US coal miners' strikes, 1894 - Jeremy Brecher

Miners' union parade in Colorado prior to the 1894 strike

Jeremy Brecher's excellent account of the overlapping American miners' strikes in 1894: a national strike and a successful stoppage in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

In 1893, the US went into a serious depression. By 1894, Bradstreet's estimated there were three million unemployed in the country; the Mayor of Chicago reported 200,000 in that city alone. Wages were slashed throughout the coal districts of the country. In the Pittsburgh district, for example, the scale fell from seventy-nine to fifty cents or less per ton.1 Miners were cut to part time. Their desperation was indicated by a miner at Minerton, Ohio:

I have never seen as discouraged a set of men as the miners in this neighborhood have been since the last reduction was made. They know it matters not how steady they work they cannot make enough money to keep a small-sized family in the necessary food, and they have concluded that if they are to starve they prefer doing so at once and not by degrees.2

Thus it is not surprising that when the United Mine Workers convention declared a nation-wide "suspension," the New York Times reported from one mining field, "the miners are elated by the action taken by their delegates at Columbus in declaring for a general suspension to go into effect on April 21st."3 The aim of the strike was to end the coal glut, thereby forcing prices up and allowing the operators to raise wages to the old rate.4

The United Mine Workers had no more than 20,000 members, but on April 21st, more than 125,000 miners struck.5 The strike eventually reached from Tacoma, Washington to Birmingham, Alabama, to Springhill, Nova Scotia, including many areas where the U.M.W. had no organization whatever. Andrew Roy, a miners' union official, reports that even "the general officers were surprised at the magnitude of the strike. . . "6 According to the U.M.W., no more than 24,000 bituminous miners remained at work in the entire country.

The extent of the strike made the workers optimistic. After ten days, President McBride of the U.M.W., announced:

Already operators are offering to pay the price asked, and in some instances more than has been demanded to get men to resume work, but the men are true to the orders issued by the National Convention, and refuse to work at any price until a general settlement has been made. . . . Your power having once been demonstrated, you are masters of the situation, and can command anything within reason.7

The miners of Thompson Run, Pennsylvania, illustrate what McBride meant. They were granted an increase of wages and guarded by deputy sheriffs, but nonetheless went out on strike in sympathy with the rest of the miners.8

The miners organized themselves into bands of a few dozen to many thousands, and engaged in widespread direct action which became, at times, virtual guerrilla warfare. They began with marches to spread the strike to unaffected areas. Two thousand miners from Spring Valley, Illinois, headed by two brass bands, marched into La Salle, Illinois, and organized a mass meeting "ad dressed in a dozen languages," to persuade miners there to strike.9 A delegation of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, miners went to West Virginia to induce their fellows to join the strike. At Pomeroy, Ohio, 500 miners chartered a steamboat and started down the river with a brass band, appealing to the miners along the valley in Ohio and West Virginia to join the strike.10

These activities were usually peaceful, until many operators began trying to reopen with strikebreakers, generally under the protection of special deputies. Under these circumstances, the bands of miners developed into what the press called "armies of intimidation."11 The violence of the miners to strikebreakers is easily understood, for they themselves were making the greatest sacrifices for the strike. The miners "have been on short time for two years, and are in poor condition to stand a long lockout," the New York Times reported on the first day of the strike. It added a week later:

The most alarming feature of the strike at present is the extreme destitution among the strikers. It is estimated that fully one-third or more of the families at the various plants are in destitute circumstances, and do not know where their next meal is to come from. Many of them proclaim their circumstances, and boldly announce that they will either have to go to work or steal.12

One center of disturbance was the Connellsville, Pennsylvania, coke region. Strikebreakers were imported early there:

Rainey & Cochran, who own the plants in the Vanderbilt region, say they will work tomorrow, and have asked Sheriff Wilhelm for protection. A large force of deputies was sent to Vanderbilt tonight. Rainey put fifty Italians in his Elm Grove mines yesterday, and will, it is reported, employ Italians at the coke plant if his employees join the strike.13

At Scottsdale, Pennsylvania, a crowd of women marched to the coke ovens determined to drive out strikebreakers. A mine official fired a rifle at them. The striking men thereupon rushed the mine and several were shot. They captured and severely beat the official. The strikers who had been shot were subsequently arrested.14 Another plant was fired up with a large force of men under a strong guard of deputies. An hour later, strikers armed with clubs, stones, and coke forks advanced under cover of darkness and attacked the men at work. The attack was so sudden the deputies were caught by surprise and the strikebreakers fled in terror.15 A few weeks later, when an agent imported blacks from Virginia to Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, to work in Frick's Standard Works, the wives of the strikers caught him and tore out most of his beard.16

Conflict in the coke region culminated in a massacre at a mine that was being operated by strikebreakers under guard of more than fifty deputies. Two thousand strikers from mining camps along the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers assembled near the mine. The New York Times reported them armed with rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and clubs, though this was subsequently denied by strikers.17 Squads of strikers marched up and down the road to the music of brass bands and fifes and drums. Delegations visited the strikebreakers and deputies with messages such as this:

We are fully prepared to resist every attempt to start these mines. We know the workmen here would join the strike if they were not intimidated by armed mercenaries. We are heavily armed and will return bullet for bullet if the deputies fire on us. We are American citizens and demand the protection that is afforded the company.18

Next morning when the strikebreakers, guarded by deputies, marched to the mines, the strikers yelled to them to go home. The strikebreakers turned around and started back, to the cheers of the strikers. Instantly, the deputies rushed out of the mines and began "escorting" the strikebreakers to the mines. When the strikers moved forward a deputy fired-perhaps in the air. "In a moment bullets were flying in all directions." The strikers fled down the road.

The deputies followed closely upon them, and continued firing at them. The narrow defile of the road prevented the strikers from scattering or getting away. . . . The deputies neared the surging mass of men, and continued to shoot directly at them.19

Four of the strikers were killed outright, an unknown number wounded. Sixty-six strikers were captured, and one hundred fifty were in jail by the next day.20 The New York Times reported from the coke region:

The prospect of a speedy settlement of the strike by peaceable means has been swept away by the riot at the Washington Run mines. The news of the killing of strikers has caused the men to become very angry. . . . The leaders realize the danger of an outbreak in any part of the region and are doing all in their power to hold the men in check. Numerous appeals were issued from headquarters today to the men to abstain from violence and to keep within the bounds of the law. . . . The leaders themselves now admit their inability to control the angry strikers. . . .21

In Spring Valley, Illinois, about 200 striking miners marched on a mine and drove out the strikebreakers. "A battle with clubs and stones ensued."22 The strikers banked the fires and nailed up the entrances to the mines. Fifty deputies charged the strikers and captured one of the "ringleaders." "The mob followed the deputies to the jail, and, after breaking down the door, liberated their fellow-striker. "23

At La Salle, Illinois, strikers held a mass meeting, then proceeded to the La Salle mine and engaged in a gun battle with the Sheriff and his deputies. Running out of ammunition, the deputies fled. Three of them were shot, the rest beaten. Having driven them off, the crowd occupied the town. When they learned that two of their numbers had been taken prisoner they marched on the jail, forcing the Mayor to release them.24 The Sheriff wired Governor Altgeld for the militia, concluding, "Mob surrounding hotel where I am wounded."25 A day later troops arrived. They intercepted 250 miners who had captured a railroad train at Ladd and were passing through La Salle on the way to Ottawa to release miners imprisoned there.26

At Duquoin, Illinois, 700 miners captured a freight train and forced the engineer to take them to Centralia, where they sabotaged a mine that had begun work there. "The shaft was filled with loose material, the belting on the machinery was cut, and the oil cups knocked from all the shafting."27 The militia was sent in and at least eighty-eight men were arrested.

The bands of strikers ranged over considerable area. At Coal Bluff, Indiana, 5,000 miners at a mass meeting decided to march e masse to Pana, Illinois, to force miners there to quit. That same day at Grant, Indiana, 1,000 men captured a freight train and took it to Terre Haute, on their way to Pana for the same purpose.

Of course, violence was by no means always necessary to persuade strikebreakers to quit. When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ordered its shopmen and its Italian trackmen to replace the striking miners, they refused and were fired.28 At the Elm Grove mines near Wheeling, West Virginia, the operators imported four lots of strikebreakers, only to have them quit one after another.

Whenever it proved impossible to prevent the mining of coal, the miners turned to blockading coal trains as a way to enforce the suspension. At Oglesby, Illinois, strikers piled rails across the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad in front of a coal train, causing a wreck.29 At Minonk, Illinois, miners put ties, bolts and the like across the tracks and forbade the passage of coal cars. Governor Altgeld sent in the militia; he was also appealed to for arms, but reported he had none left.30 Strikers at Shelburne, Indiana, stopped and examined all trains passing through. "If no coal was found, the trains were allowed to proceed; but when coal was found the cars were sidetracked."31 At Fontanet, women took over the coal chutes on the Big Four Railroad and refused to let the company fuel its engines.32 At Lyford, miners climbed on coal cars and set the brakes.33 Governor Matthews called out the Indiana National Guard to enforce the passage of trains through Cannellsburg.34 At Jackson, Ohio, 5,000 miners held a mass meeting to decide how to prevent passage of coal. They paraded the town with half-a-dozen bands. "Communications from the various railroads were read, many of which were to the effect that the railroads will not haul any more non-union coal."35 At Martin's Ferry, Ohio, strikers burned two railroad bridges. "They had prepared a stone as large as an engine tender at Barton tunnel to drop on a coal train should it succeed in passing the miners' fort."36 Striking miners from Will and Grundy Counties in Illinois burned a bridge near Carbon "as a warning to the company to stop transferring coal."37

Miners at Terre Haute, Indiana, were stopped from blockading coal trains by the arrival of the militia. When the militia moved to another town, they resumed searching trains. "Their policy now is to stop the trains whenever the militia is not present, and, if the militia is sent to where they are, they will congregate at another point on the road."38

At Salineville, Ohio, 500 miners captured a coal train that had been released by troops earlier in the day. They soaped the tracks so that the train could get no traction, backed it onto a siding, and spiked the switch. "Within an hour the coal was scattered all over the ground and the cars were empty."39 In the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia, miners burned a drum house and trestle at a working mine, stopped all traffic on one local railroad, and dynamited a railroad bridge. Another railroad simply gave up hauling coal.40

In all, the militia was called out in at least five states. At Ensley, Alabama, fifteen companies were encamped, but the strikers found new allies as well: "Several hundred idle mechanics and other laborers in Birmingham contemplate going to the Pratt Mines and encamping there, so as to be on hand to aid the miners in case of a conflict with the troops."41

But elsewhere the militia was effective in breaking the strikers', spirit. From Indiana a journalist reported, "The formidable force of militia has awed the strikers."42 Another wrote from Maryland:

The coming of the militia had a most satisfactory effect on the strikers at all the mines. The men seem to realize that unless they at once resume work new help will be employed to fill their places. At the Eckhart Mine, guarded by three companies of the Fifth Regiment, seventy-five men went to work this morning. . . . The outlook for the return of all the strikers under guard of the militia is exceedingly good.43

When the strikers interfered with trains, the United States government entered the fray. On May 28th, a railroad lawyer arrived in Terre Haute with a restraining order from a U.S. Judge forbidding the blocking of trains. This allowed the U.S. Marshal to organize a force against the strikers. "The power of the Federal government being behind the writ, all the force necessary to move the train will be used."44 A week later, the U.S. Marshal at Chicago went with a large body of deputies to Coal City and Streator to enforce an injunction against blockading trains on railroads under Federal receivership.45

Coal shortages quickly appeared. By April 28th, for example, the Colebrook furnaces in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, were banked for want of coal.46"It will not be long," McBride remarked April 30th, "until there will not be coal enough left in the general market to boil a tea kettle with."47 From Bellaire, Ohio, it was reported on May 5th that nine blast furnaces and four steel plants and nail mills in the area were closed for want of coal.48 The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company "seized for the road's use all soft coal in transit to customers."49 On the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, many of the engines were reduced to burning wood instead of coaI.50 In Des Moines, Iowa, the water works of the city were shut down for lack of coal to run them.51 All departments but one of the great Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock, Pennsylvania, closed down for lack of iron and coal.52 In St. Louis, by May 24th the coal dealers were simply unable to fill orders in many cases; all but five of the city's flour mills were shut down for want of coal, and the five still in operation were burning wood.53 The Philadelphia and Erie Railroad was forced to switch to anthracite coal. The Missouri River steamers switched to wood. By May 27th, the railroads were reported confiscating "all the coal in sight."54 In Lincoln, Illinois, the electric streetcars were obliged to stop running,55 and local coal dealers at Carthage reported that it was almost impossible to get coal.56

As the strike kept on week after week, the condition of the miners grew severe. From Minonk, Illinois, the New York Times reported on May 30th-

The miners say their wives and children are at the point of starvation. They are subsisting mainly on dandelions, but have no flour, meat or other provisions.57

Despite starvation conditions, the workers held out bitterly.

When union officials accepted a new scale below the old one, large numbers of miners continued the strike anyway. A mass meeting of miners near Camden, Pennsylvania, on June 13th, voted unanimously that the new rate was unacceptable. From Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the miners were reported "indignant at the settlement." At Glenroy, Ohio, 2,000 miners met and decided to continue the strike. At Bellaire, Ohio, the miners said "they will starve before accepting the sixty-cent rate decided on at Columbus." At Spring Valley, Illinois, a mass meeting adopted resolutions "denouncing the action of the convention and calling upon the executive officers to resign." A mass meeting at La Salle resolved to accept nothing less than a return to the previous scale.58

But the strikers were defeated in the end by their inability to make the strike universal. As Andrew Roy wrote, "vast train-loads of coal from the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania, the New River and Pocahontas fields of West and Old Virginia (whose miners had not suspended work) were being poured into the markets which the suspension had been inaugurated to deplete."59 In Fairmont, West Virginia,

The leading mine operators in this section state that over 200% more coal is being mined in the valley between this place and Clarksburg than was ever mined before. Large numbers of miners are flooding in and every pit is being worked to its full capacity. Over 3,500 men are now at work, where a month ago there were only about 1,200.60

Under such conditions, the strike was finally defeated, and after more than two months the starving miners returned to work.

Simultaneously with the coal suspension, strikes had spread among the metal miners. The iron mines of the Eastern Mesaba Range in Minnesota were closed by strikes on May 2nd. "An armed gang of 300 foreign miners. . . marched through the streets of Iron Mountain. . . forced the miners in the Iron Mountain and Rathbone Mines to stop work and join .their ranks, and also stopped work in White & McDevitt's saw mill. The rioters declare that work in all industries must cease. Fifty deputy sheriffs have been sworn in."61 Two days later, thirty armed miners marched to Iron Mountain and prevented the opening of mines there.62

Especially dramatic was the conflict at Cripple Creek, Colorado. Some mine-owners there had tried to lengthen the working day from eight to ten hours; the workers at various mines replied by organizing a union and declaring that all mines would have to adopt eight hours by February 7th, 1894. In response, the largest mines shifted to ten hours, and the men walked out. After a month of quiet, tension began to rise as some of the mines reopened with strikebreakers guarded by armed deputies. The District Court Judge issued an injunction against interfering with the operation of the mines, and the president of the union was arrested for violating the injunction.

The mine-owners now pledged money and arms to the county if it would enroll a large body of deputies to protect the opening of the mines. The county commissioners accepted the offer, and Sheriff Bowers soon recruited and imported an army of 1,200 men.63

The strikers in turn organized on a military basis, establishing a headquarters and camp on Bull Hill under direction of a miner with three years' training at West Point. Taking the initiative, the miners marched under the noses of the deputies and cut them off from a number of the mines. Next they attacked and captured without bloodshed the Strong mine, which was guarded by a squad of deputies, confiscating their arms and ammunition. Early next morning, the strikers tried to raid the deputies' camp to obtain more guns and ammunition; one deputy and one striker were killed in the battle that followed.64

Meanwhile, groups of armed men were forming in mining towns throughout Colorado, planning to march to Cripple Creek to support the strikers. At Rico, for instance, a hundred fully armed men seized a train and rode 100 miles toward Cripple Creek before they were stopped. In Colorado Springs, the mine-owners' citadel, rumors were widely believed that the city was about to be attacked.

The Populist Governor of the state finally negotiated a settlement establishing the eight-hour day, but the army of deputies remained in Cripple Creek.65 Only by sending the militia and interposing them between the strikers and the deputies was a new engagement prevented. Under militia guard, work began again, but it was only a truce. In less than ten years, Cripple Creek and Colorado would again be the center of a bloody mine war.

Excerpted from Brecher's excellent book, Strike!, and lightly edited by libcom to make text work as a stand-alone article.

  • 1. Hon. Andrew Roy, A History of the Coal Miners of the United States, from the Development of the Mines to the Close of the Anthracite Strike of 1902, 3d Ed. (Columbus, Ohio: J.L. Trauger Printing Co., 1907), p. 302.
  • 2. New York Times, April 22, 1894.
  • 3. New York Times, April 13, 1894.
  • 4. Roy, p. 303.
  • 5. Commons, Vol. II, p. 502.
  • 6. Roy, p. 304.
  • 7. New York Times, May 1, 1894.
  • 8. New York Times, May 10, 1894.
  • 9. New York Times, April 24, 1894.
  • 10. New York Times, May 29, 1894.
  • 11. W.T. Stead, "Incidents of Labour War in America," in The Contemporary Review (July 1894), p. 67.
  • 12. New York Times, May 1, 1894.
  • 13. New York Times, April 30, 1894.
  • 14. New York Times, May 5, 1894.
  • 15. New York Times, May 10, 1894.
  • 16. New York Times, June 2, 1894.
  • 17. New York Times, May 26, 1894.
  • 18. New York Times, May 25, 1894.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. New York Times, May 26, 1894.
  • 21. New York Times, May 25, 1894.
  • 22. New York Times, May 24, 1894.
  • 23. Ibid.
  • 24. New York Times, May 25, 1894.
  • 25. W.W. Taylor to John P. Altgeld, May 24,1894, in Biennial Report of the Adjustant General of Illinois to the Governor and Commander-in-Chief, 1893 and 1894 (Springfield, lll.: Ed. F. Hartman, 1895), p. vii. (Hereafter cited as "Report.")
  • 26. Report, p. viii.
  • 27. New York Times, May 25, 1894.
  • 28. New York Times, May 1, 1894.
  • 29. New York Times, May 25, 1894.
  • 30. New York Times, May 27, 1894.
  • 31. New York Times, May 28, 1894.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Ibid.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. New York Times, June 4, 1894.
  • 36. New York Times, June 5, 1894.
  • 37. Ibid.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. Ibid.
  • 40. New York Times, June 10, 1894.
  • 41. New York Times, June 5, 1894.
  • 42. New York Times, May 29, 1894.
  • 43. New York Times, June 5, 1894.
  • 44. New York Times, June 7, 1894.
  • 45. New York Times, May 29, 1894.
  • 46. New York Times, June 5, 1894.
  • 47. New York Times, April 29, 1894.
  • 48. New York Times, May 1, 1894.
  • 49. New York Times, May 6, 1894.
  • 50. New York Times, May 11, 1894.
  • 51. New York Times, May 13, 1894.
  • 52. New York Times, May 24, 1894.
  • 53. New York Times, May 25, 1894.
  • 54. New York Times, May 28, 1894.
  • 55. Ibid.
  • 56. Ibid.
  • 57. New York Times, May 30, 1894.
  • 58. Ibid.
  • 59. Ibid.
  • 60. New York Times, June 14, 1894.
  • 61. Roy, p. 307.
  • 62. New York Times, May 13, 1894.
  • 63. New York Times, May 3, 1894.
  • 64. New York Times, May 5, 1894.
  • 65. Jensen, p. 45.