Mountaineers Are Seldom Free: Union-Busting in the West Virginia Mine Wars

Everything on and about my person had been coated in a thick film of stale tobacco smoke. After 30 days, 10,000 miles and 4 cartons of cigarettes, the air inside the cabin of my car had obtained the same translucence and acridity as a backwoods bowling alley—a fact greatly aided by the fact that I had been using old energy drink cans and soda bottles as makeshift ashtrays in an attempt to not attract the attention of state troopers or start the next major American wildfire. It also didn’t help matters much that I had only done one proper load of laundry since I started my road trip and that I had spent the past 10 days or so in the South, a place where folks frequently tell the Surgeon General to get bent and let you light up in their restaurant or bar or hotel room. I had just spent the night at a Super 8 motel in Fort Chiswell, a little highway exit town nestled in the vestigial tail of Virginia about 45 minutes west of Blacksburg. It would be the last time I stayed in the South proper on my trip, so I naturally spent a good two hours that evening enjoying the unparalleled sublimity of smoking in the prone position in a bed, soaking in what Richard Klein calls the, “darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.”

I woke up the next morning and hastily got dressed so that I wouldn’t be late for a meeting I was having in Kanawha County, West Virginia with an environmentalist friend of mine who was going to ruin an otherwise pleasant morning by taking me off into the wild blue yonder to show me what it looks like when coal companies spend a couple of decades detonating three million pounds of explosives a day in an attempt to literally blow the tops off of mountains in Appalachia. In my haste to get back on the road and up to the meeting spot on time, I had forgotten to get my usual morning energy drink and had to drive on caffeinated fumes for the first half hour, powered only by a half-full bottle of flat Diet Mountain Dew from the night before until I reached the first travel plaza on the West Virginia Turnpike. Once there, I quickly ran in and bought the biggest, cheapest energy drink I could find and took a few swigs before returning to my car, where I found I had company. In the parking space next to mine was a West Virginia State Trooper idling in his navy blue and gold Crown Vic, with his goofy little Smokey the Bear hat cocked at such angle that I couldn’t see the eyes that were probably looking over at me. Even though I had done nothing illegal, I still got all nervous and clammy-handed when I saw the trooper and gave him my best “nothing to see here, officer” nod before very slowly backing out and heading back onto the turnpike.

logan-defenders-gathered-on-main-stWest Virginia State Police & Other Strike Busters in Logan, WV Circa 1921

Like many highway patrols and state police agencies, the West Virginia State Police was originally created as a paramilitary organization in 1919 to help discourage union organizing among the state’s coal miners. Previous to the establishment of the WV State Police, the National Guard was the government’s go-to when it came time to rein in organized labor and put a stop to all the proletarian hell raising that was going on in the coal fields, but the Guard’s deployment during World War I provided the state’s governor with an opportunity to successfully advocate for the creation of a statewide police force.

Within a year, the state troopers were helping federal troops to enforce martial law in several of the coal rich counties in the southernmost part of the state—counties where the United Mine Workers Association had focused a substantial portion of their labor organizing efforts. Over the next several years, federal troops would come and go as situations escalated and deflated, but the state patrol was there to stay and they would prove to be a sort of wrecking crew designed to deny West Virginian coal miners’ their sacred and unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Among some of the troopers greatest hits were:

– Sending undercover state police into Southern WV mines to try and expose all the commies and wobblies that were running about.

– Jailing miners for reading union literature.

– Appointing men with significant ties to coal companies to serve on committees responsible for the selection of hundreds of “impartial” volunteer state policemen

– Killing an unarmed man while he had his hands above his head and was asking god for mercy immediately before destroying an entire tent city and unjustly imprisoning 56 people in a single 20′ x 40′ room with four backed up toilets and a couple inches of filthy, stagnant water on the ground.

With that type of wanton disregard for humanity as prologue, perhaps we should be grateful that most of the injustices carried out by the West Virginia State Police today are relegated to the realm of racial profiling. To be fair to the state police, they were probably pretty far down on most miner’s shit lists back I those days. Sure, troopers would try and enforce martial law every now and again, but there really weren’t that many of them to deal with. In their early years, enrollment ranged anywhere from 113 to 210 troopers for the entire state and any time the miners had any considerable success against the state police and the coal company’s hired goons, the governor would quite literally call in the cavalry and get federal troops to take control of the situation. No, ironically enough, the biggest threats to the livelihoods of West Virginia’s coal miners were—and still are—the coal companies themselves. The only difference between then and now is that King Coal has changed their principle mode of screwing over their workforce from using the company store and hired toughs to lobbying in Washington and exploiting loopholes in the US bankruptcy code.For example the West Virginia Turnpike exit that I was going to get off at for my meeting was situated in the southernmost tip of Kanawha County between Paint Creek and Cabin Creek—two waterways that were once home to nearly 100 separate coal mines that employed 7,500 workers and housed 35,000 people in nearby coal camps. For a miner, living in a coal camp meant signing your entire life away to the coal company you worked for. Everything—from the house you lived in to the streets you walked to work on to the water you drank and the school you sent your children to—was owned by the company. Your whole life was lived in a monopoly. If you wanted to buy some groceries or a kitchen table or a new pair of pants, there was only one option and that was the company store, a place where everything in sight is marked up well above retail price because the owners know that you don’t have anywhere else to go. Oh, and if you were planning on walking 15 miles to the nearest town with a general store so you can comparison shop, you’d better think again because the coal company only pays you in their own company “scrip,” which isn’t worth a damn thing at anyplace that isn’t the company store.

In the spring of 1912, the miners of Cabin Creek and Paint Creek went on strike to protest the conditions they were forced to endure in the coal camps and sent their employers a list of demands that they would need to be met before they would begin working again. Included among these demands were a cessation of the scrip system that required them to use the company store, along with the right to unionize, the right to free speech and peaceably assembly, and essentially a few items that would prevent the companies from cheating them out of their rightful pay. In response to the miners perfectly reasonable demands, the coal companies hired some 300 “mine guards” from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private company who had carved a nice little niche for themselves as the muscle for King Coal. When they contracted Baldwin-Felts for a job, it was well understood by all parties involved that they were not there to guard a damn thing. They were there to beat, to maim, to terrorize and, quite frequently, to kill.

A Picture of a Miner’s Camp at Mucklow, WV

The callous brutality of the Baldwin-Felts men and the coal companies that hired them was put on full display for the world to see in February of 1913, when several mine guards and a coal operator named Quinn Morgan tried to incite a riot by driving an armored train car—affectionately known as the Bull Moose Special—past the main miners tent camp in Holly Grove and spraying the residents there with machine gun fire. Only one person was killed and several more badly wounded, but it is not so much the scale of violence that is so appalling in this instance as it is the manner in which it was carried out. To drive an armored train in the dead of night with the sole purpose of firing a gatling gun at an unsuspecting community of men, women and children who have been forced to live in tents after you yourself kicked them out of their homes, is beyond unconscionable; it’s subhuman. Then again, a conscience was probably a foreign concept to Morgan, who was reported to have yelled out after passing the tent camp, “let us go back and get another round.” So it was that the state that was forged in the fires of fratricidal conflict would be condemned to remain in such a state more than 50 years after its founding. As M. Michelson put it in a piece written for Everybody’s Magazine shortly after the Bull Moose incident:

“There is now being waged in West Virginia a civil war. A real war. It is a war against feudalism in which five thousand armed coal-miners are opposed by the entire military organization of the state…It has been the genuine article, with a half-dozen pitched battles, an interesting quota of bloodshed, and a sufficient amount of legal quackery, official injustice and governmental despotism to make the average man wonder whether he was living in the United States or in one of the remote districts of Siberia.”

The author spends a good amount of time towards the conclusion of his piece speaking in reverent tones about the perseverance and grit of the miners and their families who had been striking for well over a year despite a dearth of substantive gains and odds that were stacked mightily against them. Among the many obstacles these miners were made to face were a governor who was openly antagonistic towards them, a court system that was determined to make an example of them through draconian sentencing, and an infinitely corruptible legislature in Charleston that was about to fill the US senate seat formerly occupied by an exorbitantly wealthy coal baron and industrialist with yet another exorbitantly wealthy coal baron and industrialist. After going through this litany of systematic injustice and oppression, Michelson was led to wonder how this could be happening now, “in the United States of 1912-13 A.D.!”(italics his).Thankfully, the author’s been dead and gone for at least half a century by now, because I sure as shit don’t have the heart to tell the guy that the United States of 2012-13 A.D. ain’t much better.


Categories: Book Excerpts/News, Class, History, Labor

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3 replies

  1. Muy excellent & picturesque dispatch from one of America’s most ravaged forced labor zones …Whew.

  2. An Interesting read that evokes images of Fritz Lang’s Metropololis without the happy ending. This kind of worker abuse & union busting was rampant before the Great Depression, which is why FDR was welcomed with such open arms by the electorate’s working class. I was really hoping to read about the present-day mining conditions for workers and the results of & reasons for your meeting vis-à-vis our efforts to stem the tide of a warming planet. I hope you write a follow-up.


  1. Mountaineers Are Seldom Free: Union-Busting in the West Virginia Mine Wars | While you were sleeping

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