Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks, by Lon Kelly Savage and Ginny Savage Ayers, will be published by WVU Press on September 1. In this post, adapted from his introduction to the book, historian Lou Martin (who received his PhD from West Virginia University) talks about the context for the strike, and argues for the relevance of the West Virginia Mine Wars during our own period of labor activism and political contest.
Paint Creek. Cabin Creek. Holly Grove. Cesco Estep. Mucklow. Frank Keeney. Mother Jones. Solidarity Forever. The places and the people of the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike are buried deep in the American memory of the labor movement and the working-class struggle for rights and justice. The strike occurred in the “age of industrial violence,” before there were laws to govern labor relations, and for many it revealed the darkest depths of capitalism in America but also the indomitable spirit of workers organized in the face of great odds. Despite its tragic loss of life, despite its importance in the history of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and despite being a cause célèbre among the labor activists of the era, this conflict in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields remains little known today except among historians and the coal mining families of southern West Virginia.
The Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike of 1912–1913 was the culmination of two decades of miners’ efforts to organize the coalfields of southern West Virginia. While miners in neighboring states formed union locals and negotiated contracts with coal operators, central Appalachian mines remained nonunion, and their owners believed that that one advantage enabled them to remain competitive with northern coal companies. The American coal industry started in areas linked by railroads to cities and centers of manufacturing. In 1880, while the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was still building lines in the mountains of central Appalachia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio were the leading producers of coal. That year, West Virginia’s mines were fifth in the nation, producing roughly 1.8 million tons. In the years to follow, investment capital flowed into the Mountain State and numerous mines opened—some “with little more than one mule and a borrowed harness,” according to one operator. By 1900 coal production had skyrocketed to 24.6 million tons.
In 1890 a delegation of miners formed the United Mine Workers of America in Columbus, Ohio, and began organizing workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. Seven years later, the union had a little more than 10,000 members, about 7,700 of them in Ohio—and only 75 members in West Virginia. That year union leaders called a strike on the Fourth of July that proved to be pivotal. Across the nation, 150,000 miners answered the call—nearly everywhere but southern West Virginia. The American Federation of Labor invited labor leaders from across the country to Wheeling to devise a strategy to organize the miners of the Mountain State. During the strike, Mary “Mother” Jones became one of the UMWA’s most powerful orators and effective organizers, and she spoke to some 17,000 miners in Charleston. After losing her husband and children to yellow fever decades earlier, Jones had dedicated her life to the labor movement, and she both inspired the miners of West Virginia and their families and was inspired by them.
While most of the nation’s mines were shut down in 1897, West Virginia mining companies were winning new customers and running at full capacity, and the state’s operators began to believe that the future survival of their businesses depended on remaining nonunion.
The UMWA organizing drive was not enough to bring the West Virginia miners into the fold. In the end, coal operators across the North signed an agreement that standardized wages, hoping to bring some stability to a chaotic industry, but they did so with the understanding that the UMWA would organize the miners of West Virginia, lest union mines be at a disadvantage to nonunion operations. While most of the nation’s mines were shut down in 1897, West Virginia mining companies were winning new customers and running at full capacity, and the state’s operators began to believe that the future survival of their businesses depended on remaining nonunion. No one was more dramatic in their statement of this belief than Justus Collins of the New River coalfields. “We are not running a Christian Endeavor Camp Meeting nor a Sunday School,” he wrote to his brother, “yet a certain amount of decency and order must be required of our people.” He added, “Never lose sight of the fact that the sole purpose of the organization is to make money for their stockholders.” Any “matters of conduct” that worked against that end “should be promptly squelched with a heavy hand.”
When they opened new mines, the owners had new housing quickly constructed for the workers, and in the early 1900s a very high percentage of miners in West Virginia—more than three-quarters—lived in company-owned towns, more than any other state by far. Mine owners learned to use their ownership of the housing as a form of control over the miners and their families. They retained the right to search the premises for any reason, and one company explicitly prohibited miners from hosting anyone that was “undesirable or against the interests of the company.” When one operator discharged miners in Widen, he sent them a notice that bluntly stated, “I want my house.”
Justus Collins advised hiring a “judicious mixture” of native whites, African Americans, and European immigrants to keep workers divided and prevent unionization.
West Virginia coal operators recruited hardscrabble mountain farmers, sharecroppers leaving the South, and European immigrants arriving on the East Coast. Justus Collins advised hiring a “judicious mixture” of native whites, African Americans, and European immigrants to keep workers divided and prevent unionization. Often the physical layout of the company town would reflect this strategy, and housing was segregated, with various sections known by ethnic and racial slurs, such as “Hunkytown,” “Darktown,” and “Tallytown.” When they began organizing among themselves, miners had to overcome cultural differences and suspicions of one another.
Companies also built stores in the coal camps to sell employees everything from food to home furnishings to tools the miners needed underground. Executives realized that the company stores could play a central role in their operations, especially during times of fierce competition when they were the only source of profits. By the early 1900s, it was common for miners to receive scrip—often a token with a hole punched in the middle—that was redeemable only at the company store. While initially the company store was another necessity that companies had to construct for their workers, managers learned that this too could be used as leverage against the employees by charging inflated prices in boom times, extending credit in lean times, and cutting miners off during strikes.
Coal operators also acted as the local government, complete with private police forces to keep order in the coal camps. Admittedly, the camps in the early years of the coal boom were rough-and-tumble places where young men, alcohol, and firearms produced many violent confrontations. “To use the expression of the Middle Ages,” claimed mine operator W. P. Tams, “I was high justice, the middle, and the low.” He would ask offenders if they wanted to take “company discipline” or face a “court-martial,” noting that the “sensible” men chose company discipline.
Mine owners enjoyed great support from the county and state government. Most state leaders had unwavering faith in the potential of economic development to unlock an era of prosperity. In 1891 Governor A. B. Fleming—the first of nine governors who either were themselves coal company officials or chosen by the state’s industrialists—lamented that the “vast possibilities of the State are as yet scarcely realized.” Six year later Governor George Atkinson declared, “Instead of fewer corporations in West Virginia, we need more of them. Instead of crushing out those we already have, it is our duty to invite others to come among us to aid us in the development of our almost inexhaustible natural resources.” The state aided coal companies by, among other things, allowing the mine guard system to flourish, declaring martial law when miners rebelled, and sending the National Guard to quell labor disturbances. County governments tended to be even more closely tied to the coal industry. For example, in Fayette County “King Samuel” Dixon was the president of the New River Coal Company and the Republican boss of the county, exerting tremendous influence over county offices, political appointments, and the courts.
In 1902 Mother Jones was again organizing miners in Kanawha County, first on Kellys Creek and then along Paint Creek and Cabin Creek. In May the UMWA went on strike in the anthracite fields of eastern Pennsylvania, and a month later, fearing that the nonunion mines would undermine their position, union officials issued a strike call in West Virginia. Sixteen thousand miners walked off the job, but southern West Virginia operators refused to negotiate. During the strike, Justus Collins set a precedent when he requested agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency of Bluefield, West Virginia, to protect company property. Thereafter, the Baldwin-Felts agents became notorious for patrolling the coal camps, evicting striking miners and their families, and intimidating and harassing them. Jones later recalled the violence of the 1902 strike in West Virginia: “Men were shot. They were beaten. Numbers disappeared and no trace of them was found.”
The strike in West Virginia largely failed, but the UMWA gained a precarious foothold where Jones had organized in Kanawha County and where operators signed a contract with UMWA District 17 officials. Two years later, however, local operators broke the contract, refused to negotiate, and miners went to work without a contract. Over the next several years, District 17 officials tried periodically to rebuild the union. Historian David Corbin argues that UMWA officials were ineffective in southern West Virginia not just because of the repressive nature of the company town but also because they failed to recognize that curbing the abuses of the company town were the miners’ top priority—not higher wages and shorter hours—and that a pivotal moment came in 1912, when rank-and-file Paint Creek and Cabin Creek miners like Frank Keeney, exasperated with District 17 officials, decided to take control of the strike.
They believed that the 1912–1913 Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike would be an important turning point for the Socialist Party.
As the UMWA was floundering in southern West Virginia, the Socialist Party enjoyed surprising success, especially among skilled craftsmen in a handful of the state’s towns and cities. Labor activists and disciples of Eugene Debs worked tirelessly to spread the ideas and values of the Cooperative Commonwealth—a society based on cooperative ownership and just wages—winning over local labor assemblies, establishing newspapers and cooperatives, and electing members to some fifty political offices. Their success in the early 1900s built on craftsmen’s efforts to start small, cooperatively owned factories. Then, in 1912, Socialists saw an opportunity. As Debs ran for president of the United States on the promise of bringing democracy to industrial capitalism, party organizers in West Virginia found some eager allies among the striking miners. Many learned the principles of socialism from party officials, but radicals believed that the miners were arriving at the same conclusions from their battles in the company towns and on the picket lines. They believed that the 1912–1913 Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike would be an important turning point for the Socialist Party.
Perhaps unable to memorialize so many tragic strikes occurring in such a short time, American labor histories often omit the events of Paint Creek and Cabin Creek altogether.
The strike in the upper Kanawha Valley did not herald the arrival of the Cooperative Commonwealth and was instead one in a series of violent conflicts before and after World War I that left the labor movement searching for answers. Three other strikes at the time have cast a long shadow over the era, leaving the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike in darkness. In 1912 and 1913 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Paterson, New Jersey, among mostly immigrant textile workers, and both attracted the attention of the national press, radicals, and conservative fearmongers as well as artists and poets. The Lawrence strike became known as the “bread and roses” strike after the words of one contemporary poem, and the IWW victory there heralded the arrival of that revolutionary labor organization. In 1914 the UMWA unloaded thousands of canvas tents in Colorado, where another miners’ strike would end in tragedy. Many of the tents were shipped from Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, where they had been used by striking West Virginians. At Ludlow, miners took on John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, and when the Colorado National Guard fired a machine gun into a tent colony, killing twenty-two people, the nation was stunned. Perhaps unable to memorialize so many tragic strikes occurring in such a short time, American labor histories often omit the events of Paint Creek and Cabin Creek altogether.
The battles in southern West Virginia continued after 1913, culminating in the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, and collectively these events came to be known as the West Virginia Mine Wars. While labor historians largely ignored the subject for decades, West Virginia historians have written about the Mine Wars since Charles Anson’s groundbreaking 1940 dissertation on the labor movement in the Mountain State. Beginning in the 1980s a new cohort of writers and filmmakers, led by Lon Savage, attempted to bring the story to the larger public. His book Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–1921 presented the events in a compelling narrative style that drew in readers, young and old alike. When I took my first West Virginia history course in college around 1991, it was one of the required texts.
Savage was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1928. His father had fought against the miners, and it was from those stories that Lon first learned about the Mine Wars. He graduated from Cornell University and spent a year at the University of Grenoble in France before coming back to West Virginia. From 1955 to 1965 he worked as a journalist, first for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and then for United Press International and the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia. From there he moved to Virginia Tech, where he served in the president’s office for twenty-three years. He retired in 1993, after founding the Scholarly Communications Project in the University Libraries. It was during this time at the university that he wrote Thunder in the Mountains, traveling through southern West Virginia, talking to participants, and crafting the story into a highly readable narrative. Savage’s passion for West Virginia history and the struggle of the miners is apparent on every page, and Thunder in the Mountains became a resource for Denise Giardina and John Sayles and has inspired many young West Virginians to want to learn more about their state’s history. Savage had begun work on his book about the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike before he died on July 27, 2004, at his home in Salem, Virginia, at the age of seventy-five. His daughter Ginny Savage Ayers has now completed the book.
Once again the Mine Wars demand our attention, and at long last the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike gets its due in a full-length narrative history of those fateful events, told largely in the presence of the miners’ angel, Mother Jones. I hope that we are at the beginning of another sustained examination of the Mine Wars. There is still much to learn about the history of coal miners in southern West Virginia, the escalation to violence in the early twentieth century, the uneasy truce that followed in the 1920s, the miners’ role in the political economy of the Mountain State, and the role that West Virginians played in the national labor movement. Having been one of those students—many years ago now—who picked up a copy of Thunder in the Mountains and was drawn into this history, it is an honor to write an introduction to a new book that I hope will inspire many history students to come.