The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902

One would think that, as a Pennsylvanian, I would’ve known about the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 in school. Or college. Or in a local library. None of those logical, normal places. No. I first heard about it on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

“He was more than a hero. He was a union man!” Since this scene’s original airing in the 1990s, it’s always been stuck in the back of my mind.

  1. Chief Miles O’Brien mentioned the Allegheny River – Pennsylvania history ftw!
  2. I always wanted to dive into the event’s history to find out what’s real and what’s not

I think that’s why I appreciate Star Trek more than Star Wars. While there is a lot of divergence from real history (I mean, we haven’t seen the Millennium Gate, Eugenics Wars, WWIII, or the events leading up to the Bell Riots), Star Trek has always referred back to events that actually took place. With a little bit of poetic license.

Star Trek is, after all, a fictional enterprise. (ahem…see what I did there?)

I know that.

If you know anything about this blog, you’ll know that I have discussed Star Trek in several different posts:

So today’s blog post will be a special topic. Not because of the fascinating history of the events of the strike itself, but because of how I first came to learn about it. I’m not surprised whatsoever that the Anthracite Coal Strike (or the Coal Strike of 1902) came only ten years after the Homestead Strike of 1892 and two years after another such strike in 1900. But that’s a different blog post for another day. Before we go even further back in time, let’s take a look at the events that led up to the infamous strike in 1902.

Mining Disasters Were Commonplace

Mining, no matter what material is being extracted from the ground nor the method being used, was and still is a dangerous profession. When I was conducting research for a now-shelved work in progress, I came across this list of known and recorded mining disasters throughout the decades since 1839. It absolutely blows my mind that the CDC — the same entity that puts out health info to the American people — maintains a list such as this. It’s an intense resource because it directly reports the number of individuals involved, where the accident took place and the type of accident.

The influence of coal was so pervasive in the United States that by the advent of the twentieth century, it became a necessity of everyday life. In an era where smokestacks equaled progress, the smoky air and sooty landscape of industrial America owed a great deal to the growth of the nation’s coal industry. By the close of the nineteenth century, many Americans across the nation read about the latest struggle between coal companies and miners by the light of a coal-gas lamp and in the warmth of a coal-fueled furnace, in a house stocked with goods brought to them by coal-fired locomotives.

Source: The US Coal Industry in the Nineteenth Century

In this video on the infamous Knox Mine Disaster, the commentator makes a very important point: every time a safety feature is ignored, that’s when disaster strikes. Ever. Single. Time.

Notable Pennsylvanian mining disasters include:

  1. The Knox Mining Disaster
  2. The Laurel Run Mine Fire
  3. The Harwick Mine Disaster
  4. The Twin Shaft Disaster
  5. The Quecreek Mine Rescue

While a mine disaster didn’t perpetuate the strike of 1902, safety was always in the forefront of every miner’s thoughts. A definite factor in negotiations.

Coal Use Was On the Decline by the 1870s

Of course, that’s only a few of the numerous events to take place in Pennsylvania during this massive coal mining era. By the time the Anthracite Coal Strike rolled around, coal as a common home fuel was beginning to fall out of fashion.

By the 1870s, many mining firms employed managers to supervise the pace of work, but kept the old system of paying mine laborers per ton rather than an hourly wage. Falling piece rates quickly became a source of discontent in coal mining regions.

Source: The US Coal Industry in the Nineteenth Century

A curiosity good to note is that due to Pennsylvania’s geography and subsequent geology, different types of coal were mined at each end of the state: the harder anthracite in the East and the softer bituminous in the West. Both were used in the steel industry for different purposes and by 1889, Pennsylvania led the nation in both coal use and coal production. Even though the coal was different, the growing situations were the same:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had won a sweeping victory in the 1897 strike by the soft-coal (bituminous coal) miners in the Midwest, winning significant wage increases.

Source

Striking was becoming more commonplace than those who owned the companies the miners worked for would’ve liked. Now while I found no mention of Chief O’Brien’s supposed relative, what’s significant about the strike of 1900 was that more than one nationality participated. Up until that point, strikes had been conducted amongst various working groups that spoke the same language, so both the action and result of that event helped plant the seeds that would inevitably become the Anthracite Strike of 1902.

These seeds began to grow into several forms. 1: the union wanted recognition, 2: they wanted improved wages, 3: better hours and, 4: better working conditions. These four issues have always been, and will always be, at the core of any union, and there’s usually much disagreement between both parties. The owner of most of the anthracite mines at that time was, in fact, JP Morgan.

What Fueled the Strike

So far in this post, we’ve discussed mining disasters and a drop in coal usage. Now let’s discuss the biggest factor of all: worker exploitation.

The issues that led to the strike of 1900 were just as pressing in 1902: the union wanted recognition and a degree of control over the industry. The industry, still smarting from its concessions in 1900, opposed any federal role. The 150,000 miners wanted their weekly pay envelope. Tens of millions of city dwellers needed coal to heat their homes.

Source

The coal strike of 1902 was one of the largest walkouts yet to be seen in the industry, even larger than that of the aforementioned strike of 1900. Workers wanted their pay to better reflect the value of their work. The profits they saw lining the pockets of the mines’ owners left a sour taste in their mouths. So sour that the Pennsylvania National Guard was brought in to try and contain any potential violence. The strike began on May 12, 1902 and lasted until October 23 of the same year.

The economics of coal revolved around two factors: most of the cost of production was wages for miners, and if the supply fell, the price would shoot up. In an age before the use of oil and electricity, there were no good substitutes. Profits were low in 1902 because of an over supply; therefore the owners welcomed a moderately long strike. They had huge stockpiles which increased daily in value. It was illegal for the owners to conspire to shut down production, but not so if the miners went on strike. The owners welcomed the strike, but they adamantly refused to recognize the union, because they feared the union would control the coal industry by manipulating strikes.

Source

John Mitchell was recognized by the United Mine Workers of America for his hard work in the bituminous mine field of Illinois, but the UMW was made up of union men from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana as well. He was elected president of the UMW back in 1898, and as such was trusted by the union to back what would become the largest strike in US history.

The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902

The violence began early on in the strike, as a store owner was beaten to death on July 30th. With this and other signs of trouble – for example, a looming winter coal shortage – over 8700 men of the Pennsylvania militia were activated, sending a clear signal to the miners that nobody was siding with them. Not their coal operation presidents and not the Pennsylvania governor.

The strike grew to such a size and continued on for so long that several notable individuals called for an end to the strike, for discussion to open between the parties involved. JP Morgan was one such individual. President Roosevelt himself was another who’d been watching the events in Pennsylvania closely from afar.

On October 16th the President announced a commission to arbitrate the dispute, and by October 24th, a little over a week, arbitration was completed between the strikers and the owners. This wouldn’t be the last coal miners’ strike in the United States, but it most certainly helped lay the groundwork for future federal involvement in the event a situation becomes unbearable for both parties involved.

There Was No Sean Aloysius O’Brien

While I am sure there were many upstanding individuals, participating in any strike can turn, often unnecessarily, violent. During the 163-day-long strike, mobs, shootings, street fighting and so on were commonplace, and there was plenty of blame to throw around. While the strike was eventually settled, blood had been drawn and men had lost their lives in their fight for a better, well, a better life.

Much to my disappointment, there was no Sean Aloysius O’Brien named in any of the sources used for today’s blog post. However, let us mention those who were named:

  1. Anthony Giuseppe, fatally shot
  2. Joseph Beddall, beaten to death
  3. William Durham, fatally shot

There was no O’Brien with 32 or 34 bullets in him, but there was a John Mitchell: “John Mitchell’s present aim is to organize thoroughly all the 455,000 mine employees in the United States into the United Mine Workers of America. That he will accomplish this purpose, unless sooner called to higher honors and wider fields of usefulness, no one who knows the man and his work entertains the least doubt.” The United Mine Workers of America still exists to this day, Mine strikes might look a little different today than they did in 1902, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less effective.

I hope I don’t spoil this moment for anyone, but Rom’s own strike was semi-successful. He didn’t end up with 32 or 34 bullets in him either, but he was certainly threatened as much as his brother, Quark!