New York, NY – The miners killed at Monongah and the other disasters of the early 20th century were collateral casualties of in the United States’ massive and rapid industrialization in the era of robber barons and monopolistic trusts. The workers who dug the coal in West Virginia, cut the meat in Chicago, milled the steel in Pittsburgh, and sewed the clothes in New York had no rights an employer was bound to respect, and were paid peanuts. From the flammable cotton scraps in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory to the explosive coal dust in the mines, safety was an afterthought. Miners said bitterly that the companies cared more about the lives of the mules that pulled coal carts than about the lives of the men, because they’d have to pay to replace a dead mule.
“It is but the natural course of mining events that men should be injured and killed by accidents,” West Virginia Governor G.W. Atkinson said in 1901, opposing mine-safety laws.–
The state had been known to have large deposits of coal since the 18th century, but mining did not become a major industry until the arrival of railroads in the 1870s. Production leaped from 2 million tons in 1883 to more than 11 million in 1894, and more than 22 million tons in 1900. More than a quarter of that was in the Fairmont field, where the Monongah mines were.
The West Virginia mine owners were also viciously anti-union, as their business model depended on undercutting the price of coal from Pennsylvania and the Midwest. After the United Mine Workers of America [UMWA] won a raise in 1912, union coal miners in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois made from 57 cents to $1.27 per ton. In West Virginia, nonunion miners got 38 cents per “long ton,” 2,240 pounds.
At Monongah, the Fairmont Coal company paid less than the usual rate for West Virginia.
The companies recruited miners from Italy, Poland, and as far away as Turkey and the Greek islands in the Ottoman Empire, with agents shepherding them on trains from the port of Baltimore. The death toll at Monongah reflected that: Only 85 of the 362 identified dead were native-born Americans, 74 white and 11 Black. Almost half were Italian immigrants, with the others mostly Polish, Hungarian and Greek. Most of the victims of the Darr explosion in Pennsylvania two weeks later were Hungarian immigrants.
In West Virginia, more than three-fourths of coal miners lived in company towns, a far higher proportion than in any other state. They shopped in the company store and were automatically evicted if their employment ended. They were often segregated by ethnicity — in Monongah, there were neighborhoods called “Italy” and “Africa.”
Company towns didn’t have independent municipal police forces; they were patrolled by company-hired armed guards, dubbed “gun thugs” by workers. In December 1902, after miners in the Cabin Creek area of the southern Kanawha coalfields went on strike when the owner abrogated their union contract, 700 families were evicted.
The mine owners also dominated the state government. Johnson N. Camden, who in 1889 founded the company that built the Monongah mine, was a U.S. senator for eight years in the 1880s and 1890s.
When the UMWA went on strike at Monongah in 1902, a federal judge issued what mine-safety expert Davitt McAteer called a “legal but bogus” injunction in his history of the disaster: It stretched the legal definitions of jurisdiction and conspiracy to justify banning public meetings, enabling the arrest of strike leaders. The judge had been receiving a free railroad car full of coal to heat his house from the Fairmont Coal Company, then the mine’s owner, each year.
In January 1908, less than six weeks after the Monongah disaster, a jury held that the Consolidated Coal Company, Fairmont’s successor, was not liable for the deaths. The jury, composed of local officials with personal and business ties to the company, denied evidence of dangerous coal-dust accumulations and inferior ventilation.
That ruling made payments to the dead miners’ families voluntary. Afterwards, Camden suggested to a co-owner that it might be “cheaper and safer to keep a stiff upper lip and fight it out” rather than to give widows compensation that would indicate the company’s guilt. He also lamented that the company houses still being occupied by “the families of the unfortunate miners would be a hard problem to deal with — and would be embarrassing, if it doesn’t solve itself.”
Two decades of low-intensity warfare between miners and company mercenaries ended in the 1920s with the UMWA almost wiped out in West Virginia. In 1912-13, 25 miners and company guards were killed during a strike in the Cabin Creek and nearby Paint Creek areas. That strike, which “united white mountaineers, Black miners, and Italian immigrants,” as historian James Green wrote in The Devil Is Here in These Hills, had one long-lasting effect: It inspired poet Ralph Chaplin to write “Solidarity Forever.”
In 1920, Governor Ephraim Morgan imposed martial law on Mingo County after a shootout in the town of Matewan where seven detectives from the Baldwin-Felts agency — the most notorious supplier of armed guards for the mine owners — and the town’s mayor were killed after Police Chief Sid Hatfield tried to arrest the lead detective for evicting strikers with a bogus warrant. Labor newspapers were banned and people arrested even for reading them in public.
Hatfield was acquitted of killing one of the detectives. He and a deputy were reindicted, and Baldwin-Felts agents assassinated them on the courthouse steps on Aug. 1, 1921. Four weeks later, more than 8,000 armed miners moved into Logan County to the north, trying to crack Sheriff Don Chafin’s iron-fisted suppression of union activity. They confronted 3,000 police and sheriff’s deputies in the forests of Blair Mountain. After three days of heavy fire, in which Chafin had pilots drop pipe bombs on the miners, a force of 2,100 federal troops quelled the conflict.
Hundreds of miners were rounded up and charged with treason, but charges were dropped against most of them after the first batch was acquitted. But the mine owners had the upper hand, and demanded that all workers sign “yellow dog” contracts agreeing they would never join a union. By 1929, a UMWA district leader estimated that 50,000 union miners and family members had been evicted in southern West Virginia, and the union’s membership in the state had shrunk from 50,000 to 600.
West Virginia’s mines were finally unionized in 1933, after New Deal legislation protecting workers’ rights to organize, and the UMWA, then led by John L. Lewis, became the largest union in the country.
The number of deaths in the mines declined after that. There were still numerous disasters, but the toll would be 18 or 56 dead instead of 154 or 259. The real change, says UMWA press secretary Phil Smith, didn’t come until after an explosion on November 20, 1968 at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington — owned by Consolidated Coal — killed 78 miners. Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969.
“Every law that deals with mine safety was written in dead miners’ blood,” says Smith.
In 2020, 29 miners were killed on the job, the sixth consecutive year that number has been less than 30, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. As of January 2021, there were about 230,000 miners working, with 64,000 of them in coal mines. The agency said “chronic problem areas” included a disproportionate rate of accidents among contractors and inexperienced miners. About one-third of deaths on the job in 2019 and 2020 were contractors.
Major disasters are “exceedingly rare today, thank God,” says Smith. In the 16 years he’s been working for the UMWA, there have only been two where more than three people were killed.
Those were the explosions that killed 12 workers at the Sago mine, about 60 miles south of Monongah, on January 2, 2006, and 29 men at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia’s coalfields on April 5, 2010, the worst mine disaster since Farmington. Former Upper Big Branch miners called it “an explosion waiting to happen,” Smith says.
Three things are essential for safe mining, he says: companies following the laws, government enforcing them, and a workforce speaking up. Upper Big Branch had none of them. There was a “company that was flouting the laws that were in existence, a mine-safety agency that wasn’t enforcing them, and a workforce that wasn’t empowered to speak up about safety.” Union contracts empower miners to stop production for safety reasons, but “nonunion miners don’t have that right.”
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship served a year in prison after being convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws in 2015. Blankenship, who had forced the UMWA out of Massey mines in the mid-1980s and ran up hundreds of safety violations at Upper Big Branch, has repeatedly claimed that the fatal methane-and-coal-dust explosion was caused by government ventilation regulations.
History persists. The second-worst mining disaster of the 21st century happened on September 23, 2001, when 13 miners were killed by a methane explosion at Jim Walter Resources’ No. 5 mine in Brookwood, Alabama. Twenty years later, more than 1,000 members of UMWA Local 2245 have been on strike there since April 1, trying to win back pay and benefit concessions they made in 2016, when the bankrupt mine was taken over by new owners, a collection of absentee investment funds.
Local authorities have echoed the company-town justice of a century before. UMWA members say police have ignored their complaints about strikebreakers ramming picketers with their cars. In October, a county judge prohibited picketing within 300 yards of entrances or exits to the mine, and has since extended that order twice.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts said the injunction violated strikers’ rights to free speech and assembly. “The Constitution of the United States protects American citizens’ rights to stand on the side of a road and call a scab a scab,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series.