In general, as was generally the case with national changes, West Virginia was late to the labor movement. With early state politics dominated by salt, lumber, coal, and railroad interests, it’s certainly no wonder that the Mountain State was no friend of unions. Though unlike other states, our labor history is particularly violent.
There’s a stereotype that defines the labor movement in West Virginia: the company town. You know the stories. The coal company owns the mine, the houses the miners live in, the only store in town that accepts the miners’ scrip, and in many cases, even the churches. It’s a vicious loop in which virtually every cent paid to the miners goes straight back to the company. Yet, few know that the company town model had an earlier start here in Mason County.
The salt towns of the Bend Area operated much in the same fashion, especially Hartford. There, the Hartford Coal & Salt Company owned every industry in town from the barrel cooperage and sawmill to the coal mine and salt furnace, built and rented the homes on West Point where the miners lived, operated the company store which of course was the only store in town to accept company scrip, and gave the land for every church in town with the stipulation that it revert to the company if ever used for anything aside from a church. The conditions were primed for a strike, and strike they did.
Between the founding of Hartford in 1854 and the beginning of the Mine Wars in 1912, there were fifteen coal mine strikes on our side of the Bend. This doesn’t include strikes on the Ohio side or in different industries, of which there were several. Those fifteen were in 1872, 1877, 1878, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1884, 1886, 1894, 1897, 1898, 1902, 1904, and 1909.
Many of those strikes were, as they typically are, regarding pay. In almost every case in that list, mine owners attempted to cut wages during an economic downtown while leaving the forced company rent and company store prices high. In 1878, the Sehon Mine attempted to force scrip onto their miners. Yet, through 1886, the strikes were mostly peaceful and involved only a single mine or two in discussion with that particular owner. That all changed in 1894.
In response to nationwide wage cuts, 180,000 miners in five states walked out, including all of the Bend excepting the Camden Mines below West Columbia. What was not mentioned at the time is that the National Guard was mobilized at the request of the Camden Mines’ owner, Senator Johnson Camden, and the miners were more or less ordered to mine “or else.” When they finally did strike, Camden evicted them from their homes and brought in scab (non-union) labor. Similar tactics broke the strike nationwide, yet the miners won a symbolic victory in their strength and public support.
In 1897, that public support only grew after a similar wage cut of over 40% prompted another strike. Here in West Virginia, labor leaders were jailed under injunctions that falsely cited insurrection, which only fueled the fire. Even Editor Tippett, who normally stayed neutral during strikes and published both the miners’ and operators’ arguments, wrote, “the Federal judges are now engaged in persecuting laboring men. The miners ought to succeed in this strike because they are in the right.” Yet in the end, after nearly six months off work and with winter
setting in, the mine owners broke the strike and Bend Area miners returned to work making three cents less than they had in July.
That failure of the 1897 strike spurred the growth of the United Mine Workers, though membership was typically hidden from West Virginia mine owners for fear of blacklisting. Some historians suggest that the lodges of the fraternal order Improved Order of Red Men, which did indeed have a lodge in Hartford, served as a secret meeting place for unionists. Either way, when UMWA President John Lewis called a strike in 1902, the Bend Area miners walked out for nearly seven months. Faced with a coal shortage in an election year, President Roosevelt himself intervened, and the mine owners agreed to a 10% raise, a nine-hour workday, and an arbitration board to settle future disputes.
An unqualified success, the 1902 strike led to a decade of relative peace in the West Virginia coalfields. This was Labor’s Rising, a demonstration of their motto “In Union There is Strength.” Yet, it was not the end, not as mine owners began plotting their revenge.
Information from the Weekly Register and WV State Archives.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.