- Historic Sites
The Coal Kings Come To Judgment
When the anthracite miners downed tools in 1902, economic feudalism went on trial
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
In between, if all went well, he might work his way up through a variety of jobs inside the mine to become a laborer and, finally, a contract miner. This was the top of the profession. Most of the anthracite was produced, in those days, by small teams working under an experienced older miner who entered into a contract with an operator to produce coal at so much a carload. Out of this gross income, which in a very good year might amount to as much as nine hundred dollars, he was expected to hire as many laborers as he needed, to furnish his own tools, and to buy—usually horn the company, at highly inflated prices—the fuses and powder with which he blasted the coal out of the ground. George R. Leighton, in his Five Cities, has graphically described the miner’s daily routine:
It was up to the miner to fire the shots, to use the most delicately exact skill in placing the timber. The work required an alert mind and great physical strength. … The pitching coal veins made the work never the same; sometimes erect, sometimes on his knees, sometimes on his side or back, the miner worked in an endless night, a soft black velvet darkness, with only the light of his miner’s lamp to see by.
Death—from a sudden fall of rock, from gas, from a premature explosion caused by a faulty fuse—was everywhere about him. In the year 1901 alone, 441 miners were killed, to say nothing of scores of others deprived of sight or limbs, or condemned to an early death by the irritating coal dust. According to a minefield doctor who had performed many an autopsy, a lifetime of breathing the dust made a miner’s lungs resemble nothing so much as lumps of anthracite coal.
Safety devices were pitifully primitive, and the effectiveness of the state-appointed mine inspectors was often nullified by the fact that the foremen accompanied them on their rounds. One miner, asked why he didn’t voice his complaints to the inspector, answered that “if the boss was along with him I would sooner be still.”
Fluctuations in the market price of coal made work irregular—in an average year a miner might work only two hundred days—and unemployment compensation was a generation away. Miners complained that they were forced to put up to eighteen inches of “topping” on the cars before they left the mines, for coal was naturally shaken down, and some of it was jarred off, as the cars rumbled over the uneven rails to the weighing point. At the scale there was no representative of the miners to check the weight jotted down by the company weighmaster, so a man had no way of knowing whether he was receiving honest pay for an honest day’s work. To compensate for the unmarketable impurities always present in anthracite as it comes out of the mine, the operators arbitrarily fixed the “miner’s ton”—the basis on which he was paid—at 3,360 pounds, and even higher.
There was no such thing as a standard scale of wages; often men working side by side in the same mine, doing the same work, received different amounts in their pay envelopes. This had the effect of depressing all wages to the lowest level—“mining the miners,” the men called it. Under circumstances like these, not even the mine operators knew what the average miner’s salary amounted to. John Mitchell, after investigation, placed it at about three hundred dollars a year, and the chances are he was not far wrong. What that meant in human terms can be gleaned from the description by a miner’s wife of what happened when her husband brought home his pay envelope. “People comes in and wants money so quick we haven’t time to have it in our hands, hardly,” Mrs. Sophia Bolland said, “I can’t count it up; sure not … I throw it to his feet sometimes, when there is nothing in it.... Eight dollars was not so bad, or ten or twelve, but when he brings home only three or four, or two dollars, I had to cry.” She was speaking of two weeks’ pay.
As he toured the mine fields John Mitchell heard story after story of the heartlessness of the operators. For example, the husband of Mrs. Kate Burns had operated a pump at the G. K. Markle mine at Jeddo until he was killed by a locomotive. She began scrubbing doors and taking in washing seven days a week to support her children, of whom the oldest, a boy, was eight. When the boy was fourteen he too went to work in the breaker, but after a month brought home only a due bill; the family owed the company $396—the rent that had accumulated on the miserable, two-room company house they had occupied since Burns’s death. It took Mrs. Burns, her son, and one of his younger brothers twelve years to work off the debt, in Pennsylvania’s steel towns you will find an occasional library, clinic, or park donated by the Mellons or the Carnegies. In the anthracite towns you will look hard and long before finding anything of the kind. What happened to Mrs. Sophia Bolland and the Widow Burns happened to the people and the region as a whole. “They never give me anything,” Kate Burns said, “but all they took off me.”
Against conditions like these the miners had made several attempts to organize. Each in its turn had been defeated—by the hated coal and iron police (”coalies,” the miners called them) hired and armed by the operators; by the lack of unity among the twenty or more nationality groups among the men themselves; or simply by gnawing hunger, which drove strikers back to work one by one.