Watching HBO’s Deadwood and finding comparisons to Pennsylvania’s Coal Region

Over the past year or so, I’ve had a very close friend of mine continually encourage me to check out HBO’s Deadwood from the early 2000s. (Thank you, Ashley!)

The short-lived western – which only recently received a definitive conclusion on HBO – follows the residents of a gold mining camp known as Deadwood in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1870s.  In this real locale, history swirled together fascinating characters like “Wild Bill” Hickock, Calamity Jane, and a nefarious brothel owner named Al Swearengen.

I’ve been enjoying the show thoroughly, as it examines the brutality of life in a mining camp and the danger of the times in which the characters are living.

But I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the Coal Region back east in Pennsylvania in the same time period. Despite the fact that the coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania were only 100 miles away from Philadelphia and New York, they had much in common with the experience in western mining camps like Deadwood.

Shenandoah Colliery
Parts of Schuylkill County were recently populated in the aftermath of the Civil War. These isolated communities became hotbeds of violence and ethnic strife.

Lawlessness plays a major role in the early episodes of Deadwood, and this was a familiar feeling for many living in isolated pockets of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields.

In the years after the Civil War, areas north of Broad Mountain in Schuylkill County became notorious for highway robbery, murder, and crime of all sorts. In an effort to fight this rampant violence – often fed by ready access to alcohol and firearms – mine owners and railroad companies hired their own private police forces. Throughout the 1870s, the Coal and Iron Police did battle with criminal elements in places like Shenandoah, Girardville, and Mahanoy City and all the patch towns in between.

Violence manifested itself in several ways. Crime against the average resident or traveler in the region often occurred on isolated roads between settlements. Newspaper accounts are rife with these events on the byways of northern Schuylkill County throughout the 1860s and early 1870s. Break-ins and drunken fighting also were common occurrences on the streets.

Then there was conflict fueled by ethnic tensions. Fights between Irish newcomers and the Welsh and English mining class were frequent. Gangs formed in many of the communities north of Broad Mountain along ethnic lines. A spark could set off massive brawls and street battles between opposing ethnic groups of miners and laborers in the mines. Alcohol often fueled these battles and major community events could result in the spilling of blood.

The most famous class of violence in the Coal Region, however, came in the form of that used against the mining and railroad interests. The destruction of collieries and railroad facilities became fairly common occurrences in the 1860s and 1870s, especially as labor unions were crushed out by increasingly powerful corporate management. Intimidation directed toward local mine leadership sometimes crossed the line into physical violence in the form of beatings and the occasional spasm of murder.

All this violence led powerful newspaper and corporate interests to scapegoat the Irish and blame the lawlessness in the southern Coal Region on a shadowy group of radicals known to history as the Molly Maguires.

Molly Maguires 2
A newspaper’s dramatized meeting of the Molly Maguires (Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1876, just as the events of Deadwood get underway, mass trials of alleged Mollies began across the Coal Region in an effort to bring about the end of this violence. The complete domination of the coal fields by corporations like the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company saw the institution of a private police control over the population. This stifled labor movements for the subsequent decades, but never quite managed to control the violent impulses that were inspired by booze and guns.

Molly Maguires
A scene as convicted Molly Maguires are led to the gallows at Pottsville, June 1877 (Wikimedia Commons)

As I’m watching Deadwood, I can’t help but think about how a similar series or show about the Coal Region in the years after the Civil War would shape up. It would combine many issues and themes that are surprisingly relevant in our time period: corporate power, ethnic divides, immigration, struggle to organize labor, inequality, gun violence and more.

It would also have a powerful cast of real-life characters: John Siney, John Kehoe, Mary Ann O’Donnell, Franklin Gowen, Henry Pleasants, James McParland. Just to name a few.

That would be a show I’d love to see.

Featured Image: Scene from HBO’s Deadwood (HBO)

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