“Something more than a river” – The West Branch in “Sons of Molly Maguire”

I recently started reading Mark Bulik’s 2015 book, The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America’s First Labor War. Bulik examines how culture and society in Ireland shaped Irish-American life in the Coal Region, especially in the isolated mine patches of Schuylkill County.

Sons of Molly Maguire

In his introduction, I found the following passage struck me both for its eloquence and in the way it describes how wealth flowed out of Schuylkill County down its waterways toward Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania communities. It also highlights how battles fought in the rural mining communities of the Coal Region planted seeds for larger labor wars to come.

In this passage, Bulik describes the West Branch as it makes its way from Foster Township, out of the Heckschersville Valley toward the population centers of Schuylkill County:

Below Duncott, the stream gains strength as it enters its first real town, Minersville, then turns toward the Schuylkill County seat, Pottsville. But before reaching Pottsville, the stream merges with the West-West and flows through a gap in Sharp Mountain. The west and east branches of the Schuylkill, in turn, join a few miles to the south at the twin boroughs of Cressona and Schuylkill Haven. From there, the waters run south, tamed partly by a canal, into the history of the industrial revolution. For coal dug in Schuylkill County fired the forges of Reading, Phoenixville, and Philadelphia, turning the lower Schuylkill Valley into the workshop of an emerging nation.

But something more than a river was born in those rugged hills above Minersville. For just as the hidden stream gave rise to the mines, the coal industry spawned a hidden by-product of its own along the westernmost reaches of the Schuylkill—the Molly Maguires, a secret society of assassins rooted in the north of Ireland. The emergence of the Mollies on the banks of the West Branch and their prolonged battle with the mine owners became one of the most sensational newspaper stories of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Mollies fired the first shots in America’s labor wars. Observers ranging from the socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs to leading historians like Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and William E. Leuchtenburg agreed that it was the Molly Maguires who gave the United States its first glimpse of class warfare.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this book so far and am excited to provide updates as I continue on through its prose.


Featured Image: The Molly Maguires from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated


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