In the first two decades of the 20th century, coal miners and coal companies in West Virginia clashed in a series of brutal conflicts over labor conditions and unionization. Known collectively as the “Mine Wars,” the struggle included strikes, assassinations, marches, and the largest civil insurrection in the United States since the Civil War.
Coal was the engine of American industrial progress at the beginning of the 20th century. It powered locomotives, factories, and home furnaces, and it helped to purify the steel used in erecting skyscrapers all over the U.S.
Nearly three quarters of a million men across the country spent 10 to 12 hours a day in coal mines blasting, hand-picking, shoveling, and loading the indispensable rock onto railway cars bound for destinations across the country.
Miners everywhere suffered deplorable working conditions, but between 1890 and 1912, miners in West Virginia suffered the highest death rate in America. Local business management was also not favorable to the miners; coal operators ran both the mines and the local towns, or camps, and often paid workers in company currency, forcing mining families to shop exclusively at the local company store, where operators set the price of everything to assure a profit.
By 1900, to help improve the work lives of American miners, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had successfully recruited coal miners from Pennsylvania to Illinois and had established itself as one of the strongest unions in the nation. However, in the rapidly expanding coal industry of southern West Virginia, the mine operators fought back against unionization, sometimes violently.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a notorious labor organizer known as “the miner’s angel,” and a self-proclaimed “hellraiser.” Arriving in the coal mining towns of southern West Virginia in 1901, Mother Jones attempted to convince local coal miners to join the UMWA.
One such local was Frank Keeney. His story was not unusual among miners. A fourth generation West Virginian, Keeney left school at age nine to work in the coal mines to help support his mother and two sisters. His family had lost their farm in 1882, when a coal company purchased a large swath of land.
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