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1912 - West Virginia Coal Fields

West Virginia coal mine operators could produce coal more cheaply than other fields, realized it, and proposed to use their advantage to build up a market for their coal. One factor making cheaper production possible was found in the wealth of coal lying within the state borders. It was said that West Virginia had more soft coal than any other State in the Union. Besides, this coal can be got at easily by direct entrances made into the sides of the hills, while Illinois operators, for example, had to sink shafts. The character of the veins is such as to enabled the West Virginia operators to get from six to ten feet of clean coal in contrast to the five-foot vein in eastern Ohio and the Pittsburg district. Besides possessing the finest quality of coal, there was considerable variation of coals - gas coals, coking coals, steam, and domestic coals.

Because their labor was unorganized, the West Virginia operators were able to demand a ten-hour working day over against the eight-hour day of the union fields. The lack of a union also enabled them to require larger mining cars containing more pounds to the ton, refuse the men checkweighmen in connection with the weighing of their coal, and exercise their own discretion in regard to the amount of coal which they docked the men on account of impurities in the coal. Besides, they were in a position to say what they would pay the men for "dead work," and whether the men should be paid for their coal according to a mine-run method or after it had been screened.

There had always been a large force of country laborers to draw upon to whom the wages paid in the mine were very attractive. Unless the worker was intelligent enough to consider carefully what his net wages were, he would not discover that the job was really less attractive than it looked. Only after deductions were made less attractive than it looked. Only after deductions were made for tools, supplies, powder, unfair weighing and measuring, dockage, an allowance made for " deadwork," and the small number of working days taken into account, would he be able to determine whether he was better off than at rural work. The standards of living and prices in the rural regions of West Virginia are relatively lower than in the rural regions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

Individualism was highly developed, as is always the case with native mountain peoples. Many miners worked on a contract basis and employed negroes to work for them at a very low rate -- ten per cent of the mine workers were negroes working on such a basis, while six per cent of the workers were skilled negro miners working on their own initiative. Thus a rural population with strong individual tendencies and with opportunities for individual enterprise in employing contract labor would not take readily to an organization which required group action.

Immigration had also played an important part in preventing organization. In 1903 the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants found it necessary to investigate conditions in West Virginia. From this investigation it was found that large bands of men were being imported into West Virginia by coal and construction companies to carry on the exploitation of natural resources. The companies were in collusion with Italian agents in New York who made a business of distributing immigrants. In most cases the immigrants were deceived into thinking their destination was but a short distance from New York.

The avarice of the agents led them to send barbers, waiters, and other men entirely unfitted for the work of mining, thus increasing the difficulty of holding them. However, in the "boarding-house law" the keepers of the commissary had a ready weapon at hand for their arrest and detention. Forceful detention and the employment of armed guards to intimidate the men led to practices which were well termed peonage.

Cabin Creek rises in the southwestern part of Fayette county almost 3.5 miles southwest of Kefferton, and flows in a northern direction, emptying into Kanawha river at Cabin Creek Junction. It flows 2 miles through Fayette county, and 21 miles through Kanawha county, crossing the Kanawha-Fayette county line at 0.4 mile east of Republic. Its entire length measured by the meanders of the creek is 23 miles, and the air line distance between the same points is 18 miles. Its drainage area in Kanawha county is 65 square miles. From Republic to Decota, the creek falls 420 feet in 3.2 miles, or at the rate of 131.2 feet per mile. From the latter point to Lee- wood the fall is 262 feet in 4.3 miles, or at the rate of 61.2 feet to the mile. From Leewood to the mouth of Longbottom creek, the fall is 176 feet in 6.5 miles, or at the rate of 27.1 feet to the mile. From the latter point to the mouth of the creek, the fall is 114 feet in 6.2 miles, or at the rate of 18.4 feet to the mile.

Paint creek has its source in Raleigh county just north of Harper, and flows in a general northern direction to the Kanawha river at Paint Creek Junction or Pratt P. O. Paint Creek is 39 miles in length from source to mouth by the meanders. The creek flows 6.5 miles through Raleigh, crossing the Fayette-Raleigh county line at 0.2 mile north of Cirtsville. It flows 17.5 miles through Fayette county, crossing the Fayette-Kanawha county line about one mile southwest from Burnwell, and flows 15 miles through Kanawha county. The drainage area of Paint creek in Kanawha county is 35 square miles. From its source to its mouth Paint creek falls 1550 feet in 39 miles, or at the rate of 39.7 feet to the mile. From Burnwell to its mouth the fall is 256 feet in 13.4 miles or at the rate of 19.1 feet per mile.

Cabin Creek Branch rail road leaves the main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway at Cabin Creek Junction, and extends up Cabin creek and tributaries, through the mountains to Seng creek, a branch of Coal river, and down Seng creek to Coal river and up Coal river and Clear fork of said river to Colcord. It was first constructed by private capital in 1894, as far as Acme, but was absorbed by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1902, and extended later to the head of the different branches and to Coal river. It is a freight carrying road and is the outlet for the Cabin Creek coal field, and a portion of the Coal River field. This branch, including its tributaries, extends more than 25 miles in Kanawha county.

Paint Creek Branch railroad leaves the main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway at Paint Creek Junction, and extends up Paint Creek to Kingston, crossing the Kana- wha-Fayette county line about one mile south of Burnwell. It extends for a distance of 14 miles in Kanaxvha county. This road was built by the Charles Pratt Company in 1902, to market the coal on land owned by the said company. The road was leased to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company in 1904, and is operated by said company. It is a great freight carrying road for marketing coal from the Paint Creek field.

Coal mining was long one of the most strike-prone industries. Miners' strikes against wage cuts and for wage increases were common objectives, but miners struck for other goals, including the need to build an industrial union that could gain recognition from a chaotic industry. This development climaxed with the founding of the United Mine Workers of America in 1890 at the Columbus, Ohio, city hall. Union miners struck to defend or exert workers' control at the pitface and to gain freedom from company domination in the coal fields

In West Virginia's Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike, miners fought for civil liberties in a totalitarian environment. This conflict, which erupted in 1912 and resumed in 1919, centered less on wage demands and union recognition than on civil liberties - freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from the industrial feudalism of company towns, and freedom from the terrorism inflicted by the operators' hired gunmen. The struggle that began in 1912 and culminated in the 1921 armed miners' march to liberate Logan County, West Virginia, from the company rule showed that labor history is part of a larger historical theme, the struggle for liberties promised in the Bill of Rights.

The trouble in the Kanawha field began in April, 1912, and after a ten days' strike an agreement was made with all the field except Paint Creek. But the trouble at Paint Creek soon spread to Cabin Creek and New Kiver, both non-union fields. In the background of the immediate or surface causes for discontent stood the larger economic and geographical factors which influenced the viewpoint of the operators and encouraged them to assume an arbitrary attitude toward what they regarded as insurmountable difficulties. The geographical situation of West Virginia, which left the West Virginia operator farthest from the Lake market, led him to assume that a fair adjustment of differentials between the State and other States could not be worked out in the joint conference of the central field.

The Paint Creek miners were organized, but they received information that their operators would not sign the union scale for another year and that they would insist on conditions similar to those in vogue in the unorganized Cabin Creek district. This forecast proved correct, and the Paint Creek operators withdrew from the Kanawha Operators' Association.

The issues which weighed most heavily with the miners were expressed in their formal demands: -

  • Abolition of the mine guard system.
  • A reform in the system of docking used (which deducted as high as 1000 pounds for impurities).
  • The employment of checkweighmen on the tipples to represent the miners and to be paid by the miners. The law provides for these checkweighmen, but this law is ignored by the coal companies.
  • Permission for the men to trade where they please without discrimination against them for so doing.
  • The payment of wages in cash every two weeks and not in script or credit cards.
  • Improved sanitary conditions, with the requirement that the companies remove garbage and keep the houses in good condition.
  • Payment for mining coal on the basis of the short ton, on which the coal is sold, and not on the basis of the long ton, on which it is at present mined.
  • Rentals of houses based on a fair return on their cost with allowance for upkeep and electric lights on the same basis.
  • The nine-hour day [the men worked ten hours].
  • Recognition of the union.
  • An increase in pay.

It is significant that the abolition of the mine guard system stood at the head of the list. When the Paint Creek operators refused to pay the union scale, the mine guards were brought in and the war was on. The strike spread through Cabin Creek and the struggle developed into a fight for supremacy and to settle old scores between the mine guards and the miners. In order to appreciate the part which the mine guards have played, we have but to recall their function in maintaining the regime of peonage, landlordism, and "union smashing."

Former Governor M. O. Dawson said in his special message to the legislature of 1907 in response to complaints of peonage from the Italian ambassador, which had been brought to his attention by Secretary of State, Elihu Boot : - "The use of mine guards in this state is not restricted to cases like these under investigation. They are used at some of the collieries to protect the property of owners, to prevent trespassing, and especially to prevent labor agitators and organizers of a miners' union from gaining access to the miners. . . . Many outrages have been committed by these guards, many of whom appear to be vicious and dare-devil men who seem to aim to add to their viciousness by bull-dozing and terrorizing people. It is submitted in all candor that it is not to the best interests of the owners of these collieries to employ such lawless men or to justify the outrageous acts committed by them."

The commission appointed by Governor Glasscock in August, 1912, expressed similar sentiments : -" From the cloud of witnesses and mass of testimony figuring in the hearings, there emerges clearly and unmistakably the fact that these guards . . . recklessly and flagrantly violated, in respect to the miners on Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, the rights guaranteed by natural justice and the Constitution to every citizen howsoever lowly his estate. . . . Many crimes and outrages laid to their charge were found upon careful sifting to have no foundation in fact, but the denial of the right of peaceful assembly and of freedom of speech, [the] many and grievous assaults on unarmed miners, show that their main purpose was to overawe the miners and their adherents and, if necessary, to beat and cudgel them into submission. We find that the system employed was vicious, strife-prompting, and un-American."

These statements were further verified by the testimony given before the Senate investigation committee. At that time men testified that they were imported to become "strong-arm" men, and it was shown that the Baldwin- Felts Detective Agency furnished guards and sent secret spies among the miners to report on their movements, provided blacklists, and sought to prevent the organization of the union. A special train was fitted up with a machine gun and armed men who fired into the miners' camp as the train passed by. Additional testimony by men imported from New York brought out the fact that they were kept in locked cars and under guard from the time the train left New York State until they were landed in West Virginia. Such activities show the abuses which can arise under the guard system.

The ill-feeling between the miners and the guards had progressed to such a degree that thorough preparations for warfare were made by both sides and pitched battles were fought. The leaders of the miners urged the governor to declare martial law, but not until a request for troops came from the county sheriff on July 26, 1912, was the governor in a position to take a hand in the matter. The state law made it necessary for the governor to wait till the local officers requested aid before he could interfere, and the commission appointed to investigate the situation could not refrain from recording its judgment that the local peace officers " exhibited a woeful lack of resolution and energy in enforcing law and order." A few companies of troops were sent to aid the sheriff, and finally the entire state militia was stationed in Cabin Creek and Paint Creek prior to the first declaration of martial law on September 2.

Feeling over the issues involved had arisen to such a pitch that it was undoubtedly impossible for the civil authorities to cope with the situation. During August the miners kept up an agitation and held mass meetings in protest against the guard system and the importation of non-unionists. Along with the declaration of martial law on the 2d of September a military commission was placed in power.

The militia confiscated 2354 rifles and pistols, 6 machine guns, and over 178,000 rounds of ammunition of various kinds. State statutes and constitutional provisions were laid aside and the commission punished at its discretion regardless of statutory penalties. The findings were not divulged until the governor had passed upon them. The governor explained that it was understood between the commission and himself "that it was not the intention that these people should be required to serve the time for which they were apparently sentenced. We used that practically for the purpose of detaining these people until we had peace and order in that territory." However, this did not prevent the militia from arresting the local justice of the peace, (seemingly) unwarrantedly detaining him and in aiding the guards in bringing in non-unionists.

When the miners realized that martial law meant punishment for "unlawful assemblage" and brought with it trial by military commission, they appealed to the courts, but without avail. A judge of the county court, who issued a writ of habeas corpus on the theory that the defendants had a right to trial by jury, later reversed his opinion and decided that [he had] ' no right to interfere with a court martial duly organized under the laws of a State ' ; and at the same time the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the governor's right to declare martial law and to appoint a military commission.

Five union leaders who were brought before the military commission refused to put up any defense to a charge of conspiracy to murder, with the hope that their counsel would thus be able to carry the case by appeal to the United States Supreme Court and there establish whether the civil law can be suspended and trial by jury superseded by court martial. The defendants based their appeal upon the following clauses of the West Virginia constitution : "The military shall be subordinate to the civil power ; and no citizen, unless engaged in the military service of the State, shall he tried or punished by any military court for any offense that is by the civil courts of the State . . . "

On October 15, 1912, martial law was revoked, but by November 15 the governor found it necessary to put it in force again. It was again " lifted " on December 12, but the adjutant-general was directed not to make it public with the hope of keeping peace "by simply leaving the impression" that martial law was in force. In the early part of February 1913 another battle took place in which about sixteen persons were killed and the governor sought the advice of the legislature which indorsed his action in declaring martial law again.

When Governor Hatfield came into office in March, 1913, martial law was still in force. He made a determined effort to restore law and order, and finally, on April 25, practically issued an ultimatum that the " strife and dissension must cease within thirty-six hours " and suggested terms for a settlement.

By the middle of July 1913 the Paint Creek operators and miners were working under a formal agreement which provided for the same working conditions existing in the unionized Kanawha field, except that the Paint Creek miners had gone to work for two and a half cents per ton less than their former scale. The Cabin Creek operators, in their settlement the latter part of July, refused to permit the " check off " for dues or to allow representation of the men by a mine committee. The individual had to deal with the mine foreman and superintendent or manager. If grievances were not settled, then the miner might appeal to his local president, who could ask for an arbitration committee made up of a representative selected by the miner, one by the operators, and a third selected by these two, if necessary. A majority decision was made binding on either party.

In Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama approximately 150,000 miners were unorganized and "utterly helpless in meeting the encroachments of organized wealth" under a regime of individual bargaining.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:36:36 Zulu