium in Scranton, Pennsylvania for 2013 was $108,900 (source HERE).
  • The average value of a house or condominium for the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was $164,200.
So what we have is a steeply declining population where there is a significant amount of housing stock being left un-used, which then further drives down the value of the homes that remain.  Local television station WNEP produced a story about a year or so ago that documented the decline of towns like Shamokin from the dual perspectives of declining population and a surplus of buildings.  What results is a town that is literally rotting in front of our very eyes.

None of this is to cast aspersions against the residents of Shamokin or those that strive to make it a better place to live.  Rather, I do think it's a sadly interesting study in how a town in the United States can be so completely and totally dependent on a specific industry.  Detroit also comes to mind, although not nearly as close to home.  There is a deep sadness to all of this, a kind of dark fog that likely will never lift and which will continue to consume ever more parts of Shamokin and the years pass quickly.

What will be left, in say 2050?  I don't know, but in the absence of another specific industry boom, likely it will be "not much".



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