By the early 20th century, coal was king. The early petroleum industry was just beginning to produce kerosene and gasoline, while heating oil was unknown. Most homes, schools and buildings of every other type heated with coal. Railroads with coal powered locomotives provided the transportation system, and coal fired boilers powered most factory engines.
Anthracite was the hardest and best coal, burning hotter, longer and with less smoke than bituminous (soft) coal. However, anthracite was mined from deep underground veins. Extracting it in those days was dangerous, low paying, grueling labor. Miners often worked in horizontal coal seams just a few feet high. Paid by the ton, they sometimes hacked and shoveled on hands and knees for 10 hours each day in Stygian darkness.
On May 12, 1902, the Pennsylvania anthracite miners went on strike. They wanted unions, an eight hour day and a 20 percent pay increase. The owners refused to meet with them. The strike suited the owners since they had vast stockpiles of coal, and the strike legitimized increasing prices. Speaking for the Reading Railroad, one of the largest employers of miners, George Baer said, “These men [miners] don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”
The strike soon had local impact. It certainly provided grist for the mill of that indefatigable Sumneytown diarist, Daniel Royer. A lifelong democrat, the coal strike confirmed his rock ribbed views: “November 19, 1902. The Lord cares for the poor. No matter if the monopolists do not, but we are getting coal now. A team was in the neighborhood towards evening, but they are 30 cents a hundred, $6.00 a ton. The consumer must pay for the strike. It is always the case. But at the Throne of God these money kings will not make their own price. There they will stand on equal footing.”
(Some of the things that make Royer’s diaries a delight are his observations on various news of the day: “November 25, 1902. Marconi’s triumph at last complete. He received a coherent wireless message sent over the Atlantic on Nov. 20th. I think this invention will do more harm than good. Especially in war. Who will or can keep a secret of you can send messages in the air and anybody can pick them up. Am I right?”)
“December 15, 1902. Our coal dealers are out of chestnut or small coal. They can not get any. There is a coal famine all over. He in the country we can get on [with wood] but the cities, O my.”
“January 9, 1903. Intense cold and freezing no coals to be had and wood is also scarce and green saplings. Thank God that we were so lucky to lay in several tons. We also have ready cut wood in the stable. I had to put it there because some of it was stolen. It is from the old apple trees. If I could only make the coal kings suffer like the poor do I would do it with pleasure, yes.”
“January 14, 1903. O for the poor who have no coal or wood. May God have mercy upon them, The independent operators have coal enough if you pay 10 or 12 dollars per ton. The government is going to try if the R.R. operators are not in league with the independents. Rockafeller has put his coal oil [kerosene] to 14 cents per gallon. He must not believe in a hereafter.”
“January 14, 1903. It would be good for the icemen if it would keep cold for a while yet [for ice harvesting] only the poor coalless would suffer more. O what a gathering that will be when the last trumpet will sounded against those monopolists who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and suffering. O my.”
“January 20, 1903. At last the senators took the tariff [tax] off the coal only for one year. They are so afraid they will hurt the coal monopoly so they will not chip in from their ill gotten gains to keep them in power.”
In his summary of the year, Royer recounts, “There was a coal famine last winter on account of the great coal strike. You could not get any coal for some time at any price. We were so fortunate to have some coal yet we burned wood until real cold weather came. Now the coal barons raised their coal 50 cents per ton which they did on the strike before they gave their men 10 cents more per ton and charged the consumer 50 cents. So they made 40 cents by the operation.”
In the end, the miners had asked for a 20 percent increase but settled for 10; they asked for an eight hour day, but settled for nine. While the operators still refused to recognize the United Mine Workers, they did agree to an arbitration board made up of an equal number of labor and management representatives, so the miners called it a victory.
The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Historical Society. Call Robert Wood at 610-326-4165 with comments.