The West Virginia Mine War


Peace had come to West Virginia, but it was a bitter, precarious peace that in the miners’ view had been imposed by force. As so often in the past “the law” had come down on the side of their “oppressors.” And in retrospect this seems to have been true. Their quarrel had been, not with the federal government, but with the private operators of the coal mines and a state administration that had conspired with them to ignore the miners’ rights. Most of the miners’ grievances, in fact, had specific remedies in state statutes—the private hiring of sheriffs’ deputies, for example, was expressly forbidden by state law—but the governor’s invariable response to such complaints was that relief should be sought through the courts. The courts were as unsympathetic toward the miners as the statehouse. They had repeatedly upheld the yellow-dog hiring contract and the “master and servant” tenancy relationship, both of which were subsequently upset by federal courts. And the political bent of the judiciary was underscored by the example of a Logan County circuit judge who resigned the bench shortly after the event to become a chief prosecution counsel for the operators in criminal action against the union leaders.


So from the standpoint of the miners the net result of federal intervention had only been to restore an unsatisfactory status quo. Hundreds of families continued to live meagerly in tent colonies. Thousands of miners were blacklisted from employment. The Baldwin-Felts men and sheriffs’ deputies were restored to authority. Keeney, Mooney, and Blizzard were dismissed from their union posts by John L. Lewis, the new UMW president, whom they had failed to consult; and the three men as well as over a hundred other leaders of the miners’ uprising were indicted for, among other things, treason against the sovereign state of West Virginia.


Their trial turned out to be a farce. After elaborate maneuvers a change of venue was granted from the openly hostile atmosphere of Logan County to the more placid environs of the old courthouse at Charles Town, which the abolitionist John Brown had made famous more than sixty years earlier. But Charles Town did not remain placid long. When the special trainload of defendants arrived and were marched manacled through the streets, the citizens created an uproar of resentment. They erupted again when, on the opening day of the trial, it developed that prosecution of the treason charge, including the payment of jurors’ fees, was exclusively in the hands of counsel for the Logan County Coal Operators Association and that there was not so much as an observer from the state attorney general’s office in attendance. The trial dissolved into a shambles when Harold W. Houston, the chief defense attorney, won a ruling from the bench that each defendant had to be tried separately and that there had to be two witnesses to each overt act of treason if the charges were to be sustained. This proved an insurmountable obstacle for the prosecution, and after many continuances and changes of venue the treason charges were dismissed, although ultimately a few miners were convicted on lesser counts.

For all their violence and suffering the miners got nothing in return. The Logan and Mingo fields continued to be off limits to the union, and in 1922 the UMW , having poured more than two million dollars into the cause, abandoned the effort to organize them. They remained predominantly nonunion until the passage of the Wagner Act in the early years of the New Deal.

The operators won the battle but lost the war. They preserved for a time the principle of the nonunion shop. But on the heels of their labor troubles came the depressions of the mid-twenties and of the nineteen thirties and after that the devastating competition from fuel oil. The industry shrivelled and scores of operators were forced to the wall, and it remained for decades a sick industry.

As for the state of West Virginia, its harvest was a bad name among people of good conscience. Public opinion had been largely against—or at least apathetic toward—the miners, and most other unionists as well, when the decade of the twenties began. Organized labor was equated in a vague, fearful sort of way with bomb throwers and Bolsheviks. But the march on Logan, emblazoned in the newspapers and investigated by Congress, turned up another face of the coin. The human misery of the tent colonies, the harsh peonage of the mine towns and the yellow-dog contract, the shocking spectacle of a trial for treason reputedly being conducted by private prosecutors at private expense—such “discoveries” outraged thousands of citizens across the country who had virtually no opinions about the labor movement but very strong ones about injustice. West Virginia was where it happened, so West Virginia must be responsible, they reasoned. It could be because of some lingering sense of corporate guilt that there is nowhere in the state archives at Charleston today a single official report, document, or letter relating to this historic happening, although scores of them were written.