Mom's apple pie in the middle of a Lenten fast couldn't be more tempting
than giving a news reporter a chance to peek into normally secret files of
coal czars and union leaders. Especially if that reporter has spent almost 29 years
covering the coal scene in Indiana, Armstrong, and Cambria counties.
Regan Houser, associate editor of IUP Magazine, asked me
to look at some of the hundreds of boxes of coal company and union files
available in Special Collections,
the archival area of IUP's
Patrick J. Stapleton Library.
The files donated by the District 2 Office of the
United Mine Workers of America and Rochester & Pittsburgh
Coal Company represent a treasure-trove for the researcher and the
But there is much more to Special
Collections than information on labor and industry. A collection of rare and
unique books includes originals by Mark Twain and George Orwell and the
works of Washington Irving, Charles Darwin, and Edgar Allan Poe. A full
collection of IUP yearbooks and other records tell the history of the
university. The America's Industrial Heritage Collection also provides
opportunity for research into the area's industrial and cultural heritage.
I decided to look first at the early history of R&P and the
organizing of union locals. Besides having access to any box of union or
coal company files, I found
Phil Zorich, Director of the Archives
since 1981, was there to point me in the right direction. Eileen Mountjoy
Cooper, Historian Collections Specialist, helped with her experience gained
in seventeen years of researching and writing about the region's coal mining
Anyone interested in researching the growth of coal companies and the
labor movement can get a quick start from articles Cooper wrote for the
Indiana Gazette from 1979 to 1990. Her book on the history of R&P,
The First One Hundred Years (1881-1981), reflects the growth of
Jefferson, Indiana, and Armstrong counties. The research can be expanded to include
information in files donated by District 5, UMWA, Belle Vernon, and a
glance into the steel industry labor issues through the files of Local 1397,
United Steel Workers of America, of Homestead.
Cooper's articles, which she developed in part through a research
grant from R&P, take you back to the pick-and-shovel days of mining. After
blasting the coal loose from seams surrounded by rock, the miners loaded it
by hand into coal cars to be pulled outside the mine by mules or machinery.
The men were expected to push the cars that weighed two to three tons when
loaded if mules and machinery were not available in the mines.
The UMWA was formed January 23, 1890, at a meeting of representatives
of the Knights of Labor, the National Progressive Union of Miners, and
Mine Laborers. At that time, District 2 represented union locals in
nineteen Central Pennsylvania counties, including Jefferson and Cambria and
most of Armstrong and Indiana. By 1904, after overcoming competition from
lingering factions of the Knights of Labor in Cambria and Somerset counties,
District 2 represented union locals with a total membership of 34,550.
Today, District 2, headquartered in Ebensburg, represents nearly
6,000 UMWA miners in Pennsylvania and two counties in Maryland. On January
11, 1996, District 4, Masontown, and District 5, Belle Vernon, western and
southwestern Pennsylvania UMWA districts, were merged with District 2. Four
years ago, District 25, Hazleton, which represents union miners in the
anthracite coal region in northeastern Pennsylvania merged with District 2.
Several factors have contibuted to the decline in mining employment.
Advanced technology replaced men with machinery. Since the 1970s, more than
4,000 mining jobs have been lost in this region because of the decline in
the steel industry. Existing mining companies find it tough to compete in
an open market in which electric utility companies can buy cheaper coal
than what is produced at the local mines.
The once-secure market for the local mines, which were developed in
the 1960s at the same time as the Conemaugh, Homer City, and Keystone
generating stations to supply coal to those stations, is no longer there.
The utility companies that own the generating stations are no longer willing
to pay a price for coal that covers all the costs of producing it at the
The collapse of District 2 began in Cambria and Somerset counties in
the 1970s with the closing of BethEnergy Mines of Bethlehem Steel
Corporation. In 1986, the 114-year old Barnes & Tucker Coal Company of
Barnesboro, which produced coal for several steel companies, including
Nippon Steel & Iron Company Ltd. in Japan, closed its final mine. In
October 1991, Indiana County was hit with the closing of the Florence and
Helen mining companies, which produced coal for the Conemaugh and Homer
City generating stations, respectively. In 1992, Pennsylvania Mines
Corporation, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Power & Light Company of
Allentown, closed its Greenwich Division and Tunnelton Mining operations
in Indiana County and the Rushton Mining Company in Centre County.
The decline continues. In December, 1995, R&P closed three mines of
Keystone Coal Mining Corporation, a subsidiary, resulting in the loss of
345 jobs. In January, twenty employees at the headquarters of R&P and
Keystone were laid off.
And so, the story of growth is a matter of history , and one must
turn to the archives to read it. Researchers of the labor movement will
find in 1905 letters from union local officers to Richard Gilbert,
secretay-treasurer of District 2, valuable insights on the difficulty of
communicating with European immigrants recruited by coal companies to
mine the coal.
On June 5, 1905, Thomas F. Cribbs of Local 2045, Weedville, sent
Gilbert $9 for 300 copies of the UMWA constitution. Cribbs needed 50
copies written in English, 150 copies in Polish, and 100 copies in
Italian. The same day, Gilbert received a payment of $1.50 from James
Hetrick from a local union in Reynoldsville for 20 copies of the
constitution in English, 10 in Polish, 10 in Italian, and 10 copies in
Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal & Iron Company was formed November 5,
1881, with all of its stock owned by the recently created Buffalo,
Rochester, & Pittsburgh Railroad Company. The company began developing
the Beechtree Mine in Jefferson County in January, 1882, in conjunction
with the expansion of the railroad to serve the mine. The Beechtree Mine
shipped its first trainload of coal to the Great Lakes industrial region
in July, 1883.
Some of the Coal & Iron Company's first profits went to constructing
a company town at Beechtree. Company records list the construction of 28
blocks of miners houses in 1884 that cost $250 each to build. The miners
paid $60 a year to rent the houses. Walston Mine, near Punxsutawney, also
began in 1883 with the complex including the construction of coke ovens to
enter an industry that soon became a major consumer of coal produced at
other mines in the area. By July, 1885, Walston had 474 coke ovens and
employed 500 men.
Despite its early success in the coal and coke industry, the Coal &
Iron Company encountered many difficulties. In 1885, Adrian George Iselin,
a Swiss investment banker in New York City, purchased the railroad company,
which was in receivership, and the stock of the coal company, at a
foreclosure sale in New York. His purchase and the leadership provided by
his sons, Adrian, Jr., and Columbus, spurred growth of the company and its
expansion into Indiana County.
Twenty years of that growth was led by Lucius Waterman Robinson, who
served as president of the coal company from 1899 to 1919. Sporting a
mustache and a cane, Robinson was described in the company's history as a
man who brought a certain dash to company offices and who quickly learned
how to mine coal and handle men.
Robinson's presidential documents and letters to A. Iselin & Company
are among those of five company presidents in eighty boxes on the shelves
of Special Collections. Presidential documents of B. M. Clark, 1919-1933;
Heath S. Clark, 1933-1948; Dr. Charles J. Potter, 1948-1970; and H. Vernon
Fritchman, 1970-72, also are available.
When the last spike of the Buffalo, Rochester, & Pittsburgh Railroad
was driven in May, 1903, at McKees Mills in Indiana County, members of the
Iselin family attended the ceremony. Soon after, the resident s of McKees
Mills approved changing the name to Ernest in honor of Ernest Iselin. By
October, 1903, 156 miners' houses were built in Ernest and by 1906, 1,026 men
worked inside the Ernest mines.
Many miners followed the expanding coal industry to Ernest from
Jefferson County, but others arrived from England, Scotland, Wales,
Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy, and Lithuania after being recruited at ports
of entry in New York City. In a letter from July 3, 1902, Robinson told
C.D. Brackenridge, a sales agent in New York, that he was willing to give a
Mr. Romano an opportunity to serve as a special agent for recruiting workers
for the mine.
"I would like him to say how many men he can get for us, what
proportion of them we will have to pay fares for and what consideration he
wants per man for his services," Robinson wrote.
"And, whether or not he
will accept a commission based on the men coming here and working at least
long enough for us to get back the money we might advance for railroad fares.
Our idea would make it an object for him to get as many men as poosible to
pay their own fare. It would be to his interest, as ours, to pick out good
men, as only such a man of good judgment would pick out as reliable and
steady workers who would stick to their jobs."
Cooper wrote that the lifeblood of coal towns ran along the gleaming
tracks of the Buffalo, Rochester, & Pittsburgh Railroad. As those tracks
moved southward, Robinson was proud of the development of the mines and
towns of Luciusboro and Waterman. When the tracks moved to the west, Iselin,
Jacksonville, and McIntyre became realities.
In addition to written records, industrial and labor enthusiasts will
also enjoy audio and videotaped interviews of old-timers talking about their
experiences in the mines. Interviews with residents and leaders of various
communities in the nine-county America's Industrial Heritage Project add
more insight into the industrial growth of central and Western Pennsylvania.
"We often have people coming in to see if their grandfather was involved
in a mining accident," Cooper said. "Some people can be quite emotional if
they find the name they are seeking."
was the news reporter with the Tribune-Democrat of Johnstown
for 23 years and has been with the Indiana Gazette since 1991. A six-
part series by Como and Randy Wells '87 on "Problems in Power Alley,"
which outlined the development of area mines and generating stations,
captured a first place for business reporting in the Pennsylvania
Associated Press Contest in 1992.
A freelance photographer, James Harris earned his B.S.Ed., in
Communications Media from IUP in 1991 and his M.A. in American Studies
from the State University of New York at Buffalo. The photographs
in this story are part of Harris' book and museum exhibit called "Coal
People, Contemporary Images of Northern Appalachia." This exhibit is
available for display.
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