The Mine Wars: West Virginia’s Coal Miners March on Public Television

In the 1980s, writer Denise Giardina’s “Storming Heaven” offered a wide-ranging portrait of southern West Virginia’s coal camps, while film director John Sayles’ “Matewan” focused on one of the defining moments in the long-running battle between the state’s coal industry and its workers. One was a novel and the other one was a low-budget movie drama. And yet both storytellers filled a hole in research that professional historians had neglected to cover for more than half a century.

Miners and their family members, who had kept quiet for decades, gradually found the courage to speak out. Since the release of Storming Heaven and Matewan, numerous other books, films and articles have been produced about this important period in the nation’s industrial and labor history.

This riveting history of southern West Virginia’s coal industry eventually caught the eye of a national television network. On Tuesday, Jan. 26, PBS will be premiering a two-hour documentary called The Mine Wars as part of American Experience, the network’s flagship history series. The documentary, based in large part on James Green’s book, The Devil Is Here in These Hills, chronicles the hurdles coal miners in southern West Virginia encountered from 1900, when Mary “Mother” Jones sought to organize the workers, to the early 1920s, when the coal miners went on an armed march to unionize southern West Virginia.

Using mostly photographs and old newsreel, the filmmakers paint a vivid picture of what life was like in southern West Virginia in the early 20th century. They interviewed more than a dozen historians, writers and local miners who put the images into context and provide a variety of perspectives on the skirmishes between coal miners and their bosses.

“There are ways to make a photograph come alive that are very effective and can be very emotional,” Randall MacLowry, the producer and director of the documentary, said in an interview. “The advantage of the photographs that the moving pictures don’t have is that you really get to see the faces of the people. You get brought into them in an intimate way.”

MacLowry uses several photos of Mother Jones, panning up and down and zooming in and out on the pictures as she stands among coal miners. Mother Jones, upon spending some time in southern West Virginia as an organizer for the United Mine Workers, beseeched residents to stop acting like “cringing serfs” and to commit to the UMW. The miners loved “seeing this little old lady out there just kicking butt basically and cussing and carrying on,” Giardina, a West Virginia native, says in the film.

Like Green’s book, the film follows the life of Charles Francis “Frank” Keeney Jr., a West Virginia native and militant UMW leader, who was determined to try all means necessary to get coal operators to treat miners fairly. The filmmakers interview Keeney’s great-grandson, West Virginia historian Chuck Keeney, who tells the story of a time when his great-grandfather was working in an underground coal mine at the age of 12 and a mine shaft partially collapsed. One of the mule’s working in the mine panicked and smashed into Frank Keeney, pinning him against a wall. In order to get the mule off him, Keeney bit off a piece of the mule’s ear.

Chuck Keeney said his grandmother often told the story that the incident was an indicator of Frank Keeney’s character: “He was more stubborn than a mule.” Starting from his early days as a coal miner, Keeney would remain a thorn in the side of the coal companies. He played a major role in union organizing at the time of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strikes of 1912-1913 and led the miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.

“Frank Keeney fought for what he believed was right, that there is a dignity in resistance. Even if they try to grind you and yours into the dust, your defiance rises above that,” Chuck Keeney says in the film about this great-grandfather.

Coal mining remains a dangerous occupation today, but it was enormously dangerous in the early 20th century when Keeney was working in the mines. On average, from 1905 through 1930, well over 2,000 U.S. miners would die every year. “Coal operators were very cavalier about accidents and what caused them,” Giardina explains in the film. “The assumption was that mining is just inherently dangerous and that’s just part of. You’re lucky you have a job anyway. We’re just going to go about business as usual.”

Along with pushing for safer working conditions, Keeney, who became United Mine Workers District 17 president in 1916, wanted coal operators to recognize the union, allow miners the right to free speech and peaceable assembly, discontinue the company store system, and remove the mine guards from their communities. Lawmakers in West Virginia and the federal government were ignoring the miners’ requests, so Keeney believed the union was the only answer to fixing what he viewed as an unjust system.

“There was a sense of fatalism among miners in West Virginia about what the government could do to help them, which helps explain their passion for the union in the sense that we have to take care of ourselves, we have to create an organization that’s so powerful that it will protect our lives as well as our standard of living,” Green says in the film.

MacLowry had previously worked on a four-part documentary series in the early 1990s called “West Virginia: A Film History.” Part of that series covered the coal industry and the growth of the United Mine Workers of America. For “The Mine Wars,” PBS’s American Experience commissioned MacLowry and his company, The Film Posse, to make the documentary, which took 15 months to complete.

“I jumped at the opportunity because being given two hours to explore it more fully was very exciting to me,” MacLowry said. With a wealth of new scholarship on the mine wars period that had emerged since the early 1990s, MacLowry welcomed the chance to revisit a topic with which he had a familiarity.

W.Va. Coal Fuels a Surge in Wealth

The West Virginia coal, and the men who mined it, were fueling the nation’s enormous surge in wealth, and the demand remained strong in the early part of the century. Because many of the coal company investors lived in New York City or London, the miners often resented the fact they were producing wealth for people who did not live in West Virginia.

“A lot of outside investors were coming into West Virginia, buying the land and natural resources and one of the major components of this is that they were pushing aside the old mountaineer families,” Carnegie Mellon University history professor Joe William Trotter Jr. explains in the film.

During this era, coal producing regions in northern West Virginia and the Midwest were more profitable than mines in southern West Virginia because they were closer to railroads and load centers, which greatly reduced their operating costs. But coal companies in southern West Virginia, including the counties of Mingo, McDowell and Logan counties, had one advantage over these other regions: They were nonunion.

Similar to the coal industry’s claims today that certain safety regulations related to coal dust or other safety rules will cripple the industry, the chiefs running the industry in southern West Virginia 100 years ago argued they could not survive if forced to pay their employees the same wages as union miners.

The workers, on the other hand, believed they should be treated like their fellow workers in union mines. Mingo County, located on the border with Kentucky, became a hotbed of workers seeking union representation. “Mine owners in Mingo began to take notice,” the narrator, actor Michael Murphy, says in the documentary. “They were pulling almost $10 million worth of coal from the ground every year. And they were terrified that the UMW would cut into profits.”

The mine owners of the early 20th century were competing with other fuels, a predicament that continues to affect the industry today. After World War I, the owners were growing increasingly uneasy as coal’s share of the national market was being crowded by fuel oil and natural gas.

One of the schemes coal operators implemented to remain profitable was paying worker salaries in company currency, which could be used only in company-owned stores. “Company towns were also untethered from the free market competition owners usually championed,” the narrator explains. “Operators often paid workers in company currency called scrip. They forced mining families to shop exclusively at the company store, which they stocked with food, fuel and clothing, even the tools and blasting powder required on the job. They set the prices of all those goods to ensure a profit, a hedge against operating losses in the mines themselves.”

United in Coal Dust

The fact that coal miners and their families were exploited by the coal companies didn’t stop people in other states, including African Americans, from flocking to West Virginia for the jobs. “Compared to the South and compared to the North, West Virginia was a place in which they got a more equitable footing. There were more black miners in West Virginia than anywhere else in the nation. And black workers in this environment gained access to a system that proclaimed equal pay for the same work,” Trotter notes in the film.

Conditions were by no means perfect for the Africans Americans who moved from the South to work in West Virginia’s coal mines. They still faced forms of discrimination by the coal operators and their fellow miners. But there was a sense of unity among many of the workers. “This is not a race matter, this is a class matter,” explains Ronald Lewis, professor emeritus of history at West Virginia University and author of the book Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class, and Community Conflict, 1780-1980. ”

The coal operators tried to prevent solidarity by segregating the native West Virginians from the African American workers and the recent immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. The coal operators thought there was no chance those groups would cooperate with each other, Giardina contends in the film. But no matter the level of segregation, people cannot live in a coal camp without getting to know people because everybody shops at the company store, she says.

“The men all socialize underground. Nobody can see anybody’s ethnicity because everybody is covered in coal dust,” Giardina explains. “After a period of time, you get to know each other. You see a huge ethnic diversity coming together in those conflicts.”

While the coal operators used mine guards to keep order in the company towns, the coal miners had their own group called the Dirty 11, which was responsible for some of the more brutal acts of violence that took place during this period, according to Keeney. Members of the Dirty 11 would dynamite tipples and railroad tracks and fire on trains. They would do anything they could do to stop production and anything they could do to kill a mine guard, he says in the film.

By the end of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, though, the coal operators had declared victory as the coal miners returned to their homes with little to show for their efforts except the fact they had waged a hearty fight against the coal operators and their soldiers. Keeney, as leader of UMW District 17, and his colleague Bill Blizzard, who was commander of the miners’ army during the Battle of Blair Mountain, had failed in their attempt to unionize all of southern West Virginia.

About a dozen years later, as the Great Depression threatened to undermine American capitalism, the federal government took measures to assuage the workers. Congress passed legislation guaranteeing a worker’s right to unionize. With those reforms, miners began to flock in huge numbers to the UMW.

“Keeney has long ago been discredited as an apostle of violence. But what he created was kind of a culture of resistance, people with a fierce pride. He called them a people made of steel,” Green says. “And so when the union finally appeared again, it is what they had been waiting for since the days of Keeney and Mother Jones.”

(The Mine Wars will air 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26 on PBS’s American Experience. Check your local listings.)

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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