Concrete City: Garden of the Anthracite Region

In 1911 the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad built a town made entirely of concrete in the middle of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. They named it, appropriately, Concrete City.

Trying to build a model community that could be adopted by other corporations, the DL&W erected twenty two-family homes on what is now the outskirts of Nanticoke. Arranged in a square, the houses surrounded a pool, ball field, and playground festooned with gardens and crossed by neatly laid roads.

In the early 20th century, most company homes occupied by rail, steel, and coal workers were deplorable. In 1914 a Pittsburgh observer called the typical shanty home “dark, damp, poorly ventilated, overcrowded quarters.”

Reinforced concrete was a novel new building material back then, only having been adopted on a wide scale in the late 19th century. Railroads and other corporations were starting to recognize its potential as a sturdy and versatile tool in construction. Concrete offered an affordable and progressive solution to corporate housing issues.

Proud of their construction, the DL&W called Concrete City the “Garden City of the Anthracite Region.”

Concrete City sponsored a garden contest each year, awarding cash prizes to the families that kept their homes better tended “than many residences of the wealthy.” Miner John Martin’s garden (shown here) won second prize in 1915. Syracuse Libraries.

But it didn’t work.

The houses ended up costing four hundred dollars more than comparable brick houses that also included steam heat and interior toilets. Just three years after the community opened a boy drowned in the swimming pool and it had to be filled in.

And the worst issue for those who lived in Concrete City was the damp. Even though the walls had cinders and crude oil mixed in with the cement and were plastered over, they absorbed so much moisture the paint peeled off. Interior walls dripped with condensation year-round. One former resident even remembered her father’s shirts froze each winter from the moisture and her mother had to iron them to make them wearable.

The DL&W claimed that building homes out of concrete made them more sanitary (they hosed down the inside of each home once a year), but PA Department of Health reports noted tuberculosis was rampant in the Nanticoke area and a large percentage of school children in town were tubercular. When the township required Concrete City build a sewage system for its residents in 1924, the owners refused. The $200,000 price tag to improve sanitation was too high. Instead, the company relocated all the residents that year and closed Concrete City.

The floor plan for each home in Concrete City was identical. The Square Deal.

Later that year when workers tried to demolish Concrete City’s homes with dynamite, a hundred sticks weren’t enough to destroy a single building. And so the company simply abandoned the city and its sat there, empty, ever since.

In the century since Concrete City closed, its buildings have been used for fire and police training, paintball, and from the looks of it, just about anything else secret or illegal or fun you can imagine.

The interior of Concrete City homes looked inviting and cozy, but couldn’t cover up the problems in the walls. itsveryeasytoremember.com

And that’s why Concrete City is a super cool place to visit and I recommend you go there as soon as you are able. I was able to stop by recently and had an AMAZING time walking through the abandoned buildings and seeing the graffiti that covered nearly every inch of wall inside and out.

Below you’ll find some photos of Concrete City I took when I visited in October 2020 along with a 1914 article on the town published in The Square Deal.

“An Improvement in Poured Concrete Houses for Workingmen”

An Example of These Cottages May be Seen at “Concrete City” Near Nanticoke, Pa., Built by the D., L. & W. Ry., for its Employees.

The great industrial companies in connection with their welfare work are investigating and improving the housing conditions under which their employees live. They realize that the output from their plants is largely dependent on the health and happiness of their operatives. Today, the manufacturer is human and is human and considerate in his feelings toward his men. He wants his helpers to pass happy, healthy, contented lives and sees that to accomplish this, proper places to live must be available for them at a reasonable rental. The design and building of the inexpensive house and layout of the industrial village has been a neglected field left largely to some local carpenter, and not laid out with any reference toward a general plan of future growth, but the mill owner of today wants to look with pride upon the cozy group of cottages where his helpers dwell, and wants these to be perfect in construction and design.

A Washington architect, Milton Dana Morrill, has specialized in the design of the industrial village, making an exhaustive study of the whole problem, and already several model colonies of these wage earner’s homes have been built.

The problem was not an easy one. For, as well as designing more simple and convenient buildings, it was found necessary to employ new methods and new materials. Economy demands for the workman’s cottage permanency of construction, eliminating up-keep, painting, repairs and fire-risk, where the first cost is practically the only cost. Reinforced concrete presents the ideal materials for this purpose, being permanent, fireproof and sanitary.

By previous methods there has been a great waste in lumber and labor in making forms of wood, built only to be afterwards taken down with considerable expense and loss.

It was found necessary to develop an equipment including steel forms, which would eliminate this waste and which could be used over and over on different styles of houses.

“The Concrete City,” as it is called, at Nanticoke, Pa., built for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Coal Department, gives an interesting illustration of the possibilities in this new type of industrial house. The forty dwellings making up this group are placed around in a play-ground park some 300×400 feet square. The houses are in pairs each containing seven rooms which includes living-room, dining room and kitchen and four bedrooms. The entire buildings are of reinforced concrete, the only wood-work being the sash and doors, and a bonfire on the living-room floor could do little damage, except from the resulting smoke. The entire house can be literally flushed out with a hose if necessary, making it ideal from a sanitary standpoint. This important feature was recognized by the medical experts at the late International Congress on the prevention of tuberculosis, and this architect was awarded the first gold metal for producing dwellings proof against germs and disease.

Waste materials employed: While the entire buildings are of poured concrete, instead of the usual gravel or crushed stone, clean coal cinders, a waste product in most sections, has been used in the mixture, cement and lime are only being added. This use of cinders reduces the cost materials and the steel forms being watertight, permit the use of a wet mixture, giving, when poured, a dense damp-proof construction.

While the Nanticoke houses are very simple in design, they make a very striking group with the lawns, planting and flower boxes, which have been used for decoration. The most logical design for the all-concrete house is that with a flat roof, such as has been here employed, but the foreman’s cottages and the small four room house built at other points show the more attractive designs to which this new construction can be applied.

The steel mould equipment for house poring costs five or six hundred dollars, according to size, but this can be used over on hundreds of houses, the cost per house is not great. Mixers and hoists are employed to fill the steel forms as the work goes up, so the whole process is largely that of machinery, and this reduces cost materially. Owing to the low cost and the permanency of construction, the railroad company is able to make the rental of these seven-room houses only $8.00 per month, and still get a fair return on the money invested.

Under the usual conditions the costs of these poured concrete houses is but little in excess of the cost of frame dwellings, and as insurance, painting, up-keep and repairs is cut out, they are much the cheapest in the long run. The families occupying these houses report that they are cool in Summer, and warn in Winter, the air spaces in the walls giving insulation and making them exceptionally dry.

At first I didn’t understand why Concrete City was more than just a historical curiosity and graffiti playground. After all, the town only lasted a few years and was an abject failure. It never became the model community its designers envisioned. But the more I think about it, Concrete City was an attempt to improve company housing options and helps us understand the historical experiences of workers who have relied on their employers for a home.

Company towns were notoriously shabby and hard to live in historically. These communities (often more appropriately called shanties or tenements) invited disease, and trapped families in poverty and debt. Concrete City shows it that at least one company took this issue seriously and gives us a glimpse of one attempt to devise a technological fix to this serious problem.

Homes for many workers today, especially migrant laborers and shift workers in remote areas, are still substandard. There’s still a lot of work to do. And Concrete City’s example tells us trying out new materials, building techniques, and innovative designs are tools keep using to ensure that everyone, no matter where they work, has a safe place to live. And that’s worth remembering.

If you’d like to learn more about Concrete City, there are great articles that have been published by Pennsylvania Heritage, Explore PA History, and Atlas Obscura.

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