The Coal Kings Come To Judgment

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The highways leading south and west out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, wind through the graveyard of a dying industry. Its monuments are decaying company houses, boarded-up collieries, and mountainous piles of culm—the black, gravelly residue from the mining of anthracite coal.

Most of the area’s younger men have moved away now, unwilling to endure the bone-wearying labor and irregular pay checks their fathers knew, or unable to get jobs at all in the dwindling number of underground shafts still open or in the strip-mining operations that gouge great scars across the face of the land. The obituary pages of the local newspapers tell the story plainly: when old miners die, their funerals bring their surviving sons and daughters—and there are many of them, for this was a prolific immigrant stock—from New York, New Jersey, and other nearby states where they have gone in search of a better life.

Anthracite is finished now, replaced by oil and gas. Yet only fifty years ago northeastern Pennsylvania was a prosperous region. For here, in a 500-square-mile triangle of low mountains, deep valleys, and sharp outcroppings of rock, lies nearly all of the country’s hard coal, and at the turn of the century anthracite heated most of the homes, factories, and offices of the Atlantic seaboard. Along with food and shelter, it was a major necessity of life, and when in 1902 the supply was cut off by a bitter, five-month strike, the entire East was thrown into turmoil. The governor of Pennsylvania sent the state’s entire National Guard into the coal fields to keep order. In Wall Street J. P. Morgan, who seldom worried, was very worried indeed. So, as winter neared, was New York’s reform mayor, Seth Low, who feared bloody coal riots in the streets. Before it was over, the strike had helped spark a national revolution in the relationships among employers, employees, and the federal government. It had also thrust into national prominence a young union leader named John Mitchell, launching him on one of the most brilliant yet heartbreaking careers in the history of American labor.

In Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, in Shamokin, Mount Carmel, and Shenandoah, there are still men and women who remember John Mitchell. An elderly Hazleton librarian, then a little girl, recalls being taken by her lather to Mitchell’s headquarters in a local hotel so that the child could shake the hand of a man who was making history. And many an immigrant miner’s son remembers when the family parlor proudly displayed two pictures side by side: a chromo-lithograph of Jesus Christ and a photograph of “Johnny d’Mitch."

These old likenesses of Mitchell reveal a handsome man with dark hair combed straight back and luminous brown eyes set in a swarthy face. His slight, wiry figure is dressed in a plain black suit with a frock coat and a high, plain collar, giving him the appearance og a priest. The son of a soft-coal miner from Braidwood, Illinois, he had gone into the mines himself at twelve as a “trapper boy,” standing in the underground darkness and opening the heavy wooden doors to let the mule-drawn coal trucks go by. A shy, introspective man, he would as his world widened feel his lack of education keenly: dutifully, as he finished a book, he would write “Read” on its flyleaf and replace it on the shelf. Nevertheless, by sticking to the United Mine Workers in their earliest, most difficult days, by hard work, a talent for conciliation, and a quiet maturity that inspired confidence, he rose through the union’s ranks to become national president in 1898, when he was only twenty-eight years old.

Nearly all of the organization’s 40,000 members were then in the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. A year after Mitchell’s inauguration the union decided to organize the anthracite, and in the fall of 1899 Mitchell himself, with two lieutenants, Miles Dougherty and John Fahy, headed east to take on the job.

The industry was in the grip of a handful of coal-carrying railroads, all controlled by the giant among them, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, commonly called “the Reading.” The grip was tight and it squeezed the miner hard. An old epitaph in a coal-country cemetery reads:

Forty years I worked with pick and drill/ Down in the mines against my will/ The Coal King's slave but now it's passed/ Thanks be to God I am free at last.

The slavery began, for most miners’ sons, at the age of ten or eleven, when they went to the breaker, separating slate from coal for as little as thirty-five cents a day. “I have seen boys going to the breaker that did not seem really able to carry their dinner pail,” said the Reverend James Moore, a Methodist minister from Avoca. “I am not very tall myself, but I have seen some little fellows with the bucket nearly touching the ground.” The breaker was at once the miner’s grammar school and old-age home—for after thirty or forty years underground he would return to it, crippled by accident or racked by miner’s asthma, and sit on the dusty floor with the little boys, doing the same work for the same pittance as they.