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As the Civil War raged on in the spring of 1863, New Yorkers faced an economic crisis on the home front. As the war-time economy boomed, transportation companies and railroads ferrying people to and from the Big Apple doubled the prices of tickets, putting a strain on working class families struggling to get by. The reason for the price surge? Companies claimed it was the price of anthracite coal.
In an effort to uncover the truth about the reason for uncertainty and price surging in the coal markets, the New York Times sent a reporter into the turbulent anthracite coal fields of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The reporter began a series of dispatches documenting strikes, class conflict, and occasional violence in the Coal Region.
In his first dispatch, the reporter highlighted an epidemic of strikes that drove the price of anthracite coal to previously unseen heights in the winter of 1862-63. When reading the journalist’s reporting, it is important to reckon with their bias toward operators/consumers and against the interests of the working class miners. As you will see in the following excerpt, the reporter sides with the mine owners and lessees against the miners and laborers.
When looking back, we need to also look at the perspective of the workers who leave us little written evidence of their motivations. For workers, the Civil War and resulting economic boom in the Coal Region provided unheard of opportunities to gain advantage over previously untouchable mine ownership. Mineworkers saw opportunities to improve wages and safety and to have a say in the operations of the mines where they toiled amid incalculable dangers. The mineworkers’ perspective, mostly missing in this piece, is necessary to make complete sense of events in the Coal Region in 1863 and throughout the Civil War era.
From the New York Times, April 26, 1863:
The Coal Miners
A trip to the Pennsylvania Coal Regions
The Strikes Among the Miners – What They Mean and What They Amount To – The Troubles at Hoecksherville – Effect of the Strikes on the Coal Product – Prospects of The Coal Market for the Coming Year, etc.
Ever since the “Union Ferry Company” doubled their rates of fare between New York and Brooklyn, and announced as a reason therefor the “high price of coal,” but forgot to reduce the fare as coal went down, the market value of that article (the coal, not the Company) has been a subject of anxious solicitude to a large class of people on Long Island, and we might add also on Manhattan Island; for as all great geniuses have their imitators, so the brilliant idea of the Ferry Company was taken up on this die of the river, and from that day to this the “high price of coal” has been the jocular plea for all sorts of extortion.
It is not strange, therefore, especially in view of the experiences of the past Winter, when the “high price of coal” was really no joke, that the community should be casting their eyes anxiously toward the anthracite valleys of Pennsylvania, and that the rumors which daily come to their ears from the Lehigh, the Wyoming, or the Schuylkill, of “strikes among the miners,” should create nervous apprehensions for the future.
In order that the readers of the Times might have some correct idea of what the strikes really amount to, and the results that are likely to flow from them, and also of the general condition and prospects of the coal business for the coming season, one of its corps of reporters was dispatched to Pennsylvania, and after spending week in the mining regions, he is prepared to give the following as the result of his observations.
Strikes Among the Miners.
Of these, it may be stated at the outset that they are not like ordinary strikes, which generally arise, or are supposed to arise, from actual suffering on the part of the strikers; and they are not, therefore, entitled to that sympathy which is generally accorded to them. Strikes among the coal miners are an index of prosperity, not of adversity – of high wages, not of low; of independence, not of want. When wages are low, so that the miner is obliged to work steadily to support himself, he is seldom found on a strike. When they are high, as they have been for the last six months, he can afford not to work more than half of the time; and if he been an improvident and thriftless man, as many of them are, he generally “strikes,” and lies off the other half. A skillful miner at the present time can make from four to six dollars per day, and not work beyond the usual hours. Inside laborers (men who break up and load the coal as the miner blasts it out) are paid from $9 to $11 per week, where they formerly got $6 or $7. Drivers (men who drive the loaded cars to the mouth of the colliery) and outside laborers are paid from $7 to $8, where they formerly got from $3.50 to $5.
This increase in wages has been made gradually by the operators (the name given to the owners or lessees of mines) since the increase in the price of coal, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes in concession to strikes; and yet the strikes continue, and were never more frequent than now, especially in the Lehigh and Schuylkill valleys. A strike of today, if yielded to, is sure to be followed by another next week.
First the miners will strike, and, if they gain their point and commence work, then the laborers will strike, and after them the drivers. In one colliery in the Lehigh Valley the miners, after having carried their point, were about to commence work, when the drivers struck, and lay off for two weeks. After they were satisfied, and were about to return to their work, the miners made another strike for renumeration for time lost in consequence of the drivers’ strike. In view of these repeated strikes, and constantly increasing demands, the operators have been compelled to take a final stand, and, having reached the extreme limit of wages which they say they can afford, or which justice to the miners demands, they have generally concluded to make no further concessions, and to let the strikers alone until their inclinations or their necessities compel them to return to their work.
It is generally believed that by the 1st of May the striking business will have pretty much played itself out, and operations will be more steady. Great apprehensions were felt that there was to be a general strike through all the mines from Scranton to Pottsville on the first of this month. These apprehensions grew out of the existence of a secret society among the miners, organized six months ago, and said to extend through the entire mining region. The precise character and objects of the society do not seem to be definitely understood by outsiders, and even its existence on the scale indicated appears to be a matter of doubt, but at any rate the movement for a general strike on the 1st of April, which rumor attributed to it, did not take place, and it is generally believed now that the policy of the association is to encourage small strikes here and there throughout the mining regions, so as to lessen the amount of coal produced, and thereby keep up the present prices and the consequent high wages. It is thought to be at the dictation of the committee representing the general association that the small strikes almost daily occurring in different portions of the mining region – often upon the most frivolous pretexts – are made.
The association has an “aid fund,” from which they supply the needy while on a strike, although, as before stated, wages are so high at present that, by working two-thirds of the time, the miners are able to support themselves while “striking” the other third. Another encouragement to “strikes” is the lack of cooperation among the different operators, and their rival interests and jealousies. This is particularly the case in the Lehigh and Schuylkill valleys, where the number of operators is very large. There being no uniformity in the price of wages paid by them, each operator is left to his own views of the best manner of advancing his own interests; and he often finds, or thinks he finds, that his interest lies in the destruction of his neighbors. Some of them are even accused of the meanness of instigating and encouraging strikes among the miners, with a view to lessen the general production, and thereby heighten the price of coal – intending, at all hazard, to keep their own collieries in full blast, even if they are compelled to yield to extortionate demands from the miners.
In the Scranton coal regions which are mainly under the control of a single company, there is much less trouble than in the Lehigh and Schuylkill mines. Among the twenty odd operators in the Lehigh Valley there were, on the 10th inst., nearly 1,500 men out: E.A. Packer & Col, of Mauch Chunk, 300; Haines & Co., of the Mt. Pleasant Mines, 75; Field’s & Co., of Milnesville, 75; in Beaver Meadow, Hazleton, Gainesville, etc.
In the Schuylkill Valley there are about 80 operators (firms) and about 120 collieries, and probably 30 percent of the entire force is now on a strike.
As a general thing the miners’ strikes are not of a lawless or violent character. Where there is no real grievance, there is not likely to be any very serious breach of the peace; and even if there were disposition to rioting, it could never assume a very formidable character for two reasons. In the first place, the entire mining force employed in the three Anthracite valleys numbers less than 20,000 men; and in the second place it is scattered over a region of a hundred miles or more in extent – the collieries being mostly away from large towns, on the tops of mountains, employing only from 100 to 400 men each, and widely separated from each other.
Five companies of well drilled troops would be abundantly able to suppress all riotous demonstrations throughout the entire region. Occasional acts of personal violence may occur, as int the instance of J.B. McCrary’s mines at North Spring, last Fall, where the miners, while on a strike, stopped the pumps used in pumping the water from the colliery, and on the engineer attempting to work them he was shot in the leg by one of the miners. But, as a general thing, the miners when on a strike do not assume to control the mines or to violate the law. They merely refuse to work unless their demands are complied with, and pass their time in frolicking or loitering about the numerous grog-shops that invest all the mining villages. The only exception to this rule is at Hoecksherville [Heckscherville]…
We will have more from this reporter in the Coal Region in coming posts.
Featured Image: Miners at work in the Coal Region during the Civil War era (Harper’s Weekly)
Read more Wynning History stories about the Civil War era here!
2 thoughts on “A New York Times reporter documents the turbulent situation in the Coal Region – 1863”
It’s a fascinating outside look at the state of anthracite labor relations — the reporter sees a secret society coordinating selective strikes to keep wages high, with local committees at each mine and a central strike fund. All backed up by the occasional act of violence. And this secret society/labor union is quite effective at raising wages, despite the presence of armed troops. All this shows that the Molly Maguires were, among other things, a surprisingly sophisticated precursor to the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association.