Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry

Larry Holzwarth - December 8, 2017

The 19th century was the century of steam power and from the 1850s onward it was the burning of coal which created the steam. Coal replaced wood as the source of heat for steam locomotives. Meals were cooked and buildings were heated with coal. Ships and riverboats used coal fired boilers to produce steam power. America’s vast coal reserves provided a seemingly unlimited source of cheap power to fuel the industrial revolution. In the eastern states of Appalachia mining coal became a major industry.

Mining coal – then and now – is a difficult, dangerous, and dirty job. Coal miners worked long hours in frequently terrible conditions earning low pay. Coal companies exploited the workers by avoiding organized labor. Miners frequently lived in company towns, purchasing life’s necessities in company stores, with security provided by company employees. Beginning in the 1870s and through the early years of the Great Depression, mine workers sought to overthrow the system through the establishment of organized labor. The coal companies opposed them with tactics which included intimidation, sabotage, extortion, and murder. Armed conflicts between labor organizers and hired security forces were common. The conflict became known as the coal wars, and was mostly felt in Appalachia, although Colorado and Illinois too had major incidents of violence.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
Many coal miners were forced to purchase goods – including groceries – at stores owned by their employers. NARA

Here are ten little known events which occurred during the Coal Wars, the impact of which is still felt today in the coal producing regions of the United States.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
A work crew from a coal mine powerhouse in western Pennsylvania. The Virtual Museum of Coal Mining

Bituminous Coal Miner’s Strike of 1894

Bituminous coal is mined from both surface and underground mines throughout the Appalachian region, as well as in Illinois and Colorado. By the 1890s nearly half of all Navy ships in the world which burned coal to produce steam were using Pocahontas Bituminous coal mined in southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, making it a major export for the nation as well as a strategic war material.

The Panic of 1893, a major economic downturn worldwide, created a severely depressed market for coal as all industries cut production. Coal prices were cut drastically, and the financial pressures quickly led to lay-offs and reduced wages for coal miners who managed to keep working. In response, the United Mine Workers – founded in 1890 – demanded a general strike of bituminous coal miners in the states of Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. In the spring of 1894 over 180,000 miners went on strike, demanding among other concessions a return to the wage scale which had been in place the preceding spring.

The UMW at the time had only about 13,000 dues paying members; most of the strikers were not members. In several areas of the country violence broke out between striking miners and those who crossed the picket lines. Mine owners refused to restore wages to the demanded levels, although some did increase wages slightly in order to induce back some of the workers.

In LaSalle Illinois on May 24 and 25, more than 40 sheriff’s deputies and hired security personnel fought a gun battle with striking workers, and more than two dozen deputies were wounded. By July the reinforced deputies drove off more than 2,000 strikers. The day before the LaSalle confrontation began, security guards used machine guns and rifles to kill five strikers, wounding another eight, in Uniontown Pennsylvania. The National Guard was mobilized in several states to protect miners who chose to work from those supporting the strike.

In the end it was the United Mine Workers which was badly hurt by the strike. When most miners gave in and returned to work by late June, the UMW ran out of money, withdrew from the American Federation of Labor, and suspended publication of its newsletter. The Panic (economic downturns were called Panics before the Great Depression) continued for another three years, and coal production and wages remained depressed.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
The Lattimer Massacre enhanced the influence of the United Mine Workers of America among Pennsylvania miners. Wikipedia

The Lattimer Massacre 1897

Between 1870 and 1897 more than thirty thousand anthracite coal miners in in northeastern Pennsylvania were killed in the mines where they worked. This abysmal safety record stood alongside already low wages, which were reduced further by the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company in August of 1897. At the same time wages were reduced, fees to residents in the company housing were increased. After a strike by teenaged mule drivers that summer, the company agreed to restore wages.

When the new wage scale was announced on September 1 it was limited to just a few workers. The strike resumed and on September 3 over 3,000 striking miners shut down four of the mines in the area. Meanwhile the UMW actively recruited striking miners involved in the shutdown as well as those still working at nearby mines. On September 10 a group of striking miners numbering about 400 marched to support a newly formed UMW union in Lattimer, owned by Calvin Pardee. Pardee’s mine had not yet been shut down, and the marching workers were confronted on the way by local law enforcement and ordered to disperse.

Most of the marchers were immigrant Slavic, German, or Polish workers. As they marched sheriff’s deputies kept their colleagues in Lattimer informed of their progress and when the miners arrived in Lattimer they found over 150 well-armed deputies awaiting them. After being ordered again to disperse, the miners refused and a scuffle began.

The deputies opened fire, and when the shooting ended 19 miners were dead and up to 49 wounded, all of them shot in the back according to news reports. Late in the day the National Guard was deployed throughout the area to restore order and protect property, but that did not prevent the destruction of the home of mine supervisor Gomer Jones by striking miners two days later. By September 24 calm was restored and the Guard withdrawn.

The Luzerne County Sheriff and 73 deputies were tried for murder in the aftermath, all were acquitted. The UMW experienced a surge in growth during the strikes and in the days which followed, ending several years of struggling for its existence in eastern Pennsylvania. Its growing size increased its negotiating power with the owners and allowed it to win several concessions – including increased wages – within a few years of the Lattimer Massacre.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
An 1898 drawing of the Virden Massacre in Illinois. Fine Art America

The Virden Massacre, Illinois 1898

In 1898 the Chicago-Virden Coal Company fought the unionization of their workers by the UMW, who promised the workers that a successful strike would result in better pay and working conditions. When workers struck the company erected a timber wall around their facilities and began to bring in strikebreaking laborers by train. Striking miners then moved their lines to the railroad depot, many of them arriving armed.

On September 24 a trainload of African American strikebreakers was confronted at the depot and informed by UMW representatives that they were violating a strike zone. The train and the strikebreakers departed without incident. Encouraged by their success, the striking workers increased their number at the depot, and ensured that all incoming trains were met.

On October 12, a train containing roughly 50 potential strikebreakers arrived from Birmingham, Alabama. When it stopped en route in St Louis it had picked up members of the Thiel Detective Service, an organization similar to the Pinkerton Detective Agency. They were armed with rifles. Additional armed security were posted on the nearby timber wall. When the strikers attempted to prevent the train from discharging passengers the “detectives” opened fire.

Many of the strikers fired back. Seven strikers were killed. At least four and perhaps as many as six of the hired security guards were also killed. More than three dozen strikers were wounded. After a gun battle of about 20 minutes duration the train pulled out of the station. None of the strikebreakers aboard the train disembarked.

The Governor of Illinois was outraged by the attempt to break the strike and by the use of African American miners to do it, ordering the National Guard to prevent another occurrence, using Gatling guns if necessary. By November the mine owners and the UMW reached an agreement to allow the unionization of the mines, but maintaining them as segregated.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
President Theodore Roosevelt considered using the army to take over the coal fields. Library of Congress

The Pennsylvania Coal Mining Strike of 1902

In 1902 the UMW wanted an increased degree of control of the mining industry, increased federal regulation, and higher pay for its members. In May it called for a strike by its miners and in June it gained the support of maintenance workers in the industry. More than 100,000 workers supported the strike. Mediation by clergy or the National Civic Federation were proposed by the UMW but rejected by the industry.

President Theodore Roosevelt ordered members of his administration to determine a means by which they could intervene in the strike, which had a detrimental effect on industry nationwide. When informed that there was no legal means for the President to enforce a settlement, Roosevelt considered using the Army to take over the coal fields. In the end he created a commission which presented a proposal for a compromise, which Roosevelt decided not to make public to avoid the appearance of siding with the UMW.

A commission was then proposed and created by J P Morgan to arbitrate the differences between the UMW and the coal industry, to begin after the miners returned to work. The strike ended in October and the commission then investigated working conditions in the mines, living conditions for the miners and their families, and wage issues. The UMW won several concessions through the commission, but did not achieve recognition by the industry, one of its key goals in the strike.

During the Strike of 1902 several incindents of violence occurred involving strikers and company security guards. The UMW claimed that at least eight men had been killed during violence instigated by company security guards or sympathetic local police. Coal operators disputed that claim and responded that at least 21 company employees had been killed by strikers.

The Coal and Iron Police, a private police force operated by the coal companies, was investigated for its activities during the strike, including several instances of excessive violence against strikers, by the commission and by the Pennsylvania State Senate. The investigation resulted in the creation of the Pennsylvania State Police in 1905.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
Westmoreland Coal Company in the Irwin Coal Basin circa 1854. Westmoreland County

Westmoreland County Coal Strike, Pennsylvania 1910 -1911

The Westmoreland County strike affected more than 60 mines operated by seven companies in the Irwin gas coal basin. The coal mined there was suitable for conversion to coal gas. Many of the communities where the miners and their families lived were company towns serviced by company stores. The miners in the region were paid lower wages than miners in other areas, and most of their pay went back to their employer through rents and store purchases.

The miners were paid based on the tonnage of mined coal produced, thus time spent laying or replacing track, removing slag, draining water and other additional work was uncompensated. When Keystone Coal and Coke cut wages and ordered the miners to use new safety equipment at their own expense, the miners formed a local union of the UMW and went on strike in March of 1910. Keystone promptly fired workers who joined the union.

Striking miners who were fired were evicted from their homes in company towns. The UMW erected tent cities and shantytowns to house them. As the strike spread throughout the basin the companies began to import Eastern European immigrants as strikebreakers. The Coal and Iron Police – employed by the coal companies – were used to intimidate the strikebreakers, threatening them with deportation or worse if they supported the strike.

Numerous acts of violence occurred throughout the strike. The Coal and Iron Police, the Pennsylvania State Police, local sheriff’s and their deputies, strikers, and strikebreakers were all involved in violence, and at least 16 deaths occurred as a result of strike activities. The State Police injured dozens of strikers by indiscriminate shooting into the tent cities and by using mounted officers to charge into crowds. Striking miners with legal permits to demonstrate were frequently arrested or beaten by local sheriff’s deputies.

By June of 1911 the strike had cost the UMW more than $1 million dollars, and the means of continuing financial support were gone. The coal companies had spent much more than that opposing the strike and in lost production, but they had the means to continue using funds from other business operations. The UMW ended the strike without achieving their goals and most miners returned to work, less some 400 who had been permanently blacklisted for strike activities.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
A residence at the Holly Grove Camp about the time of the Paint Creek Mine War. Wikimedia

The Paint Creek Mine War 1912 – 1913

In April 1912 the UMW initiated a strike against coal operators in Kanawha County, West Virginia. There were more than 7500 miners in the region working in more than sixty mines. As the strike spread in the spring of 1912, the national UMW promised full financial support and living assistance to those miners evicted from company towns. The coal operators responded to the UMW by hiring the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, which dispatched more than 300 agents to serve as mine security guards.

UMW activists encouraged support from other miners in the state and when a group of nearly five thousand miners arrived from north of the region in support of the strikers, the Governor of West Virginia declared martial law in the area. Twelve hundred state troops were sent to police the area. They confiscated firearms from both sides. Evicted mining families residing in a tent city named Holly Grove were relatively comfortable during the summer months, but as autumn set in they began to suffer from the cold.

Violence occurred in the summer months when armed miners attacked Mucklow (now Gallagher) West Virginia, with 16 miners and guards killed. Further violence occurred in Holly Grove in February when a second riot in Mucklow by miners led to a retaliatory attack led by the Kanawha County Sheriff. One miner was killed and numerous homes and tents were riddled with rifle and machine gun fire.

In March 1913 a new Governor was sworn into office – Henry D. Hatfield – and immediately his office proceeded to arrange a settlement of the strike. Hatfield used his authority under martial law to impose a settlement in which the miners could either accept its terms or face deportment from the state. Hatfield’s solution did not give the miners a complete victory, but did provide them with somewhat better working conditions and better wages. Some miners continued to hold out until summer, but by the end of July the strike was over.

The Paint Creek Mine War is estimated to have been the direct cause of more than fifty deaths through strike related violence, and dozens more from exposure, disease, or malnutrition. It’s economic cost has been debated for decades, with $100 million believed to have been spent just to alleviate its effects on the region alone.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
A funeral for victims of the Ludlow massacre in Trinidad, Colorado. NARA

The Ludlow Massacre, Colorado 1914

The Southern Colorado Coal Strike lasted from September 1913 until December 1914. Organized by the UMW the strike was against several coal mining companies including the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller. After several years of organizing in secret among the Colorado miners, in 1913 the UMW presented a list of demands to the mine operators. The union also leased land near the entrances to mine areas for the purpose of erecting tent cities in the event that the owners denied the demands and evicted miners from their company homes.

When their demands were rejected out of hand the miners went on strike. Rockefeller and the other owners hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, known for aggressively conducting strikebreaking. The agency operated an armored car which patrolled the mines to protect strikebreakers and to intimidate the strikers by occasionally shooting at them or the tent cities housing their families.

Incidents of violence between strikers and strikebreakers led to the deployment of the National Guard, which ordered the destruction of one of the tent cities, Forbes, in March. The tent city was destroyed while unoccupied. By this time, although the strikers remained in place, the support of the Baldwin-Felts Agents and the National Guard had allowed the mine operators to replace most of the union workers with strikebreakers, and mine production was not seriously impaired.

On April 20 National Guard troops demanded that a man they alleged was being held against his will in one of the tent cities be released. Shortly after this demand was made the tent city was attacked from a machine gun emplacement and by troops on either side. Many miners and their families fled from the camp using a passing train to shelter them from the bullets. By evening the tent city was in flames, after the fires were out bodies were found of women and children who had taken shelter from the gunfire by hiding in pits beneath their tents. Nineteen people were killed.

In the aftermath outraged armed miners attacked numerous mines and support companies, leading to more than fifty deaths throughout Colorado. The UMW withdrew the strike after running out of money to support it. Most of the miners by then had been replaced. To improve living conditions for the miners and his public image Rockefeller hired management experts to make the company towns more livable and the working conditions for the miners safer.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
Matewan, West Virginia was the scene of a gun battle which killed several Baldwin-Flats Detectives. WVPublic.org

Matewan West Virginia, 1920

The Stone Mountain Coal Company operated a mine in the Pocahontas Coalfield, paying its miners in scrip which could only be used to make purchases in their company store. When the UMW increased activity in the Pocahontas Coalfield, bringing unionization to several other mining companies in the region, their miners won concessions including increased pay and better working conditions. Stone Mountain fought the UMW by firing workers who joined the union and evicting them from their homes in the company town.

Stone Mountain hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to intimidate workers from attending UMW meetings and joining the union, and to evict the families of miners who had already joined. Their company town was just outside the town of Matewan, whose Mayor and Sheriff sided with the miners and their families. Matewan’s Sheriff was Sid Hatfield, a relative of the family which had the famous feud with the McCoys.

When Baldwin-Felt agents arrived on May 19, 1920 they evicted several residents of the Stone Mountain Camp. They then had dinner at a Matewan Hotel before walking to the train station to return to Bluefield, West Virginia. Encountered by Sid Hatfield, who claimed to have a warrant for their arrest, they produced another warrant purporting to be for Hatfield’s arrest. Matewan Mayor Caleb Testerman examined the warrant, which was presented by Albert Felt, and declared it to be fraudulent. While they were confronting each other they were surrounded by several miners, all of whom were armed.

It has never been determined who fired first, but a gun battle erupted in the streets of Matewan between the detectives, Hatfield, his deputy, and several miners. Mayor Testerman was wounded, and died soon after; some people said that he had been shot by Hatfield either by accident, or because Hatfield was having an affair with the Mayor’s wife and killed the mayor when the opportunity was presented. By the end of the gunfight seven Baldwin-Flats detectives were dead, as were two miners and the mayor. Four others were wounded.

The street battle was the beginning of a chain of violence involving the miners, Hatfield, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and the State of West Virginia. UMW efforts to unionize the Stone Mountain Coal Company increased, encouraged in part by the success in removing the Baldwin-Flats Detectives from the area.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
Gun battles broke out in West Virginia. Wikimedia.

Blair Mountain West Virginia 1921

In August 1921 Sid Hatfield was assassinated in McDowell County, West Virginia by Baldwin-Flats agents. As it became evident that the murderers would escape punishment, miners throughout the region began to coalesce in protest. In Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin – notoriously anti-union – arrested several miners and held them illegally under martial law. Hundreds of miners were held in Mingo county without charges being preferred, a violation of habeas corpus.

By late August almost 13,000 miners and their supporters were marching towards Logan County where Chafin had established a defensive position on Blair Mountain, with about 2,000 deputies supported by Baldwin-Flats agents. On August 26 President Harding announced he would send federal troops to the scene. The President also promised that US Army Air Corps bombers would be used. The miners, meeting through their leaders, agreed to return home.

Chafin’s men meanwhile opened fire on another group of miners near Sharples, West Virginia, or at least rumors circulated that he had. Outraged miners then attacked Chafin’s men. US Army planes were used for aerial observation. Privately owned airplanes were used to drop bombs on both sides of the conflict.

Gun battles occurred throughout the area for over a week. By the time relative calm was restored Chafin had lost more than 30 men and the miners between 50 and 100. Federal troops arrived on September 2 and took control of the area. Nearly 1,000 miners were indicted for crimes including murder and treason against the state.

In the short term it was a disaster for the UMW as membership dropped by nearly 80% in the region. In the 1920s the demand for coal likewise fell precipitately, and unionization of coal mines became less financially feasible for the companies. Demand for coal would not begin to increase again until the buildup of industry during lend-lease which led to World War II.

Ten Intense Events from the Real War on Coal- America’s Most Dangerous Industry
Several victims of the Herrin Massacre were buried in unmarked graves in this potters field. Getty

The Herrin Massacre, Illinois, 1922

In April 1922 the UMW initiated a nationwide coal strike. The Southern Illinois Coal Company, which operated a mine outside of Herrin, Illinois, had but recently opened the mine and entered into an agreement with the local UMW to continue to operate the mine, extracting coal, but not shipping it to customers.

As the strike continued nationwide the supply of coal shrank, raising prices. The Southern Illinois decided to take advantage of higher prices by shipping the coal and when UMW officials attempted to hold the company to its previous agreement the union miners were fired. Strikebreakers were hired to continue mining operations.

Fired strikers surrounded the mine and gunfire was exchanged between strikers, strikebreakers, and the hired security guards brought in to protect the mine. At least three strikers were killed. The following day strikebreakers in the mine offered to leave the county in exchange for surrendering their weapons and being guaranteed safe passage.

When the strikebreakers left the mine under the conditions agreed nineteen of them were murdered by strikers. Several of the strikebreakers were taken into nearby woods and told to run, they were then shot down. Others were taken to the cemetery where they were shot in full view of townspeople, many of whom were reported to be cheering the violence. Some were beaten to death and at least three had their throats slit. A twentieth victim was chased down and killed later in the day.

Only six men were ever charged for the several murders and in two trials the defendants were acquitted, causing the prosecutors to dismiss the remaining charges on those waiting to be tried. Eventually a grand jury faulted the mine for attempting to maximize profits and for hiring the strikebreakers and guards. No fault was assigned to the union at any level for failing to police its members.