Labor History of the Fairmont Field and The Federal No. 3 Mine

Composition of the Labor Force

The Upper Monongahela region’s population was virtually homogeneous in 1890. It had a 96.4% native white population, and Irish immigrants who had moved into the region for the construction of the B&O railroad in the 1850s had long been assimilated. In order to develop the coalfields, local operators knew that they would have to recruit a cheap and abundant labor force. The labor pool in the 1870s and 1880s generally consisted of Anglo-Saxon immigrants and native farmers who hailed from the surrounding Appalachian countryside. Population pressures and increasing agricultural competition from mid-western markets put financial constraints on mountain farmers. No longer able to make a living solely on agriculture, they began working in timber camps and mines to supplement their income. Railroads also reshaped traditional farming practices and increased access to consumer goods. Young people in particular were attracted to industrial work that enabled them to participate in the cash economy. At first these individuals worked for the mines seasonally, but over the course of several generations, they grew to depend on industrial labor for their livelihoods.

Coal Miner Sitting
"Coal miners' shacks along railroad tracks, Osage, West Virginia" 1938
by Marion P. Walcott
Office of War Information Photograph Collection (LOC)

Coal companies operating in this region actively recruited men from Appalachia, but as coal mining expanded between 1890 and 1920, they had to seek out additional sources of cheap labor. Mining companies actively recruited African Americans from the Deep South, and this is reflected in the increase of black laborers in the Upper Mon region. The percentage of African American miners in the Fairmont field grew from less than one percent in 1890 to 8.4% in 1920. The percentages were much higher in the southern coalfields. The peak years of migration were during World War I and the 1920s, when southern agricultural conditions deteriorated because of weather and insects, and coal was in high demand. Robert Armstead, a black miner who grew up in the Grant Town section of Marion County, confirms this migratory pattern. In his memoir Black Days, Black Dust, he recalls that his parents moved from Alabama to West Virginia seeking “the promise of better working conditions and higher wages in the coal industry." And although West Virginia’s record of racial tolerance was by no means pristine, the state offered southern blacks better educational opportunities, less racial violence, and greater freedom to vote than other southern states.

Southern and eastern European laborers were also recruited. Prior to 1900, there were relatively few immigrants living in the Upper Monongalia region, and those who did live there were generally from Great Britain and Germany. But as the demand for coal rose, coal operators recruited southern and eastern Europeans. They believed, rather incorrectly, that these laborers would provide a docile and eager workforce. Miners from Italy, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and other nations filled the demand for unskilled laborers alongside African Americans. By the 1920s they made up over half of the Fairmont field’s mining workforce. Fairmont Times articles chronicling the Federal No. 3 disaster listed both African Americans and immigrants as being among the dead and wounded.

African American and European laborers migrated to the coalfields at a time when the process of mining was becoming mechanized, so they were largely recruited as unskilled laborers. British and German miners who had come to the region before the turn of the century were considered skilled craftsmen, so hand cutting and loading the coal drew higher wages and greater opportunities for advancement. As companies such as Monongah Coal and Coke incorporated cutting machines and electric drills, however, a division of labor formed in the mines. Semi-skilled miners who operated this new machinery were generally native, and they had far more opportunities for advancement than their African American and immigrant counterparts, who remained in the unskilled positions. Native whites also almost exclusively filled supervisory positions.

The Struggle to Unionize

The Upper Mon region witnessed two periods of elevated labor struggles between 1890 and the New Deal. The first period extends from 1892 to 1902. The four major strikes that occurred during this time resulted in a “nonunion era” in which coal operators gained “a competitive advantage in marketing their product.” The second period reversed that trend, however, as the UMWA strengthened and gained important concessions during the New Deal. It ran from 1924 to 1933 and, significantly, surrounds the Federal No. 3 explosion.

The Fairmont field experienced relatively few strikes until the 1890s. What strikes did take place were largely isolated incidents. This reflects the low number of men working in mines at the time and the minimal dependency that they had on the mines. Michael Workman, one of the few scholars to intensively study northern West Virginia’s coal industry, reveals that in 1890, there were only around a thousand miners working in the Fairmont field. In general, mining still served as a supplement to agricultural labor, so miners were less inclined to engage in labor conflict. The absence of a national labor organization also contributed to the inactivity. But once the United Mine Workers of America was formed and coal production increased, labor activity escalated.

Formation of the United Mine Workers of America

Miners working in the bituminous coalfields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana founded the UMWA in 1890. During the previous two decades, most of the miners in northern Appalachia and the Midwest had been either native whites or Anglo-Saxon immigrants, and they enjoyed a significant amount of autonomy. Many were homeowners, they typically mined only a few days a week, and they generally enjoyed comfortable lives. As labor historian John H.M. Laslett observes, they viewed “themselves as petty contractors, not as mere wage earners.” But by 1890, the increasing demand for coal, technological changes, and operators’ recruitment of cheaper labor from the Deep South and southern and eastern Europe threatened their
independence. They began organizing drives throughout the four states and by 1897 had organized them into the Central Competitive field.

The UMWA had more difficulty organizing West Virginia. Union leaders saw all of the bituminous coalfields in the Mountain State as important targets for organization because they had two significant advantages over the Central Competitive field: easily accessible coal seams and cheap non-union labor. The tension between West Virginia mines and the Central Competitive field attracted the attention of labor leaders such as Mother Jones and Eugene Debs. 20 But despite their efforts, the Fairmont field remained unorganized. Local coal operators worried that higher transportation costs to eastern and western markets would make them uncompetitive unless they kept wages low, so they fought the UMWA by raising wages to pacify miners, threatening to close down their mines, and, by the late 1890s, using court injunctions. In 1894, for example, miners in Ohio and Pennsylvania struck when operators failed to raise wages during a period of economic recovery. Mines were closed, and this led to an increased demand for the Fairmont field’s coal. This resulted in higher wages for miners in that region, as well as little response to the UMWA’s organizing efforts. As Workman observes, miners might have
“sympathized with the national labor movement,” but their willingness to participate was checked by “economic individualism.” This happened again in 1897 and 1902, but during these later contests, coal operators used court injunctions against Debs, Jones, and other organizers to get them to “stop interfering” with miners.

The Fairmont Field Miners and the Union

The period between 1902 and 1912 was relatively calm. Even during the Paint Creek / Cabin Creek strike that took place in southern West Virginia in 1912 and 1913, northern West Virginia’s miners remained reluctant to organize. In fact, strikes in West Virginia’s southern coalfields and in the Central Competitive field benefited Fairmont field miners by increasing the demand for its coal. Fairmont miners thus earned the dubious distinction of being strikebreakers. These miners resisted organization and produced “extra tonnage during the national strikes to supply markets that were otherwise served by union mines.” 22 There are several reasons for this resistance. During this period, miners across the state still had not become fully dependent on the coal industry for their livelihoods; they continued to farm, raise livestock, and grow gardens for their subsistence. And coal was in high enough demand to create an abundant job market. Coal operators also continued to suppress union activity, and in the northern fields this was exacerbated by the enormous political, economic, and social power that they wielded over company towns and the region’s urban centers. Further, some union organizers in West Virginia eventually went to work for coal companies, creating a level of distrust between miners and the UMWA.

Working-Class Conciousness

Although the UMWA had trouble organizing northern West Virginia, the seeds of class-consciousness were being sewn in the early years of the 20th century. Miners shared distaste for coal operators who used oppressive and sometimes violent tactics. The majority of West Virginia miners lived in company towns or on company land, and this exposed them to varying degrees of industrial control. Company housing, company stores, scrip, surveillance, racial segregation, and mine guards were all tactics that coal operators used to keep their workers dependent and powerless. Racial segregation and language barriers worked to a degree, but as second and third generations of native whites, black migrants, and immigrants grew up in coal camps and labored together, solidarity formed.

Working-class consciousness was fully developed in West Virginia’s coalfields by WWI. Plenty of tension existed in the Upper Mon region, however, between miners, the local middle class, and coal operators. Nativist sentiment grew during the war and Americans began to associate all forms of dissent, including labor activity, with foreign “radicalism.” Prior to the war, local and national socialist candidates made significant gains in towns like Star City and Morgantown, where there were large numbers of skilled glassworkers. In 1912, Eugene Debs, presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, attracted a strong following in Marion and Harrison Counties. But during and immediately after the war, area towns passed laws that suppressed public speeches, and coal companies continued using the hated mine guard system to curb radical activities.

Miners fought back against this oppression by articulating their grievances in terms of American ideologies of freedom and democracy. Because of the sacrifices they were making for the war effort, they argued, they should enjoy the same freedoms guaranteed to other Americans: the freedom of speech, freedom to worship, and right to bear arms. They went further by targeting some of the coal industry’s particularly oppressive practices. Miners contended that they deserved the right to assemble, they should have protection from arbitrary discharge, and the mine guard system should be eliminated.

World War I and the Rise of the Union

World War I had the unexpected effect of giving miners and coal operators a sense of shared purpose, and in the spirit of cooperation, coal operators in the Fairmont field recognized the UMWA in 1918. This process began with C.W. Watson, owner of the Consolidation Coal Company, who acknowledged the union to gain support for his run for U.S. Senate. The “compact” between Consolidation and its miners stipulated that the company’s mines would continue to run on an open-shop basis, thereby providing a stepping stone between non-union mining and full unionization. Other coal companies followed suit, and later that year, the Fairmont field was organized. Contracts between miners and area coal companies were signed every year between 1918 and 1921. But even though the companies recognized the UMWA, miners who attempted to join were still subject to intimidation. Armstead recalls that the Grant Town mine where his father worked “voted in the union in 1918, but it grew very slowly. With every attempt to join, employees faced threats of losing their jobs.” Miners who worked for both large and small companies “had to endure insults and physical threats.” The work environment
for union miners, even when the union was theoretically accepted, was still hostile.

Family Strike
"Group of striking union miners and the
familys [sic] living in tents,"
Lick Creek, 1922.
National Photo Company Collection (LOC)

At war’s end the coal market cooled and the demand for labor decreased, sparking a mine war that lasted from 1924 to 1931. The conflict had its roots in 1922, when President Warren G. Harding lifted federal regulations of the coal industry. Coal operators viewed this action as an opportunity to push for a return to open shops and to end higher wartime wages. Fairmont field miners responded with a five-month strike, which resulted in the temporary return to lower 1917 wages. The operators restored their union contracts, however, and the Fairmont field essentially remained closed-shop until 1924. Shortly thereafter, national UMWA leaders met with operators from the Central Competitive field in Jacksonville, Florida. They agreed to maintain the 1922 wage scale, which was $7.50 per day. This was, as the New York Times said, “the post-war peak of wages.” Following the Jacksonville accord, the Northern West Virginia Coal Operators’ Association met with UMWA representatives in Baltimore and agreed upon a wage scale slightly less than the one established in Florida. This was done in exchange for the organization of all of the Fairmont field’s mines. Both the Jacksonville and Baltimore agreements were meant to last until March 31, 1927.

Union Troubles

Striking Miners
"Striking miners drawing rations, West Virginia"
T. Horydczak Collection (LOC)

The UMWA had a tenuous hold on the Fairmont field in 1924. This was the only field in West Virginia that maintained its contract with the Organization; post-war conflicts like the Battle of Blair Mountain, which took place in Logan County in 1921, had virtually driven the UMWA out of the southern coalfields. The non-unionized fields proved to be too competitive for the Fairmont mines, however, so northern coal operators quickly began pulling out of the contract when coal prices slumped in 1924. Bethlehem Steel Company was the first to pull out followed by Watson and Consolidated Coal. Individual battles broke out in mining towns across the field in the late spring of that same year, culminating in a major walkout on October 10. Twenty thousand miners abandoned their jobs and started what became the longest strike in West Virginia’s history. It lasted until 1927, and additional strikes continued until 1933. This strike was marked by hostility and violence. Coal companies evicted striking miners and replaced them with “scabs,” or men willing to work non-union and for lower wages. In anticipation of violent retribution from miners, operators hired the notorious Baldwin-Felts mine guards, erected fences, procured weapons, and implemented other security measures at their mines. They also continued using court injunctions to curb labor radicalism. Although the majority of miners struck peacefully, airing their grievances through picket lines, rallies, and parades, some miners responded violently to such company actions. When one coal company in Monongalia County, for example, evicted striking miners from company housing and forced the scabs to sign “yellow-dog” (non-union) agreements, miners responded by shooting at the company village. The Ku Klux Klan became involved with the same strike because African Americans were brought in as replacement miners. And although striking miners were composed of native white, black, and foreign populations, the middle class, businessmen, politicians, operators, and other local elites in the Upper Mon region associated the radicalism with immigrants. Howard B. Lee, West Virginia’s attorney general at the time of the strike, made the somewhat sympathetic remark that the immigrant miners had come to America to “escape the earthbound drudgery of restless Europe” only to wind up “hopelessly buried” in America’s mines and “embroiled in her labor wars.” But he too believed that they were “highly susceptible to radical influences.”

The Mine War and the Federal No. 3 Explosion

It is in the context of this hostile environment that the Federal No. 3 mine disaster occurred. The New England Coal and Transportation Company, which owned the Federal No. 3 mine at the time of the explosion, was one of the companies involved. On January 17, 1925, the Washington Post reported that a miner had been shot and killed over a disagreement about scabs outside of New England’s Grant Town mine. Later that year, “127 men and 11 women” picketing close to the same mine were arrested “on charges of intimidating miners employed by the company.” 35 As Michael Workman asserts, because picketing, public speeches, and other forms of protest had been made illegal, “the strikers were driven to desperation.” Cast out of their company housing, miners were relegated to living in wooden barracks constructed by the UMWA and most were driven into extreme poverty. Unemployed miners in Scott’s Run, a mining community outside of Morgantown, West Virginia, were living in such poor conditions that they attracted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention in the 1930s. Violent activity, like blowing up mines, railroad trestles, coal tipples, and other company equipment was typically a last resort response to such conditions, and it caused “a general reign of terror” to descend over the Fairmont field in the mid-to-late 20s.

Three mine explosions occurred in the Fairmont field during the long strike. The first took place on March 17, 1925 at Barrackville in Marion County. Thirty-five people were killed and the mine was destroyed. The second was the Farmington disaster, which occurred on January 14, 1926. This explosion killed nineteen miners. And the third was the Everettville explosion. Lee reveals that because these three disasters happened during the strike, coal
operators initially argued that their mines and miners had been victims of sabotage. The Farmington and Barrackville mines had been drilled to allow methane to escape to the surface, and operators “said that the strikers blew up these two mines by dropping nitroglycerine bombs through these vents.” Lee recognized, however, that the Everettville explosion occurred because of owner negligence, not striking radicals. And although he suggests that striking miners might have caused the other two explosions, he admits in a footnote that they too were likely caused by the failure of coal companies to spread beneficial rock dust in their mines. But even Lee was disturbed by the level of hostility that was expressed by striking miners toward the victims of the Everettville explosion. “With a heartlessness akin to savagery,” he writes, “they and their wives would pass nearby and curse and jeer the grief-stricken women and children as they hopefully waited...As bodies were brought to the surface, they sang ribald songs, and frequently used such vile utterances as ‘There’s another goddamned strikebreakin’ scab son-of-a-bitch gone straight to hell.’” Some believed that the explosion was divine retribution for both the actions of New England Coal and Transportation and the scab workers, who they considered to be among the basest of human beings. The Union Miner echoed such sentiments by labeling scabs “moral cowards,” “Judas,” and “Benedict Arnold.”

The Relationship between Labor Strife and the Disaster

As Lee correctly noted, there were several likelier reasons for the Everettville disaster that still relate to labor and the strikes. Paul Rakes has analyzed West Virginia mine explosions and labor trends, and he discovered that these events corresponded with increases in mining employment. He suggests that periods of expanded mining activity brought in new and inexperienced miners. Immigrant laborers and uneducated African Americans may have been particularly vulnerable because they could not read posted rules and regulations for mine safety. One may also consider that the use of replacement workers could have contributed to increased risk, for they were likely to have been just as inexperienced as the immigrant miners on strike and were perhaps less familiar with the hazards of the particular mine in which they were employed. This was the union leaders’ perspective following the Everettville disaster. Everettville and the other explosions were “the natural results of the employment of inexperienced miners, and a lack of proper safety precautions.”

Rakes also connects mining explosions to increased mechanization in mines. Steam-powered fans enabled miners to dig much deeper into coal seams than ever before, and mechanized mining equipment quickened the pace of extraction. But the new equipment increased the volume of coal dust, and the fans dried out the dust, making it highly explosive. Significantly, miners extracted more coal than ever before in 1927, the year of the Federal No. 3
explosion.

Selected Bibliography and Acknowledgements