Source: WV History Film Project
WEST VIRGINIA, SOUND ROLL 36,
STUART MCGEHEE AT BLUEFIELD AT THE
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 1, CAMERA ROLL 164
PICTURE IS ONE FRAME BEHIND UP TO 2ND SLATE
Q: Southern West Virginia after the Civil War,
what was life like ?
SM: Not very few people lived in southern West Virginia until the arrival of the C & O in the 1870's in the New River and the Norfolk and Western in the 1880's. Prior to industrialization, the only way you could make a living around here was farming; and the land is simply too steep too rugged to allow much widespread agriculture. There are a few little crossroads towns that served as market places for the agricultural goods, but basically the descendants of the Revolutionary War soldiers who were given the land by a grateful but bankrupt government in the 1700's still lived there a hundred years later. Until the arrival of the railroad and the beginning of the widespread industrialization, their lives had not changed very much over the course of the hundred years.
Even the Civil War didn't have that great of an impact in southern West Virginia. The terrain is too rugged; the land is too broken up by valleys, plateaus, and rivers and streams to allow much in the way of what we call American civilization. This was really the last great frontier in America. As Frederick Jackson Turner, the great American historian, acclaimed that the American frontier was closing, in fact there were pockets like southern West Virginia mountains well behind the advancing frontier that still remained to be settled in settling in terms of modern industrial civilization. The area was very sparsely inhabited. McDowell County, according to the 1880 census, contained something like 2,000 people in 1880 before the arrival of the railroad. By the turn of the century the was 30 or 40 thousand people who lived there.
You can divide southern West Virginia's history up neatly into pre-industrial and post-industrial; the coming of the railroad as a iron curtain that literally divides pre-industrial Appalachia from what we know today as a coal bearing railroad facility that we know of in southern West Virginia. ...
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 2, CAMERA ROLL 164, SOUND 36
Q: Tell me about this dividing concept of the
railroad coming, divided life?
SM: European people, white Americans, have lived in southern West Virginia for 200 years. You can divide that neatly in the middle into two categories: the first hundred years is a very rural, rustic sort of Scotch-Irish typical Appalachian culture. That changes radically in about the 1880's with the arrival of the railroad. I joke. I call it the iron curtain falls on this pre-industrial life and transforms it from a few rural, scattered homesteads up and down the river banks into this teaming, industrial region supplying the coal of course that made America the nation that we know of it today. It is literally like night and day. When the railroad arrives, suddenly transportation opens up; you begin to have school systems, a whole retail market begins to develop.
Before that time, an economy of barter and substance and pastoralism had characterized southern West Virginia much as it had been for 100 years. Not a great deal of change, unlike say on the Ohio river where there had been a constant network of communication with the northeast. That wasn't true in southern West Virginia at all. The mountains and the rivers run the wrong way; the land simply will not sustain a large population. It is simply too rugged and it's kind of an irony there because directly beneath the feet of these pioneer inhabitants are some of the largest deposits of bituminous coal in the whole world, much less the United States.
Q: How did that come down to the average
person's life. How did the ordinary southern West
Virginian's life change before and after the coming of
SM: Before the arrival of the railroad, it was a very isolated existence. There were roads through which travelers heading west could come; people gathered at the county seats, usually crossroads, agricultural produce market towns throughout the river bottoms. But for the most part people lived a very, very rural, scattered isolated existence. Very self sufficient in many ways in a typical Appalachian way in terms of most families. The head of household needed to be a hunter, a tanner, a trapper, a farmer. He needed to be able to protect his family. Merely clearing the land, you know girdling stumps, was an enormous amount of work.
Huge families characterized homesteads. You needed a lot of land around each family to sustain it. A lot of hunting ground, an area to graze, to grow what produce you could. That sort of mitigated against large groups of people. So there was no sort of urbanization process and no gatherings of people in what we would call an organic community to speak of at all in southern West Virginia.
Now the railroad transformed that. Suddenly manufactured goods instantly came in so that you no longer had to do everything by hand at the local level. The railroad of course brought in new kinds of people. Probably the first black people in southern West Virginia were railroad workers who worked for a dollar and a dime for ten hours time. The railroad workers on the crews that graded the roadbeds for the C & O and the Norfolk and Western and later on the Virginian. So the railroad changed the demographic makeup, but also the conception of life. As I've stated life in West Virginia a hundred years ago was very similar to what it was 200 years ago. The major quickening and the pace of industrialization comes when the railroad begins to bring in Yankee entrepreneur from Pennsylvania and New York, immigrants to come in and work on the railroad and to begin building the facilities around the coal field.
Suddenly life was not a self-sufficient isolated agrarian life. Suddenly you were part of something. Suddenly southern West Virginians were part of the emerging American industrial network from railroads and coal mines to big cities and seaports that shipped the raw materials abroad. So the railroad thus brought in modern civilization and it transformed that culture completely.
Q: ? ? ? ... how did it come about that the
railroad finally did make its way here. It seems one
of the first steps was this sort of lone individual,
Jedidiah Hotchkiss doing a survey ...
SM: The technology had to be available first. As I understand it, the technology to run railroads into this kind of terrain did not exist until the Civil War. There's a marvelous man named Herman Howt who was the superintendent of the United States military railroads, and apparently he was one of the first advocates of the steam powered railroad shovel. Until that technology, it was not possible to run railroads into the heart of the coalfields. You can skirt the edges of it. Now during the Civil War, there was very little use for coal before the Civil War. You understand that there was a steel making process and the widespread use of coal for industrialization -- really there was no demand for it until after the Civil War, nor did the technology to get there.
Q: They didn't know it existed?
SM: Well, as early as Thomas Jefferson's notes on the state of Virginia, as you know, there was --
Q: I don't know anything ...
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW TAKE 3, SOUND 36, CAMERA ROLL 164
Q: Okay Stuart, so you've got the position
post-Civil War where people are leading a life not
unlike they did 75, 100 years before. How did the
concept of what natural resources ??? change
SM: Knowledge of the existence of the massive coal seams in southern West Virginia had existed all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. In his only published book, 'Notes on the State of Virginia,' he mentioned that the entire Ohio valley river valley south through the mountains was underlain with coal. This was, however, seen as an impediment to farming. You simply cannot farm on a land where there's a lot of coal. Sometimes animals won't even graze on coal land. Along about the middle of the 19th century coal emerged as the principal fuel of industrialization. Back then, coal not only had the transportation market of locomotives and steam ships, but it also heated people's homes. Large cities in the northeast could not have existed. It's not fuel supplies around there, wood and so forth, to heat their homes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "Coal is a portable climate." In fact, the large urbanization of the northeast because of home heating fuel that coal provided. Moreover, as you know, coal is the principal fuel used to make steel out of iron. So suddenly a demand for coal created the conditions whereby sharp eyed northern entrepreneurs begin looking for deposits of coal in rural areas that they could industrialize.
Now the agent of connecting northern capital and demand for coal with huge existing reserves in Appalachia tended to be a class of men, urban industrial promoters, new south men, men who believed that the south was cursed by its agriculture slave origins and wanted to make it more like the north. There were writers and novelists and promoters -- a whole campaign of industrial development in the south. Their means of doing it was to try to attract northern capital to resources that could be developed in the south. The classic case in our area and the most important in the southern West Virginia coalfields is Jedidiah Hotchkiss.
Hotchkiss served on Stonewall Jackson's staff in the confederate army as a map maker. He, after the war, in Staunton, Virginia published an industrial magazine called The Virginias. He mailed it at his own expense to anybody in the north who had money that he could interest in the resources of the south.
... NO INSTRUCTIONS ARE GIVEN,
ASSUME SOUND ROLL CHANGED TO 37
[sound quality on questions very, very poor; SM a little better]
SM: ... [poor sound quality] ... having found as Hotchkiss did gigantic deposits of bituminous coal. Then the other half of his job was to manage to interest some Philadelphia or New York money in doing the develop of the industrialization process. It took incessant energy and they went to expositions with displays of the coal, they published booster magazines and promotional literature and finally Hotchkiss managed to interest big time Philadelphia money.
There was a family named Graham from Philadelphia that attempted first to run a railroad to coalfields, but the panic of 1873 destroyed the effort and it wasn't really until the early 1880's when Hotchkiss managed to interest the Clark and their chief railroad man, Frederick Kimball, in the southern West Virginia coalfields, that the project actually began to occur. Kimball was the kind of man who could communicate well with railroad workers and large scale English financiers. He was able to be a gandy dancer and an account executive at the same time. Kimball's job was to convince his Philadelphia bosses, the really big money, that it was in their interests to run a railroad to the southern West Virginia coal fields, in particular the Pocahontas coal seam. What they did was to turn the N & W from the New River at Glen Lynn up the East river to the Bluestone, ultimately to Pocahontas, which was the first time that the Norfolk and Western Railroad encountered the coal seam. That was his job.
Q: ??? ? ...
SM: Yes, Kimball was a -- he wanted to build a railroad; he wanted to run a railroad. He had that sort of efficiency of building an industrial machine that would function properly, it would deliver the goods. His job was always to do what the directors of the company told him to do. He was an excellent corporate executive. Hotchkiss, on the other hand, was a huckster. He purchased land and managed to find people who would buy it from him at a phenomenal price increase. He was able to inflate the value of real estate in southern West Virginia by interesting northern capital in it. He ultimately made a great deal of money, turning over land that he had purchased for back taxes and from the old inhabitants, he managed to settle that money into large parcels into what became the Norfolk and Western's landholding company, The Flattop Land? Trust?.
Q: Hotchkiss ? ? a long line ? ?
SM: There is a perception that southern West Virginia was industrialized by large northern corporations. It doesn't happen like that. There is a middle man concept; the actual purchase of the land was done by a Princeton lawyer named David Johnston. The Philadelphia people gave him $5,000 in a bank account in the Princeton Bank & Trust, and he used it to purchase the land. And you'll find that pattern holds true pretty much through southern West Virginia. The local gentry, the pre-existing elite made the contacts with the northern capitalists and usually purchased the land for them.
Q: Let's go back to Kimball a little bit. ? ?
SM: Kimball, as you know, died as president. ... Kimball was a lifer. He ran the company from its creation up until it went into receivership in the 1890's. Then he was re-instated as president, and he was still president of Norfolk and Western when he died in the year 1900. He was a lifer. He built the railroad from three scattered bankrupt regional lines. He did this mighty industrial energy producing carrying conglomerate that really typifies I think modern American industry. Now he is thus a transitional figure. When he first came on horseback to southern West Virginia, there were no roads, there were no cities, there were not schools. By the time he died, southern West Virginia was a heavily populated teaming industrial colony?
Q: ? ? ?
SM: The Clark family of Philadelphia ran a private accounting house, a private investment firm whose job was to make money for their investors, like a stock broker of today. They had dealings all over the planet. They owned steam ship lines. They owned real estate. They owned railroads, and they were the family that was willing to put up the money to consolidate Kimball's three scattered lines into the Norfolk and Western. The Clark family was well heeled enough to be able to finance the enterprise, and their job -- I think it cost $2 million -- to run the Norfolk and Western about 20 miles up to the coalfields. Nobody in West Virginia had that kind of money, and very few people south of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or New York in America did at the time. That type of large scale capital accumulation was simply behold the capability of what southern industrialists there were.
The Clarks bankrolled the whole thing. By the time the coalfield really began to be productive in the 1880's, the Clark family owned the Norfolk and Western Railroad which was the only way to get coal out. They owned the first and the largest coal mining company, The Southwest Virginia ?? Company, and they owned the land company, the Flattop Land Trust, that owned all the land. Basically, they had created a captive market for the purpose of mining coal and selling it to the large northeastern businessmen.
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 5, CAMERA ROLL 165, SOUND ROLL 37
Q: Okay, so he got all the big power. ? ?
SM: The Norfolk and Western Railroad was not interested in mining coal. The corporate structure of Pocahontas coal fields work in a different way. Instead, the railroad leased 1,000 acre chunks of prime coal-bearing land to independent coal operators. So every half or mile or so up the Norfolk and Western as it went up the Elkhorn and the Tug river, begin to appear independent coal operations, not big corporations. Now ultimately the Pocahontas coal field had some 150 different mines, each completely separate. They leased their land from the railroad land holding company, for which they paid a handsome royalty -- ten cents a ton per coal and fifteen tenths? cents a ton for coke regardless of labor price, market price of coal. That was for the privilege of mining coal on the railroad's land, the really big money went to Philadelphia on the coal ?
Q: ? ?
SM: The railroad thus leased -- As a result -- The railroad leased one thousand acre chunks of their land to independent coal operators. For that privilege, the coal operators paid ten cents a ton for every ton of coal they shipped out on the railroad and fifteen cents a ton for every ton of coke. The really big money thus accrued to bank accounts in Philadelphia and New York and Pittsburgh as a result of royalty payments for coal that was shipped. Now the independent operators tended to be middle class men; most of them were from English extract who had mined coal in Pennsylvania.
Some like John Cooper or Bill Berry had worked in the New River area before they came down to southern West Virginia and Norfolk and Western. They were in a sense allied against the huge corporate Philadelphia entity that controlled the coal field and the railroad, which was the only way of getting coal out of southern West Virginia. Ultimately the independent operators banded together in the operators associations to fight the railroad over freight rates, to try to bargain the royalty down and to lobby for their common interests, such as keeping the coal field non-union and so forth.
In a way you can draw a line in southern West Virginia in the early years of the coal fields, not between labor and capital, but between the coal operators and the miners and the huge corporation that controlled the railroad and the land holding company. The coal operators lived on the mine site. The old coal operators in this area did not live in big northern cities and hire people to run their mines. They lived on the mine site. Most of them had mined coal themselves by hand and understood the process. As a result, the industrialization in southern West Virginia occurred in a very different way than in many other areas of America.
WEST VIRGINIA, ROLL 38, CAMERA ROLL
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 7, ROLL 166, SOUND 38
Q: [again, poor quality] ?
SM: John Cooper opened up the first coal mine in West Virginia in the Pocahontas coal fields. In 1884, halfway between Pocahontas, Virginia and what is today ?? he opened up the Mill Creek Coal and Coke Company. He did it by himself. When I say he opened it up, I don't mean his miners did, I mean John Cooper drove the ?? ? and according to family and local lore and tradition, he began with one mule and a couple of borrowed coal cars. Now he had to haul all that stuff up over the mountain ...
Q: ? ...
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 8, ROLL
166, SOUND 38
SM: John Cooper opened up the first coal mine in Mercer County, which is the first mine in the West Virginia side of the Pocahontas coal field. He was born in England. He had worked for somebody else's mine as an engineer in the New River Gorge. He purchased a lease of 1,000 acres of land from the Norfolk and Western Railroad and began mining coal in 1884. According to tradition, he began with one mule and two borrowed coal cars. When he opened up the mine I don't mean the miners opened it up, I mean John Cooper himself drove the drift? mount? with Jenkin Jones and some of the early coal operators. Now they actually lived on the mine site themselves, they understood the realities of mining coal. They had mined coal by hand as coal miners themselves. They're middle class men. They were not agents of big corporations.
John Cooper was his corporation. He gave it to his sons, Thomas and Edward, when he died around the year 1900, and they built a fine house in Bramwell. The mine at Cooper's, the company store, still stands today. There are coke ovens on top of the hill. He typified I think, Cooper does, the early coal operators. They tended to be men who saw an opportunity; by dent of hard work they were able ...
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 9, CAMERA ROLL 166, SOUND 38
Q: Tell us about John Cooper?
SM: Typical of the early southern coal operators was John Cooper. He was an Englishman; he had been a coal miner himself. He had worked for somebody else's mines in the New River Gorge. When he saw an opportunity like the Pocahontas coal field of the Norfolk and Western offered, he moved in quickly. He secured a lease of a thousand acres right on the West Virginia line near Pocahontas, Virginia on the Bluestone River. In 1884 he opened up his Mill Creek Coal and Coke Company. He opened the mine himself. He drover the drift mouth. He had one mule and two borrowed coal cars he'd borrowed from his friend Jenkins Jones, who was doing the same thing a half a mile on down the river.
Now Cooper lived on the mine site; Cooper was an experienced mining engineer, who knew the business from the ground up, and he saw an opportunity to come in, to open a coal mine. He made a great deal of money after some years to pay back the money he had borrowed to secure his lease. He left his sons, Thomas and Edward, a huge house in Bramwell and ultimately a seat in congress.
Q: Now was he typical of coal operators? Tell
us about who they were as a class.
SM: You need to read Ken Sullivan's dissertation then you would understand that. ... In general, if you were to characterize the southern West Virginia coal operators in the 1880's, the men who first opened up the coal mines along the railroad, almost all of them were of English extract. Almost all of them had experience in other coal fields, either in Pennsylvania or in the New River Gorge. Almost all of them were mining engineers who lived on the mine site. Ultimately there were about a hundred of these owner operated coal mines and coal towns up and down the railroads of the C & O and Norfolk and Western. Men like Jenkins Jones, John Cooper, John Lincoln -- they really were very typical of the coal operators in southern West Virginia.
Q: Tell me more about what they had to do to
make their business work? ? ?Tell us about how
company towns got formed and why?
SM: The biggest problem for a coal operator back then was securing labor. He could get a lease; he could have a railroad right to his drift mouth? but back then coal mining was a very labor-intensive labor. Very few people lived here in southern West Virginia, so the coal operators had to bring in all the labor for their coal miners and all the other ancillary parts of coal mining in from the outside. They were lucky. In the late 1800's they tapped into two migrations: the black people from the deep south who were fleeing Jim Crow and segregation came up here, and then eastern Europeans. The old Ottoman Empire was breaking up in eastern Europe and millions of Slavic people came over to America to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Coal companies banded together to hire multi-lingual labor agents to meet the boats from Europe.
They specifically looked for immigrants from coal bearing regions, the Carpathian Mountains, northern Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia. They looked for families and villages from coal mining regions they could bring in on the railroad. Thus, all of the labor or most of it was brought in from the outside. So the coal operator had to procure his own labor. He was trapped between this huge industrial conglomerate of the railroad and the land holding company and a labor force that very often that he very often could not even communicate with. The coal operators tended to be as a result hard-nosed businessmen.
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 11, CAMERA ROLL 166, SOUND ROLL 38
Q: ? ?
SM: Although the really big money invested in the southern West Virginia coal fields came ...
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 12, CAMERA ROLL 166, SOUND 38
SM: Although the really big money that was invested and the big profits were made largely from the northeast, there were opportunities in southern West Virginia for some local financiers. The only principal money man in southern West Virginia who was a native West Virginian was Isaac T. Mann, of Greenbrier County, a member of a large family of -- I wouldn't call them coalfield bankers -- but of southern West Virginia financiers. Mann managed to build a vast empire out of the Bank of Bramwell. He manipulated the leases and leasing the money and ultimately the Bank of Bramwell became a very powerful institution halfway between the coal operators and the banks in Philadelphia and New York and Pittsburgh that basically underwrote the entire operation.
Mann was legendary in the coal fields. His family made a fortune. Ultimately they invested in real estate in Chicago, Washington and New York. He used the Bank of Bramwell liberally as the center of a widespread financial empire. He invested in every operation in railroads and coal mining in southern West Virginia, and he managed to be involved in one of the great scams in West Virginia history, whereby he managed to get J. P. Morgan to bankroll against the Philadelphia interests in the Norfolk and Western conglomerate. What he did was to take an option on their land from the Flattop Land Trust. They assumed he could never get the money to make his option work, and he journeyed to New York to Mr. Morgan.
In something like ten minutes, he managed to get the backing of the powerful financial interests that enabled him to back, exercise his option, and ultimately force the Norfolk and Western Railroad into giving up some 50,000 acres of prime coal field to what became U.S. Coal and Coke, which was J.P. Morgan's effort to rationalize the coal industry. It was a brilliant piece of banking. He made an enormous amount of money, and the story is one of the most famous in West Virginia financial history.
Q: Let's just talk a little bit about the aftermath
of that and the establishment of the company town,
Gary, which was actually several company towns.
Tell us about Gary.
SM: The idea of Gary was Morgan's attempt to control the steel making interests from start to finish. He got the Mojave? range for the iron; he got southern West Virginia for the coal; he had the Pennsylvania Railroad to haul it all; and it was designed to be a smooth, efficient, modern, industrial operation. And it was. Gary was the most productive coal producing facility on the planet earth for many decades. Gary was twelve separate coal mining towns, all linked together into the U.S. Coal and Coke's phenomenally productive operation. Now the twelve separate works were model towns. They had paved roads and indoor plumbing and electric lights before many of the other communities in this area did. They had their own tasmocounty? dairy farm to provide fresh produce for the company stores. They had their own engineers; they took thousands of photographs designed to document the work they did.
People who grew up in Gary remember it as a model town that was an extremely nice place to live. They proudly talk about their communities, compared to many of the other less well heeled company towns in the southern West Virginia operation. Gary was a coal miners' first rate facility.
Q: What was a company town like? Describe it,
talk about how it worked economically and socially
SM: Ultimately in the Pocahontas coal fields there were 120 small company towns. They averaged about 500 people apiece. The railroad was the only way in, the only way out. The isolation thus created a fierce sense of community, and people who grew up in those coal towns really remembered that everybody knew everybody else. Women were not allowed to work for money, according to an ancient superstition, so the women in the coal towns built these elaborate networks based around the weekly rhythms and the chores of the housework. The ever present job of keeping coal dust out of the family clothing and out of the family food and so forth.
The coal towns were usually residentially segregated by race and ethnicity. There's Hunk Town over here and there was the Black Hill up over here and the larger houses of the usually native white American mining officials were on what flat ground there was in the bottom. But the two most important institutions of the company town, the company store and the coal mine itself, were not segregated. There's probably very few places in America in the 1920's that you'd find black people and white people shopping together, except in company stores in the southern West Virginia coal fields. Everybody knew everybody else.
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, CAMERA ROLL 167, SOUND ROLL 39, TAKE 13
Q: You set up a little bit about the structure of
the company. Tell me how it functioned socially?
There were no divisions in the mines, but then people
went home and there was a different
SM: It's very hard to understand company towns; we don't live like that nowadays. We tend to look at them through our urban, 20th century, middle class eyes, and all the houses look alike and it's real dusty and dirty and there's no cable television. So the culture is hard for us, it's inaccessible to us to understand. But when you talk to old coal miners and they talk about their forms of recreation -- I don't just mean company things like company sponsored baseball teams or -- but the simple rhythms of their life. Work and home were really closely related.
They weren't separated like in industrial. You walk to work and the whole town centered around one thing: mining coal. There was a purpose and a central mission to the town that communities don't have nowadays. In other words, everything in the town was centered around getting coal out of the ground and getting it out because in those days you weren't paid by the hour, you were paid by the ton of coal you mined. So you could mine all the coal in the world, but until the railroad told you mine the coal -- the town was centered around a very precise set of industrial rhythms that had to do with the mining of coal, and that's the central thing to understand about it.
The other problem with it, although it's common to decry conditions in the coal fields, the black people who stayed in the deep south ended up share cropping, tenant farming, just franchise, Ku Klux Klan terrorized. The immigrants who stayed in New York ended up in ghetto tenements sweat shop factories. Compared to those two social forms, the coal camp doesn't look too bad.
Q: ... the company owned everything, the houses,
the schools, the churches, the stores. ?
SM: Actually it didn't because the company didn't even own the land; the land belonged to the railroad and so part of the reason for the temporary, or as it's often conceived flimsy construction, is in fact they were lease holdings. The coal companies did not own the land. The coal companies leased it for a set period of time. I am sensitive to the arguments of ownership and owning your own tools and labor and owning your own self. Few people really had autonomy over the job and even nowadays very people really possess ownership over their job and over their homes and where they live.
The difference with the coal fields is that it's this rural, isolated setting. There's only one way in or out; there's a sense of control that seems I think to permeate the towns. When I talk to old-timers, the old-timers don't talk like that to me. They talk about missing the dignity of their work. They talk about the close ties of church and of neighborhood and of community. They like the fact that the women didn't have to work for wages like women do nowadays. When they remembered the company towns, even the company stores are not seen as an instrument of company oppression, it's a symbol of the peculiar life they led, but they even look at the company store with pride.
You know, our company store had the best items and our company store was better than the one in the next town. I see a disparity between the views of outsiders looking at coal communities and the people who grew up in them themselves. There is bitterness among some folks, but I don't see that.
Q: But doesn't it more often boil down whether
or not the coal operator lived in the town?
SM: I think you tend to see better labor relations when the coal operator lives in the community, and you can knock on his door and petition him for redress of grievance. When you have large absentee-owned corporations and when there is no longer someone with a stake in the company on the site, I think you then begin to see cries for the union or for some intermediary to speak for the miners to the company. When that really wasn't necessary in the old days, you could go knock on the door of a coal operator.
Q: Why did it take so long for the UMWA to
move into the southern coal fields?
SM: A variety of reasons. ... There are a variety of reasons why the UMWA took some half a century really to successfully organize the southern West Virginia coalfields. Certainly the resistance of the operators who would do everything from hiring informers to occasionally having armed guards throw union organizers off the company lands. There's other reasons too. The union was not responsive to the needs of southern West Virginia coal miners. It constantly talked about wages. Well, southern West Virginia coal miners made far more money than coal miners in Pennsylvania or Ohio or the central competitive fields.
So to accept union scale would have been a pay cut for them. Another reason is that coal miners were suspicious of another organization that could interfere with the business of mining coal and making money, and it was perceived as a European Bolshevik? intervention in the southern West Virginia coal fields. It wasn't until the union began to change and favor more health and safety regulations and favor controlling the process of mechanization that you began to see really widespread support. I'm still not sure that a majority of southern West Virginia coal miners has every belonged to the UMWA.
Q: Why didn't workers need an organization like
the union. Why weren't the coal operators satisfying
these needs in order to keep their relatively captive
workers happy? Why did this need evolve that the
SM: I think there are several reasons why the UMWA felt that need. One was the multi-ethnic and racial makeup of the work force that tended to divide people, and there are examples of coal operators consciously using ethnic and racial divisions to keep a docile and immobile labor force there. But as the industry began to change, particularly as markets began to change, in the early years coal had steady markets, domestic, transportation, and home heating. Those markets were lost to petroleum around WW I and what was left to the southern West Virginia coal fields was the metallurgical market, steel making. It fluctuates wildly --sometimes in response to international and multi-national trends for construction, steel making and industrialization.
Suddenly, events far away could throw coal miners out of work and idle coal tipples and whole companies and provide the conditions for strikes. I think there is a very definite connection between the international market conditions and individual mine shutdowns that we perhaps have not investigated completely. Moreover, coal mining tends to fall by the 1920's into the mainstream of American industrial and labor production. You begin to see larger and larger conglomerations. You begin to see the high cost of mechanization and competition with other areas. So the coal miner is suddenly the victim of forces that he cannot shape or control, and thus the union becomes an instrument to allow worker some voice and control in the industrialization process.
Q: Why did labor-management relations in West
Virginia turn so violent?
SM: It's not -- the reason why labor strife in West Virginia became so violent is not a happy story. Part of it is because southern West Virginia coal fields opened up in the 1870's and '80s, a mere 15 years after the state of West Virginia was created. The state of West Virginia lacked some very basic institutions at the state level and the local level which might have either controlled the process or might have headed off the trouble.
The classic example is at the end of WW I, the president demobilized the national guard and ordered each of the states to form state guards. Only one state didn't do it: West Virginia. Had the Blair Mountain and the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strife occurred in other states, it might not have required federal intervention and the whole escalation that happened. Another reason is that in counties like Mingo County and McDowell County and Logan County the infrastructure of law enforcement and of county government was either non-existent or horribly corrupt. It could either be bought off by the coal operators or by organized labor at times or by other interests in the coal fields. In other words, I'm suggesting that at a particular time and place, many factors other than simple labor-management trouble -- international market conditions, the lack of basic institutions of law enforcement and self government -- contributed to all of that.
There's other things as well though that I think are of interest. We tend to see the violence in the labor strife in southern West Virginia in a vacuum, and we shouldn't. If you compare next to timber and lumber and the vicious range wars fought out west between sheep hands and ranchers and cattlemen, you see much the same patterns. The hiring of thugs; it was gunslingers out west, you know in places like Tombstone and Dodge City, former confederate calvarymen fought these vicious gun battles for basically the same sorts of interests. In other natural resource extracting industries like lumber and in the copper you see in far removed areas where the resources occur, you tend to see much the same sort of thing occur.
However, as with everything in coal mining, we tend to see everything in these black, white, sort of grimy terms. If you look at the violence in the American west, this is a great part of American history. I grew up watching a -- ... my point is that the unique and distinctive conditions in the coal fields force us to see everything in a different way, just as the coal communities, those coal camps, we see them as these tar paper shacks, just as the violence is class conflict and the worker ceases? the means of production -- but if you tend to put those into comparative analysis, you can begin to understand it a little bit better in the context.
Q: I want to understand a couple of things a little
big better. Explain to me how a Don Chafin
SM: Don Chafin probably purchased the office of sheriff of Logan County. He sold the services of law enforcement to the highest bidder. He was capable of ...
... WEST VIRGINIA, ROLL 40, CAMERA
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 14, ROLL 168, SOUTH FORTY
Q: Stuart, tell me about Don Chafin.
SM: Don Chafin was a political boss of Logan County and there's probably one in every southern West Virginia county, and they were able to control the political and law enforcement infrastructures and sell those services to the highest bidder, be it a coal company or the UMWA or the state or federal governments. Guys like Don Chafin literally created a political culture in southern West Virginia. Keep in mind the state was formed in 1863. The coal industry opens up 20 years later, before there institutions at the state and local level that can modify that process and allow local people to shape it. Guys like Don Chafin brilliantly and efficiently saw an opportunity, just as Hotchkiss and the others had, to make money off an industry and they did.
There are still many Don Chafins in West Virginia. It's ironic what a small role Chafin and Blankenship, who was the Don Chafin of Mingo County, actually play in the drama that is to come around, make? one and so forth as the labor violence begins to escalate. They kind of get out of the way in a way, and the battling is done by the federal government or a militia against UMWA sponsored soldiers.
Q: ... First, why would a coal operator need a
SM: Don Chafin and his chief rival, Tom Felts, who ran from Bluefield the Baldwin-Felt Detective Agency, offered several attractive options for southern West Virginia. First they probably did a better job of safeguarding property and law and order in capitalist terms than legal law enforcement agents could. If you were running a big payroll of mine money from Philadelphia to Gary and you wanted to make sure that money got there, you were most concerned with safe guarding that payroll and if you had inefficient or non-existent law enforcement along the way, you had little alternative but to turn to men like Tom Felts, who could and would guarantee delivery of the goods.
Moreover, the lack of a southern West Virginia county government and the lack of interest from the state government or maybe they're paid off, I don't know, created an opportunity for private law enforcement companies like the Baldwin-Felts detectives. They did everything from guarding payrolls to evicting striking miners, to guaranteeing law and order in coal communities that very often could be extremely violent. The Baldwin Felts agents and their -- they have such a fearsome and frightful legacy -- it's almost difficult to conceive of the Baldwin Felts Agency as a well efficiently run business designed to safeguard property and law and order in southern West Virginia.
Tom Felts, on his letterhead, he said the only business we don't engage in is divorce and anything messy like that. In terms of industrial law enforcement, they were the only alternative to an inefficient and corrupt West Virginia legal infrastructure.
Q: Why do we think of them as thugs
SM: Their legacy is all tied up in the question of which side are you on and how we have conceived and perceived of labor strife and the unionization and the rise of UMWA. We have not had efficient records only recently to enable us to begin analyze the role of those agencies, aside from the highly emotional content.
Q: Why are they labeled thugs at the time? Why
were they thought of as thugs by the people they were
SM: I think anybody who fights for money, mercenaries, sort of a mercenary content -- but you have to be careful with that. Most soldiers fight for money, I think. I believe that. I'm a little uncomfortable with that. Do you know who Lon Savage is? Lon Savage's father was one of the defenders of Blair Mountain. He absolutely hates the thought of his father perceived as a thug. The cry went up. You could make twenty dollars to go up and serve. It was an exciting thing. They were defending West Virginia at the time. Clearly the reputation of thuggery in the Baldwin Felt Agency is wrapped up in the United Mine Workers mythology and the whole story. Much of that remains to be seen by analytical historians in a dispassionate way.
Q: Probably the most famous incident in all of
this is when a Baldwin Felts informer meets chief of
police of ??? Sid Hatfield. Who was Sid
SM: Sid Hatfield was a native of Mingo County and distantly related to the Hatfield as in Hatfield and McCoy family. He was absolutely a wild west sort of character who could handle guns. His job was to be chief of police of Matewan. Matewan was an incorporated community; it was not a coal community. There's no police force in a coal company town. His job was to police what must have been an extraordinarily difficult job. Matewan was a social center and a service center for lots of company towns in the area; it was absolutely wide open. Trains of prostitutes coming down on the weekend from Huntington.
The town was for sale. It was very much a like Keystone, one of those coalfield institutions. To keep law and order in a town like that you needed a man with a reputation of something like Sid Hatfield. The people in the town were scared of him; he was capable of mobilizing guns and people who would use them quickly. He was the voice of law and order in a place like Matewan that needed it.
Q: What was he like as a man? As a
SM: It's difficult to -- Sid doesn't come through as a person to us. He might because after all he's a hero under fire. He is martyred later on. His wedding to the mayor's -- mayor Cable Testerman's wife -- some ten days after the shoot-out is an absolutely perverse act that sort of humanizes in a way, but also casts him in a bizarre as a villain as well. In the papers of the Baldwin Felts Agency in the eastern regional coal archives in Bluefield the people --
MCGEHEE INTERVIEW TAKE 15, CAMERA ROLL 168, SOUND 40
Q: Tell us about how the people in Matewan
viewed Sid Hatfield?
SM: People were in the town were as frightened of Sid Hatfield and his tactics as they were of the Baldwin Felts agents that he opposed. When Hatfield told people to get guns and join him, they did it as much out of fear of Hatfield as they did out of sincere appreciation for the cause that he espoused, if in fact he did. I don't know.
Q: Let's talk about the Baldwin Felts just a little
bit more. Aside from doing a job, they did a lot of
dastardly deeds, and they seemed to operate by the
motto 'The end justifies the means.'
SM: I do not know of any occasion that I've ever read of a Baldwin Felts agent doing what Sid Hatfield did in Matewan -- setting up an ambush and murdering ten people. So I won't answer your question. And when I hear the stories that you're talking about of him like beating pregnant women and all that kind of stuff, that stuff's all tied up in the union's effort to justify its own existence. I don't believe that. No, I'm not going to tell you that the Baldwin Felts agents their job was sort of to look up the law and enforce it, but I think their crimes have been magnified to justify the reaction against them. I do not know of cold-blooded murder that the agents committed. In the interests of their employers they evicted miners. I'm certain that they brutally beat union organizers as they were ordered, but not the sort of thing Sid did, not organizing an ambush and an execution, which is what happened at Matewan.
Q: Do we have a PR war, a war of false claims, a
media war going out at the same time?
SM: No one will ever really know what motivated those actions in Matewan. What makes you sit upstairs in a window and pull a trigger at somebody you've never met before? You understand that? What motivates you to do that? I'm not sure we'll ever know that, but the image that Sid Hatfield stood up the Baldwin Felts agents and the town rallied behind him is false. It won't stand up. That's not what happened in Matewan. There's something darker and much more sinister and complicated going on at work there.
Q: What do we know did happen?
SM: What you know happened is that after evicting striking miners in Red Jacket, the two Felts brothers and eight or ten of their most heavily armed and efficient agents basically were caught in a wicked cross fire from chosen target marksmen. The whole thing was laid out very carefully. It was not a spontaneous uprising against oppression. Had that happened, that would have happened at Red Jacket where the actual events occurred that presumably sparked the resistance. There's something else at work there, and I don't know what it is; we don't have enough information about the town itself and the people in it to know. We don't know who the shooters were. Where they miners? Who did they work for? What was going on?
Q: There seemed to be pretty widespread
sympathy with the lack of a conviction at the trial.
The trial returns a verdict of not guilty and there
seems to be joy.
SM: There are several reasons for that. One reason is that it was very difficult to find a jury that did not have prior information. Very difficult to find a jury. Another reason is that people in the town reported terrible fear in the town over the verdict. If Sid Hatfield and his men were acquitted they were horrified that the Baldwin Felts agents would shoot up the town. If they were convicted, they were afraid that Sid supporters would shoot up the town. They were in a no win situation. It was a very peculiar trial. To accuse sixteen men of one death was a peculiar way to frame it. Nowadays we would have a conspiracy and we would force them to testify against each other and find out who pulled the trigger, and we would be able to find the shooter and put him on trial. They didn't do that; it was a poorly conceived indictment, and the way it was framed it was almost guaranteed that there would be an acquittal, I think.
Q: But in the rules of the time -- ...
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MCGEHEE INTERVIEW, TAKE 16, SOUND ROLL 41, CAMERA ROLL 169
Q: But in the mode of the times, justice was
served. C.E. Lively, it formed on behalf? of the Felts
Brothers, it formed a judge and jury and won and
issued justice, is that right?
SM: Tom Felts first attempted to get revenge or justice, take your pick, for his two brothers' deaths through the legal system. He assisted with the prosecution in an attempt to bring to justice the killers of his brothers. He did everything from hiring lawyers to paying informants like Charley Lively to go into Matewan after the shooting to collection information to assist the prosecution of the killers of his brothers. When the trial was bungled or justice wasn't served or -- at any rate, after the acquittal of the sixteen shooters accused of the shooting, it was only then that Mr. Felts took the law into his own hands and stepped outside of the existing legal channels of prosecution and defense.
At that time then they trumped out a reason to get Sid Hatfield out of Mingo County into McDowell County into territory that the Baldwin Felts people were much more comfortable operating on; they controlled it in a way. And arranging for their execution, just as in fact Sid had arranged for the execution of the Felts brothers. The killing of Sid and Ed on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse in Welch that day however did not complete the cycle of vengeance and justice and honor and dishonor that characterized the labor strife in the southern West Virginia coal fields. It so outraged the miners and their UMWA organizers that ultimately it led to the miners' march at Blair Mountain and the march on Logan that led to probably the greatest disturbance in labor history in West Virginia.
Q: Why did the miners see Sid as such a hero?
Why did they rally behind him? ...
SM: The Baldwin Felts agents, their reputation was so universally, they were so vilified throughout the coal fields that he standing up to them maybe in death he performed a better function than he had. He'd stood up to them. At any rate, two of the Felts brothers were dead at his hand or at the hands of his co-conspirators, and so he then took on a role as champion. He went to Washington and testified, the union filmed him, made a big deal out of him. He was a little, bitty man and suddenly he stood tall. He seemed to stand to the miners as somebody who could stand up to the big forces outside of their control, and thus when he was killed, murdered, his execution set off a chain of events and it said to the miners that justice, they'd have to take justice into their own hands and march on Logan.
Q: So the battle of Blair Mountain, what's your
assessment of that?
SM: Much ado about nothing, Mark. According to the story, there's 10,000 combatants on each side. Bombs being dropped, machine guns, total casualties, eight or ten. I suspect that the event has grown in the telling. Nevertheless, large numbers of miners marched in sympathy with Sid and in sympathy with the union's efforts to break the hold of men like Don Chafin and Tom Felts and the coal operators on the legal systems of southern West Virginia. It seemed to them that the inability of the legal system to protect Sid Hatfield, their champion, from his killers indicated that law and order was nonexistent in southern West Virginia and the only law as Tom Felts' law. And they were going to take it into their own hands, and thus they marched. And perhaps the march is more important than the battle.
Perhaps merely the demonstration, the large numbers of people who were willing to and the reaction that it took from both the state, county, and federal governments to restore some measure of peach in Mingo County, that may be the most significant thing of the battle of Blair Mountain rather than the battle. I mean, why march on Logan? Why not march on Welch or Bluefield where the Baldwin Felts agents were headquartered? I don't quite understand the motives of the marchers; I've never understood what they were going to do when they got to Logan. ...
Q: What happened to coal mining and the union
after this epochal event?
SM: Nothing. Ironically, although the gun battles and the Matewan massacres and all the events of the 1920 and 1921 brought national attention and congressional action in the form of the U.S. Coal Commission and a variety of lurid and ghastly publicity, in fact a solution to the problem either through acceptance of collective bargaining on the part of the miners or by federal or state intervention into the process to prevent such violence, didn't occur until 15 years after that. It wasn't until the election of Roosevelt, FDR and the New Deal, that collective bargaining was part of the national industrial recovery act replaced the chaotic confrontational politics that had characterized labor relations in southern West Virginia. Perhaps the two Felts brothers and Sid Hatfield died for nothing. It may be that the emerging labor politics of the democratic party in Washington would have performed that act anyway; I don't know.
Q: Give us kind of the big picture of the story of
coal in West Virginia of its rise and ?? fall?
SM: Very people lived in southern West Virginia before the arrival of the coal industry. The industry provided fuel and energy that helped make America the 20th century industrial giant that it is. It made a fortune for people smart enough to play the game properly, principally railroad and land agents and coal companies as well although only later. The coal industry was highly labor intensive, and it provided jobs and homes and some manner of living for hundreds of thousands of people. They came from the ends of the earth here to some of the most rugged terrain America has to offer, really the last frontier America ever tamed. There they created communities and created a way of life that existed for a half a century.
Really until the method of coal mining changed, and when large scale mechanization transformed the industry from a labor intensive into a technological machine intensive industry, suddenly the infrastructure that was built and everything just begin to go. The infrastructure had been built, the schools and the roads and the towns for a lot of people, suddenly you didn't need a lot of people to mine coal any more. The industry is still healthy and robust in terms of returning a good dividend on investment for stockholders of companies; it does not however provide as many jobs for workers as it used to. Those jobs are better than they used to, largely owing to the union and the federal government's intervention in the process. Coal provided the energy to make steel, and steel is what modern America is all about.
Q: Coal mining peaked around 1954. ...
SM: In terms of production? Employment, right. ...
Q: What's been the lot of southern West Virginia
SM: Slowly and painfully southern West Virginia is receding to its pre-industrial population levels. The public water systems and the public service districts are all collapsing; the tax base is eroding; there is very little in the way of industry that has replaced coal as a major employer. More coal comes out of southern West Virginia than ever before, employing fewer people than at any time since the 20's and the 30's. As a result, at the place where the employment curve and the tonnage curve cross, you have the problem of current southern West Virginia. It's an ugly process, and it's going to get uglier as the area slowly recedes back to its pre-industrial levels of population and production.
Q: One aspect of that -- there was this sort of
emotional tension between people wanting to stay but
being forced to leave.
SM: And notice that the Arab oil crisis in the '70's created this quick artificial boom. The mines opened up again and people keep thinking, 'The mines will open up. I'll just stay here till the mines open up.' And the cycle of boom and bust that began when the coal industry inherited the metallurgical market and loss the home heating and transportation market to petroleum, has persisted for fifty or sixty years. It always has come back. If it comes back again, however, the highly automated mechanized coal industry of today will not employ many southern West Virginians. It will employ people in manufacturing plants who produce the machinery that mine the coal nowadays.
Q: Why do you think that there is attachment so
much to ? ? ..
SM: There's almost a romantic feel, and there's something in that that informs my whole way of looking at coal mining. If it was such a dark, dirty, dangerous hell of world, why are there coal community reunions? Why is there this pervasive and nostalgic longing for those days? Part of it is that coal miners like their work. They work with their hands; they produce a finished product; and it gave them a sense of worth, okay? They weren't slaves to machines. They were not working in factories.
They weren't controlled by bell and whistle discipline. They were controlled by they got up in the morning and they walked to work. Work and home in those coal communities were closely related. The communities had a purpose and a function. People were there to mine coal. Life was simpler. Something about that attracts people; they like the ties of family and community and neighborhood and church that characterized it. They understood that theirs was a lower middle class existence and yet something about it appealed to many people.
ROOM TONE FOR STEWART MCGEHEE