If you lived in Eccles, West Virginia in 1914, you or someone in your family most likely worked at the Eccles Mine Number 5. Eccles was a tiny town in Raleigh County. Mine number 5 was opened in 1905, and by 1914, the mine employed most of the local men and even the teenagers. Life was mundane for the most part. Not much happened in the town, and April 28, 1914 promised to be just another boring day. On that Tuesday morning, dozens of local men and teens left their homes to go to work at the Eccles Mine Number 5, which was one of group of coal mines in West Virginia owned by the New River Colliers Company. Everything was going along fine, when suddenly, at 2:30pm, a sudden explosion rocked the Number 5 mine. In an instant, more than 180 workers who had left home as usual that day, would never go home again.
The explosion was caused by coal-seam methane. At least 180 men lay dead, at least that was the death roll published as of 2011 by the National Coal Heritage Trail. A monument at the cemetery lists 183 victims, and the records of the county coroner list 186. When the mine was rocked by a series of violent explosions, parts of the mine collapsed while other parts were heavily damaged, which trapped the miners inside. Of course, the people of Eccles and officials from the mining company rushed to the scene to aid the rescue efforts. Despite their best efforts, it was soon obvious that this would be a recovery effort, and not a rescue. That day, all of the miners in Eccles Mine Number 5 were killed, including five who were under the age of 14 years of age. In addition, nine workers in a nearby mine were killed when deadly gas from Mine Number 5 seeped into their mine. Ironically, one of the men who died in the nearby mine, was an insurance agent from Charleston, West Virginia, who had only gone into the mine to solicit business from the men. He was only there for a few minutes. It was there that the salesman, who had unfortunately chosen that day to visit the mine and sell insurance to its workers, was also killed. The blast and the subsequent damage to the mine, left many of the victim so mangled and torn apart, that most of them could not be positively identified because of their horrific injuries.
In the early 1900s, coal was in great demand. Production in the United States had increased from 50 million tons of coal in 1850 to 250 million tons of coal in 1903. Unfortunately, the increasing demand and the rush to supply, brought with it worsening work conditions. The danger occurred when the men were digging for coal in deep mines, in which chambers of gas lay just underneath. That meant that highly explosive gasses could come into contact with carbide headlamps. The next thing they knew, they had an explosion on their hands. The mine disaster brought attention to an overall safety problem in the West Virginia mining industry. Sadly…at least in that it didn’t happen sooner, the disaster actually aided the unions’ attempts to improve the workers’ conditions. The labor union helped to ban carbide headlamps in West Virginia. It was suspected that the headlamps were most likely the cause of the Eccles explosion, as well as a second mine explosion 18 years later in Illinois.
The battle between those who support unions and those who do not, has gone on for a long time, and each has its pros and cons. Unions help employers create a more stable, productive workforce…one in which workers have a say in improving their jobs. Unions help bring workers out of poverty and into the middle class. In fact, in states where workers don’t have union rights, workers’ incomes are lower. So, it is always “in the employer’s best interest” not to have a union, but really not in the best interest of the workers, for whom the working conditions can be sub-par, and even dangerous. Because of that, the battle between the two sides has raged on for many years.
In the early 1900s, one such situation resorted to violence, and that violence came to a boiling point on October 1, 1910, when a suitcase bomb ignited a massive explosion that destroyed the Los Angeles Times building in the Los Angeles’ downtown area. The explosion killed 21 and 100 more people, all of whom were workers for the Los Angeles Times, who were working late to put out an early afternoon edition of the paper to celebrate the results of the Vanderbilt Cup auto race. Since Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Otis was an extreme opponent of unions, he believed that the bomb was directed at him. With that in mind, he hired the nation’s premier private detective of that time, William J Burns, to crack the case. Otis was now a quiet opponent to unions, and in fact, he printed numerous editorials against unions. He was also the leader of the Merchants and Manufacturing Association, a powerful group of business owners with extensive political connections…and very much anti-union.
As Burns investigation progressed, it led him to the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union and their treasurer, John J McNamara. McNamara’s brother, James B (JB) was discovered to be the actual bomber. He left a suitcase with a dynamite bomb near barrels of flammable printer’s ink between the Los Angeles Times Building and the Times annex, known as “Ink Alley”, which contained the paper’s printing press. The dynamite had a detonator connected to a mechanical windup clock, set to close an electric battery circuit at 1:00am, and set off the explosion. JB left similar bombs, also set to explode at 1:00am, next to the homes of both Times publisher, Otis and Felix Zeehandelaar, secretary of the M and M. He then boarded a train to San Francisco so he could have credible evidence that he was out of town when the bomb at the Times building went off.
In April 1911, after Burns got a confession out of Ortie McManigal, who had allegedly been the intermediary between McNamara and two bomb experts, he personally arrested John McNamara and his brother, James in Indiana. Burns also managed to get the brothers to California, without any legal authority, where they were to be prosecuted.
In an immediate response, union members and left-wing supporters alike, rallied around the McNamara brothers. They quickly raised a large defense fund, and union representatives pleaded with Clarence Darrow to take the case. Darrow, who was the best defense attorney America had to offer at that time. He was noted for getting “Big Bill” Haywood, the union leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, off on murder charges in Idaho a few years earlier. They offered him $50,000, and he found that he just couldn’t resist, so he took the case. As the case progressed, Darrow began to realize that the McNamara brothers were guilty, and as evidence mounted, he worked a deal in which JB McNamara pled guilty and received life in prison, as opposed to the death penalty. Despite repeated attempts by left-wing labor leaders and certain politicians to win his release, he refused to file any parole requests. James B (JB) McNamara died of cancer in San Quentin on March 9, 1941. John J (JJ) McNamara received 17 years in prison. JJ McNamara left prison after nine years, and the Iron Workers’ union welcomed him back as an organizer. He was convicted of threatening the destruction of a building unless the contractor hired union members and was sent back to prison. Released once more, the union discovered that he had embezzled $200, and fired him. JJ spent the rest of his life drifting from job to job, and died in Butte, Montana on May 8, 1941. In all, 40 additional co-conspirators were convicted of various crimes and served various sentences, but it was always thought that the McNamara brothers were the ring leaders, and that they others had bit parts in the attack.
I think a lot of people know or at least have heard of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Most people think of the fourteen casinos located there, and I suppose that casinos are a fitting thing for Cripple Creek to be known for, but it wasn’t always that way. Cripple Creek became a gold mining boom town in 1894 after gold was discovered there. At that time 150 gold mines suddenly sprang up, and with them, a strong miners union…the Free Coinage Union Number 19, which was a part of the militant Western Federation of Miners.
As with any gold mining operation, desparate workers began pouring in from all over the country. Before long Cripple Creek had a huge labor surplus. With the labor surplus, the owners begin requiring extra hours, with no pay increase, or the alternative, they could keep the current 8 hours a day with a pay reduction of 50 cents. The Western Federation of Miners opposed both plans, and the miners when on strike. Their picket lines and refusal to work closed most of the mines. They showed what solidarity is all about. The miners who were still going down in the working mines assessed themselves 10 percent of their wages to support the strikers, and the union set up soup kitchens. How often to you see people who can’t afford to strike, but who are willing to support those who do strike.
The governer of Colorado, David Waite would not help the labor bosses, but they had the county Sheriff, Frank Bowers in their pocket. They told the miners to go back to work, they would not. By the end of October, things had gotten so out of hand that finally, on November 23, 1903, Governor Peabody agreed to send the state miltia to protect replacement workers that the bosses had brought in. The striking miners were furious and they barricaded the roads and railways. The soldiers began rounding up the union members and their sympathizers, including the entire staff of a pro-union newspaper, and imprisoned them without charges or any evidence that they had done anything wrong.
The miners and others who were imprisoned complained that their constitutional rights had been violated, and
one anti-union judge replied, “To hell with the Constitution; we’re not following the Constitution!” Those tactics brought out the more radical elements of the Western Federation of Miners, and in June of 1904 Harry Orchard, who was a professional terrorist the the union employed, blew up a railroad station, whick killed 13 strikebreakers. With the bombing came the outrage of the public and the deportation of the Western Federation of Miners leaders. By midsummer, the strike was over and the Western Federation of Miners never regained the same level of power it had originally had in the Colorado mining districts. Even in this day and age, the unions and the bosses seem to always be at odds, and I suppose that something like this could happen again.