The Great Anthracite Strike Of 1902 And The Aftermath


The arrogance of the mine operators and their wealthy investors is well documented in the history of the anthracite coal region.''The Kingdom of Coal'' is an excellent book written by Donald L. Miller and Richard E. Sharpness.

After the great depression devastated the area in 1893 to 1897, J.P. Morgan's Financial institute formed the Reading Holding Co. which gradually joined with or absorbed other large coal operations in the area with railroad connections until they jointly owned 90% of the anthracite region. While these mergers were taking place, the coal operators having finally forced the Mollie Maguires to trial and the gallows made a final effort to control labor. How better to accomplish this than to bring in large numbers of peasants from Southern and Eastern Europe--people of various ethnic backgrounds. They theorized that these so-catted simple peasants who were clannish and suspicious of one another after years of ethnic wars and language barriers would be unlikely to join forces and unionize. THEY COULD BE CONTROLLED. And controlled they were.

The mine companies owned their homes, the nearby towns, the banks, the Water Companies, the utilities and many of the stores. They even had their own police force. The new immigrants were even willing to work for less which put them at odds with the more factious Irish workers who were the first to organize and protest through covert and destructive activities when their grievances were not only ignored but condemned.

The mine owners were right. With time, however, the various ethnic groups were able to put aside their suspicions and measured dislike for each other because of their universal contempt for the mine owners.

The arrogance of the mine owners was also blatant in a letter by a Mr. George Baer, who at the time of the great strike was the spokesman for the coal companies. The letter was addressed to a clergyman in Wilkes-Barre, Penna who was sympathetic to the plight of the starving miners. See ''The kingdom of Coal'' page (243-244). Mr. Baer writes “....I see you are a religious man. but you are evidently biased in favor of the working man to control a business in which he has no other interest than to secure fair wages for the work he does. I beg you not to be discouraged. The rights and interest of the laboring man will be protected and cared for-- not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property TO WHOM GOD HAS GIVEN CONTROL of the property rights of the country and upon the successful management of which so much depends...''

When this letter hit the press, Mr. Baers' arrogance was challenged.

He took a pounding as the press referred to Mr. Baers' "Divine Right philosophy". Public opinion shifted in favor of the miners.

One of the reasons the strike continued for more than 6 months was due to the fact that the mine owners had little to lose. They controlled not only the anthracite operations but also the soft coal or bituminous fields. When the flow of anthracite diminished, they increased the production of bituminous coal which could be substituted in most cases, The unions that existed had not been able to coordinate a strike with the soft coal workers. The mine owners were willing to sit back and starve the miners and their families into compliance.

What eventually alarmed the local and national politicians was the rapid growth of the Socialist Party which had invaded the desperate patches and small towns. Compared to the unions, the Socialist Party was considered more radical. Fearing a rebellion- President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to send in the army and take over the mining operations if the mine owners didn't submit to mediation.

J.P. Morgan and his constituents were finally able to garner the attention of the mine owners. A conference was held between the parties and President T. Roosevelt established The Anthracite Coal Strike Commission. Both sides sat down for compulsory mediation.

Mr. Baer, who still represented the wealthy owners, stressed the glories of unrestricted capitalism and capitalist only needing to answer to their stock holders and no one else. He blamed the unions for the miners distress.

Clarence Darrow represented the miners and his summation without notes lasted eight hours. He spoke of a new era in which the worker would have a voice through his union, and that capitalists could not, and should not be allowed to starve-out their workers.

To quote part of his speech ".....they are fighting for slavery while we are fighting for freedom. They are fighting for the rule of man over man, for nepotism and darkness and for the past. WE are striving to build up man. We are working for democracy, for humanity and for the future....etc..'' See the Kingdom of Coal'' page 283.

By March, 1903 the strike was officials over. The miners didn't get everything they wanted. The commission did grant them a 10% increase in wages. They also set up a standing commission to hear conflicts. They prohibited discrimination against workers who belonged to unions without formally recognizing unions. They also criticized the employment of children in the mines, but they failed to enact laws to protect children and the mine Operators continued to employ children 10-12 years of age and older.

Deep in the mines, the contract miner and his laborers were the main workers along with a support group with specialized duties. In the early part of the 20th Century, there were numerous jobs performed by children and teenagers. Most of the older boys who worked within the mines had prior experience above ground as breaker boys.

These young workers served as door boys, runners, mule drivers, and stable boys.

The runners bad to be fast. It was their job to sprag or slow down the speed of cars loaded with coal as they moved down inclines on their own momentum. The runners would kneel by a pile of wooden scraps, and as the cars moved downward it was his job to place a sprag in each wheel as it passed by to slow the descent. Should he miss several and should the car lose top - coa1 or derai1, he would be in big trouble - - coa1 was lost, the track had to be cleared, and the operation was slowed. With steep inclines sprags were placed on both sides of the tracks. Frequently, several cars came down the track together, and the runner often had to chase down the last car. This required great speed and precision. One miss-step and one could lose a limb or fingers.

Mules were used to pu11 the cars to the summit of inclines as on the more level gangways. The mines in schuylki11 county had coal seams that were frequently pitched at steep angles secondary to the upheaval in the earths crust that occurred thousands of years earlier. This made the work more dangerous not only for the runners but, for the mule drivers and the door boys.

Each morning the mule driver and his mules delivered the empty cars to the various chambers within the mine. Each chamber had a contract miner along with his laborers. Each mule boy might service 10 to 12 chambers and be in charge of two or three mules.

The faster he delivered the empty cars and retrieved the loaded cars, the more money he made in tips on pay day.

Mule boys were usually picked for the dependability and maturity. They also were at great risk of being run over, crushed, or kicked--even bitten by the unpredictable mules. Despite the dangers, most enjoyed their work. They did get to move about and there was always a friendly and warm exchange of conversation with the older workers.

Mule drivers were held accountable for the safety and care of their mutes. Mules were in great demand and were harder to obtain than workers. In the deep steep pitched mines of Pennsylvania, mules lived their lives underground in stables constructed for this purpose and manned by stable boys. Through the years other animals had been tried in the mines-- from oxen to miniature horses. The mule was, by far, the superior animal. They were strong and not as susceptible to illness. They had only one drawback. Some were obstinate and mean.

The mules were also at risk especially on reaching the summit of an incline. At this point the two or three mules hitched in tandem had to be quickly unhitched and turned to the side. If not turned away from the track in time, line heavily laden cars would start the gravity- driven descent dragging the unfortunate mules with them.

To prevent injuries the mule boys place large wooden blocks at the top of the inclines -but since this took time and more work, this safety precaution was not always followed.

Another interesting job manned by the younger boys was that of the door boy. Just as water had to be pumped regularly from the mines, fresh air had to be pumped into the mines. The collection of inflammable and poisonous gases was a constant threat. In order to maintain pressure and air, a series of large wooden doors were constructed near exits. These doors opened against the air pressure. As the cars rolled down the gangways: it was up to the boy to open the door. Although this was an easy job, it was very monotonous as they sat on their hard wooden benches in the cold dampness of the mine. The pitch blackness and silence were broken only by the light of their miners lamp and the scurrying rats. The monotony frequently induced severe drowsiness disasters periodically occurred as speeding cars came down the gangway crashing into the closed door and the boy as well.