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450 S Michigan Ave, AUD 1851
Chicago IL 60605
United States


Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

Early Days of Coal Mining in Northern Illinois

Webtrax Admin

An account of issues, events, and personalities associated with coal mining in the latter part of the 19th century to early 20th. Did you know that John L. Lewis worked in the northern fields?

by Richard Joyce

Although prior to the 1860s, some mining was done in the region south of Joliet, Ill., those early mines were primarily small affairs that supplied local needs. The coal mining "boom" in the northern fields of Illinois really dates from 1864. Around the town of Braidwood, a farmer struck coal while drilling a well for water. For the next 50 years, thousands of people came into Will, Grundy, and Kankakee Counties to seek their livelihood in the coal mines.

The coal boom of the late 1860s went hand in hand with the development of an extensive railroad network that allowed coal companies to ship their products cheaply to large markets in the rapidly growing industrial cities. The Braidwood area coal was shipped mostly to Chicago.

Soon after the discovery of the extensive coal fields in the 1860s, large corporations bought huge tracts of land in the area. The most important of these was the Chicago, Wilmington, and Vermillion Coal Company, which was formed in 1866 by rich investors from Boston and Chicago. Mines were sunk by many companies, and towns sprang up around the mines. These "boom towns" exploded in size as miners flocked in from eastern states (especially Pennsylvania) and from Europe. Braidwood once had 8,000 people and was the second largest city in Will County. In the mid-1870s, it was the most important coal town in northern Illinois. The names of towns often reflect their reason for existence--Coal City, Carbon Hill, Diamond (named after "black diamonds," or coal) , and South Wilmington (named after the coal company that originally owned it).

Life was extremely difficult for the miners and their families. They had many complaints about their occupation. The underground work was dangerous, dirty, and often damp. Miners working in the underground tunnels could not stand straight, ceilings in the tunnels being too low. They picked and shoveled the coal for ten hours a day, loaded it on small cars, and pushed them to an area where mules would pull them to the cage to be hauled to the surface.

Miners breathed stale dusty air, and many developed a breathing ailment known today as "Black Lung." Miners used lumber to prop up the roof where they worked, but often huge rocks would fall, thus trapping, injuring, or killing them. Miners complained that the coal companies did not supply them with adequate rails, cars, lumber, or fresh air. Explosive gas was present in some mines and many miners were injured or killed by blasts. In February, 1883, seventy-four miners were killed in the "Diamond Mine Disaster," when water from melting snow on the surface suddenly poured into the mine, drowning the men working below. It was the worst mining disaster in Illinois history up to that time.

The most common complaint of the miners, however, concerned their pay, and the total control which the companies had over their financial well-being. Most mining towns were "company towns." The coal company owned the land. They built, rented, or sold the houses to their workers. If the miners quit work or went on strike, the company could evict them from the homes. They often forced workers to buy at "company stores," where credit might be more readily available, but prices were higher. Companies sometimes paid in "scrip," which was taken in trade only at the company store. At times, men who refused to buy from the company store were dismissed. Miners were usually paid monthly in the early days, with the company holding two weeks' back pay. Thus, miners who quit often lost two weeks' pay. Miners also had the expense of getting their tools sharpened, and they had to buy oil for their lamps which provided the only light underground.

Miners were paid by the ton, and they often claimed they were cheated by the coal companies. The operators could easily cheat the men by saying that too many rocks and particles of clay had been put in the mine cars. Prior to 1898, the coal was dumped over screens which separated the coal into large and small lumps. Miners were paid for the larger pieces that remained above the screen. The coal companies sold the small chunks too, but these apparently were mined free.

The weather and business conditions in general, also affected the miners' paycheck. Most miners were unemployed during summer months, when the demand for heat decreased. If factories cut back or closed during a depression, even less coal was needed; so again miners were out of work. Annual income was seriously reduced by this seasonal unemployment, which seems to have been the most constant problem for the miners over the years. A committee created by the State Board of Charities investigated the income of miners in northern Illinois in 1889. They found that the average miner made only $379.44 in a year. To add to the above problems, the min ers accused the coal companies of advertising for men in Europe, so as to bring more miners into the area. This created a huge oversupply of workers that increased unemployment and kept wages low.

To correct these abuses, the miners formed unions. A miners' union existed in Braidwood as early as 1872. Serious problems occurred over the years for the union organizers. Since miners were poor and often unemployed, few of them could afford payment of regular dues to support their organization. The various immigrant groups were also a handicap of sorts. The pioneer miners of the 1860s and 1870s were mostly native Americans or immigrants from northern Europe--Irish, English, Scotch, Welsh, German, French, and Belgian. After 1880, however, more and more miners came from southern and eastern Europe--mainly Italians, Bohemians, and Poles. Braidwood once had a school in which lessons were taught in the Bohemian language. The difficulties of organizing men with different languages and customs, who had strong opposing religious and national prejudices were immense; yet the miners banded together to improve their miserable condition. Misery was one thing they all had in common.

In 1890, the United Mine Workers of America was formed. It was created out of the various local unions then existing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana. A number of local miners were active in the formation of the national union. The UMW was the nation's earliest and most successful industrial union, and it was the nation's largest union for several decades following 1900. An industrial union protects those who produce a certain product, regardless of what part they play in producing it--miners, auto workers are examples. A craft union represents workers who have a certain skill or trade--carpenter, electrician, musician. From 1899 to 1908, the UMW president was John Mitchell, who was born in Braidwood on February 4, 1870. He entered the mines as a trapper boy at twelve, and joined a union when he was only fifteen. In 1902, he was called to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt to help mediate a strike of Pennsylvania miners.

The miners used many tactics to achieve their goals. Since they composed the large majority of the populace in some areas, they could elect candidates who were sympathetic to their cause. Several coal miners were elected to the General Assembly in Springfield. These representatives passed laws favored by the miners--laws dealing with safety, company stores, and fairness in pay. Miners then used these laws to sue the coal companies, but they almost always lost since the courts were sympathetic to business interests, not to workers. The laws were thus struck down.

The most successful weapon of the miners was the strike, in which all miners quit work and refused to return until their demands were met. Serious strikes by miners in northern Illinois occurred in these years: 1868, 1874, 1877 (the year of the nine months' strike), 1889, 1894, and 1897 (after which the miners received a raise and the eight-hour day). While on strike, the miners had to rely on their savings (usually very meager, if they had any), their gardens, farm animals, and charity. Some men went to work in other states, others fished, hunted, or worked for area farmers or villages. During long strikes, miners' relief committees went to Chicago, Joliet, Kankakee, and elsewhere to beg for food, shoes, clothing, etc. The suffering was usually terrible, but the miners seldom gave in without supreme sacrifices.

Violence often occurred during the strikes. Miners sometimes tossed garbage into the shafts, and company property often caught fire during the strikes. In refusing to work, the men tried to create a shortage of coal. This would drive up the price, so that the companies could then pay their men more. But to create a coal shortage, the men had to make sure no coal was mined or shipped. Miners thus derailed trains, burned railroad bridges, or unhooked railroad cars. In 1874, 1877, and 1894, the local coal companies called in Pinkerton detectives, sheriffs' deputies, and federal officers to prevent destruction to mines and trains. Local miners at Godley and Carbon Hill were fired upon by the outside forces. In Braidwood in 1889, the state militia conducted a house-to-house search for weapons.

The mine owners retaliated in several ways against the striking miners. A favorite tactic was the "blacklist." Any miner who was suspected of being a union organizer was fired, and his name was passed to other mining companies so that none would hire him. John Mitchell was blacklisted for his actions during the 1894 strike. Another popular method used by the owner s was the "yellow dog" or "ironclad" contract. Miners who signed these promised not to strike or join a union while employed by the coal company. A contract offered to local miners following the 1877 strike says:

He will not stop work, join any "strike," or
combination, for the purpose of obtaining or causing
the company to pay the miners an advance of wages or
pay beyond what is specified in this contract, nor
will he in any way aid, abet, or countenance any
"strike," combination, or scheme, for any purpose
whatever, during the time specified...

The "lockout" was also used. If the men refused to accept a reduction in their wages, or if they struck, the company would try to starve the miners into accepting worse conditions or wages, and often they were successful. In some places, companies got the courts to issue "injunctions," which made it illegal for miners to strike, have meetings, or march. Violators could be sent to jail.

One of the most common methods used to force the miners to return to work was the threat to fire them and bring in "strikebreakers." Strikebreakers, or "scabs," are workers hired by the company to replace those who are striking. The coal companies in the area were expert at using this tactic. For example, in 1874, some fifty Danish and Norwegian immigrants were hired to replace the strikers at Braidwood. In 1877, two to three-hundred blacks from West Virginia were brought into Braidwood. In 1897, the coal companies threatened to bring Chinese miners from Wyoming. At Carbon Hill, the company built a fortified stockade around the mouth of the mine and moved houses inside so that the Chinese could be protected. The issue, however, was settled and the Chinese never arrived.

Coal mining left a heritage in the area. The coal "dumps" dot the landscape. Like the miners' work, they are dark, drab, and dirty. The descendants of miners still live in old mining communities, but many know little of their past history.

A Braidwood miner, born in Bohemia who later moved to Chicago, became the Mayor of Chicago. This man, Anton J. Cermak, was killed in the 1933 assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cermak was seated at Roosevelt's side and received the fatal bullet intended for the President.

From coal towns came important labor leaders, among them John Mitchell and John L. Lewis. Both became presidents of the United Mine Workers of America. Although born in Iowa, Lewis spent several years mining coal in Panama, Illinois.

As head of the nation's most powerful industrial union, Lewis founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had refused to undertake an organizing campaign within the mass production industries. In concert with several sympathetic unions, Lewis and the UMWA went ahead with great success despite being expelled from the AFL. However, the two groups merged in 1954, becoming the AFL-CIO as we know it today.

Note: Richard Joyce teaches history at Wilmington High School, Wilmington, Illinois.

Things that a student might want to "look up":
What is the population of Braidwood, Ill. now? Why did the "northern" coal mines close down, and when?
Where was the Diamond Mine, and exactly what happened?
Were there any laws protecting miners that the courts OKd?
What happened with the black workers from West Virginia?
Why would there have been Chinese workers in Wyoming?
If John Mitchell was a "trapper boy," what did that mean?
What else can be learned about child labor in coal mines?
Was Mitchell a "good" president of the UMWA?
Why did the AFL oppose John L. Lewis' idea for more union organizing?