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The Welsh and the American anthracite coal mining industry.
Contributed by Ivan Hild of the USA in response to our note on
the Welsh and Slavery in America.

Occasionally one reads that Welsh immigrants to the United States must have participated importantly in the African slave trade because so many Afro-Americans today hold Welsh surnames. The argument seems specious in that the largest number of Welshmen immigrated to the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania where few blacks lived. Moreover, most Welshmen belonged to a Low Church form of Protestantism that subscribed to an optimistic view of mankind which spiritually tended to underwrite the Northern movement to free the slaves.

Welsh immigration to northeastern Pennsylvania took place roughly between 1840 and 1865, dates that more or less parallel the arrival of Irish Catholics to the region. Both groups earned their livelihood by digging coal in the primitive anthracite mines that were scattered about the cities of Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, and Hazleton. These mines, owned by Tory English farmers who had settled the region back in Colonial times after having been expelled from their western Connecticut farms following the War for Independence, in time would supply the power to fuel the nation's early industrial growth and provide heat for its homes. Before the Welsh arrived, hard coal had been dug by Anglo natives. But as demand for the clean-burning substance expanded, outsiders began filtering into the region. The Welsh and Irish Catholics were the first of huge numbers of immigrants to arrive to the region. In their former homelands, both Welshmen and Irishmen had suffered at the hands of British overseers, but in the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania the Welsh were able to use their ties to the Protestant faith to link hands socially with the owners of hard coal and thereby become mine managers and leaders in the coal unions. Both John Mitchell and John L. Lewis, the two most influential captains of the United Mine Workers Union, were from Welsh backgrounds.

With the rapid expansion in hard coal demand that took place in the last decades of the 19th Century, large numbers of Slavs and Italians came to the region. To their arrival, the Welsh reacted bitterly, apparently fearing a challenge to their hegemony. Common lore had it that the newcomers were willing to dig more coal and at lower wages than did the others. Moreover, it was believed that the newer arrivals actually saved more of what they earned. In the popular literature of the day, these perceptions amounted to terms of indictment, not praise. In his many books on the social life of anthracite Pennsylvania circa 1910, Welsh-born Congregationalist Minister Reverend Peter Roberts develops a whole set of themes that portray the Slavs and Italians as racially inferior, attitudes that were echoed by coal labor economist Frank Julian Warne in articles which appeared in the old Philadelphia Evening Ledger newspaper and the Saturday Evening Post magazine. Though Welshmen were not, formally speaking, Anglo-Saxon in their racial background, they expended every effort to be accepted as such by coal town's Anglo social Establishment. However possible, the Welsh blocked the advancement of the Slavs and Italians both in the mines and in above-ground relations. Recently released membership records of the Ku Klux Klan in northeastern Pennsylvania during this period attest to a strong Welsh presence.

By the early 1920s, rising operating costs in the anthracite mines were pushing the price of hard coal beyond its point of competitiveness with Texas home heating oil and Oklahoma natural gas, impelling mine operators to slash labor wage rates in an attempt to maintain profit margins. Labor countered with work stoppages in 1922, 1925, and 1926. With that, the nation seemed to lose confidence in the industry of anthracite. Already, hard coal had lost its important industrial market to cheaper soft coal. And now it appeared that the home heating market would slip away as well. From a production high of 105 million tons recorded during the World War I years, output began to fall to roughly half that by the Depression 1930s.

In part, the problem lay with attitudes of management and labor. The mines needed large amounts of new capital for investment to improve mining efficiency. Management was reluctant to make such investments, partly because mine ownership had by now slipped from the hands of the few powerful, interrelated families who were popularly styled as Coal Baron elites to the absentee hands of bankers and insurance executives of New York and Philadelphia who controlled the eight great anthracite railroads that serviced the region. Such absentee ownership seemed indifferent to improving the efficiency or even the safety of the industry whose mine accident mortality averaged as much as 400 men per year. As well, the top echelon of labor fought introduction of automated mining equipment, fearing that it would destroy jobs.

By the late 1920s, a struggle began to take shape between the forces of labor and those of management as production in the mines declined, unemployment rose, and the paychecks of 150 thousand mine workers began to shrink. The first skirmishes involved an effort on the part of the newer immigrant groups to assert their independence from labor's Old Guard - mostly conservative Welsh and Irish union bureaucrats who had long dominated the United Mine Workers Union by means fair and foul. The rank-and-file suspected union president John L. Lewis of signing sweetheart contracts favoring the interests of management over labor. Popular sentiment split along lines of ethnicity, class, and religion. As the struggle deepened, it emerged that not only were the newer union men fighting the union's Old Guard, but the entire social Establishment of the region as well who saw in the union conservatives forces of stability in labor and the Slav and Italian insurgents as radical troublemakers. For their part, the newer men believed that the Old Guard and the social Establishment exemplified all that was wrong with anthracite -- patronage, cronyism, and privilege.

When violence erupted, blame was invariably placed at the doorstep of the newcomers. Many were arrested, indicted, and prosecuted on the strength of what appeared to be flimsy evidence. Whole squads of nationally recognized civil rights attorneys descended upon Wilkes-Barre's County Court House to defend the accused against the arrayed power of coal town's Establishment. The trials dragged on through the late 1930s and exposed the region's political underbelly to the harsh light of nationwide scrutiny. Though most of the accused were eventually found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms, it was the Courthouse gang and its allies that stood convicted in the eyes of popular sentiment.

By this time, however, the day of hard coal was coming to its end. Mines were closing, unemployment was reaching gigantic proportions, and Coal town's Anglo elite already had largely decamped for more promising digs in the central cities to the south and the east. Left behind were the hated Poles, Russians, and Italians to live in the shadow of an eclipsed industry. In this way, at least, the problems of social conflict were resolved. A mood of social harmony settled over the region and people passing through began to remark on the essential friendliness of the place. Some of the older expatriate families even began filtering back to coal town for summer vacations and retirement. But the coal town of old, the world of big industry and mass labor, no longer existed. The old coal companies had long before been disbanded, the coal railroads had disappeared into the mists of bankruptcy, and all that was left of an industry that had mined an amazing eight billion tons of hard coal between 1830 and 1960 were windblown mountains of culm stretching almost to the horizon. If one pauses and thinks hard enough, it is possible to visualize those days gone by when grimy, puffing locomotives of the old Delaware and Lackawanna line lugged seventy-five gondola car trains of anthracite out of the region. As the train passed by, the ground under one's feet would tremble. A small locomotive emerging from a mineshaft would shriek its whistle. Children playing in the pitted coal yards would add their musical voices -- the music of another time.

Ivan Hild, 
April 2002

see also  the Welsh and Slavery in America
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