Coal and Iron and the Badge

There’s an old adage that says a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out, but he’ll stay there till he’s cooked if the water’s heated slowly enough.  We humans can be that way about threats to our freedom, and Pennsylvanians are no exception.  We proudly shed our blood in the War to End Slavery, yet just six weeks before we won, our legislature authorized the next great threat to freedom – and almost no one objected.

Not many realized it was a threat at the time.  The need seemed genuine, and the solution obvious: train-bandits were better armed and organized than law enforcement in many Pennsylvania counties, so railroads asked for the right to create their own police units.  It seemed like a practical idea, so Act 228, An Act Empowering Railroad Companies to Employ Police Force, was passed in April 1865.

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Rail police were to “possess and exercise all the powers of policemen in the city of Philadelphia.”  Their authority extended not only to company property but throughout the county(s) in which they were commissioned.  A year later, the Act was amended to include two other giants of the Industrial Age: “all corporations, firms or individuals . . . in possession of any colliery, furnace or rolling mill within this Commonwealth.”  Badges were now to read “Coal and Iron Police” and show the company name.  And just what did it take to become a Coal and Iron Police officer?  The governor’s signature on a single-page application from the company, an oath and a badge.  No training, no background check, no security bond . . . and no accountability.  Answering only to his employer, each man was essentially a law unto himself.

Almost from the start, coalfield “C&Is” were used primarily as strikebreakers, economic enforcers and agents of social control in company towns.  They performed evictions and collected debts, kept up surveillance and shut down public gatherings, and above all prevented infiltration by union organizers.  They were not without legitimate functions;  many a murderer and thief was brought to justice by Coal and Iron Police, and the very lack of accountability that made C&Is such a threat to freedom gave would-be criminals reason to reconsider.  Though the Act stipulated that anyone arrested be “dealt with according to law,” in practice they were as likely to be beaten as brought to trial.

Accidents of geology and geography spared Indiana County some of the worst abuses.  We sit on the edge of three high, medium and low-volatile bituminous deposits; since coal companies tended to concentrate on a single type, no monopoly like those in Allegheny and Schuylkill counties controlled our land and people.  Lucky, too, that our miners weren’t recruited from the counties in Ireland where Molly Maguires were found.  In the 1870s, that underground society reacted to coal company abuses in eastern Pennsylvania with arson and murder, and the Coal and Iron Police responded in kind.

The relative peace here was reflected in our newspapers.  Coal and Iron Police were mentioned just three times in their first twenty years, and even then it was for their actions elsewhere in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.  But in 1894 the lid came off.

It happened as part of the biggest coal strike America had seen to date.  When Glen Campbell strikers threatened their non-union replacements, our County Recorder swore in sixty new Coal and Iron Police officers for the Berwind-White coal company.  “Foreigners” (as newspapers called immigrant miners) and “Cossacks” (as miners called C&Is) seemed eager to trade shots, and the latter had shoot-to-kill orders should gunfire erupt.  Why didn’t it?  Curiously, that credit goes to Jefferson County’s strikers.  They’d already become violent, so Governor Pattison sent in the National Guard.  One thousand uniformed men marched through Glen Campbell on their way to Walston, and trigger-fingers suddenly stopped itching . . . a close call.

Coal consumption was breaking records every year as the 20th century approached, and mine employment rose to meet it.  So did labor activism and the C&Is’ increasingly brutal response.  That the creation of the Coal and Iron Police had been a mistake was by now obvious to almost everyone – even other states’ producers!  An 1898 edition of The Coal and Trade Journal noted that “Pennsylvania has an institution peculiar to itself . . . a private standing army of irresponsible myrmidons apparently authorized by the laws of that state.

The first small changes to that army were set in motion by the Anthracite Strike of 1902.  When both sides refused even federally-mediated settlement for almost six months, America ran out of home heating coal; with winter approaching, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines and replace strikers with soldiers.  The UMWA and Operators’ Association immediately split the difference and resumed production.  As part of the deal, a presidential commission investigated the strike’s root causes.  Among their recommendations was “discontinuance of the system of Coal and Iron Police . . . and resort to regularly constituted peace authorities in cases of necessity.

Though the first part of that recommendation would not soon be acted upon, Governor Pennypacker agreed to limit previously open-ended commissions to three years, and in 1905 signed a bill creating Pennsylvania’s State Police.  Troop D’s location in the heart of our medium-volatile bituminous region was no accident.  The writing was on the wall.

coal and iron police bage

Still, assaults kept increasing as coal production peaked.  More than 170 stories about C&Is appeared in Indiana County papers from 1910 to 1930 compared to those three in the first twenty years.  Yet even in places like Ernest and Creekside where “Cossacks” were ubiquitous, this county continued to see less labor violence than most.

During his first term in office, Governor Gifford Pinchot asked State Police to review all existing C&I commissions.  Their 1923 probe found cause to recommend that some 4,000 of them – the majority – be revoked, and the governor obliged.  He further announced that each future applicant must prove US citizenship and Pennsylvania residence, provide character references and employment history, and post a $2,000 bond.  Problem solved, right?  Well . . . not quite.

A 1928 US Senate Report on events here in the bituminous field was not well received in Harrisburg.  Its 3,400 pages detailing Coal and Iron Police beatings, warrantless searches and property seizures “endangered the peace of the Commonwealth,” said Governor John S. Fisher.  He claimed to mistrust the C&Is but thought that to eliminate them altogether was folly.  A single death the following year made it all academic.

In 1929, officers of the Pittsburgh Coal Company’s police force responded to a miner’s drunken rampage by beating and torturing and finally killing him.  All three were acquitted of John Borkovski’s murder; when retried, two of the three C&Is were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but not before public outrage had spawned two bills further restricting the Coal and Iron Police.  Governor Fisher’s choice to sign the weaker Mansfield Bill and veto the stronger Musmanno Bill contributed to his defeat in the next election.  Gifford Pinchot was returned to office in 1931.

Making good on his campaign promise to abolish the Coal and Iron Police (announced at Indiana County Courthouse!), Pinchot turned Act 228 against itself.  Its 1866 amendment said “the governor shall have the power to decline to make any such appointment . . . and at any time to revoke the commission of any policeman appointed hereunder.”  He did just that, to all of them.  At midnight on June 30, 1931, Pennsylvania’s Coal and Iron Police ceased to exist.

Some C&Is found employment as “real” police.  Jack Stroble of the Keystone Coal unit served briefly as Indiana’s Police Chief in the 1930s.  And in a final irony, Homer City’s policemen are nowadays represented by United Mine Workers of America!

 

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Justice Elkin: Politician, Lawyer, Community Leader

There are many professions that are held in high-esteem, one of those professions is the legal profession, and in the history of Indiana, the members of the legal profession show up frequently in the history and founding of many of the organizations and schools around the area. If you are familiar with the town of Indiana you have probably come across the Elkin Mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery, one of the focal points of the Cemetery. The name Elkin has a long history in Indiana, including having the name dedicated to one of the buildings on IUP’s campus. The story behind John Pratt Elkin is one that deserves a closer look.

John Pratt Elkin’s life began humbly as many in the early days of Indiana County; he was born January 11, 1860, in a log house in West Mahoning Township. He was the son of Francis and Elizabeth (Pratt) Elkin. The family moved to Smicksburg in 1868 where Francis opened a store and a foundry. Elkin, 8-years-old at the time helped in the store and also attended the local school. In 1873, the family moved again, this time to Wellsville, Ohio; it was here that his father and several others established a tin mill, where young John worked, but by the end of 1874, the venture failed.

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Justice John P. Elkin

The family returned to Smicksburg in the fall of 1875 where John (only 15 years old) began teaching after passing his teacher’s examination, and when the school closed in the spring of 1876, he enrolled in the Indiana Normal School (now IUP). He continued teaching and his schooling in the summer months; after this he borrowed some money so that he could remain in school a full year and graduated in 1880.

After teaching for a year, John entered the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, graduating in 1884. Elkin was enrolled in a class of about one hundred twenty-nine students, and he was ranked among the leading students of his class. It was during his law school career that Elkin decided to be a candidate for the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives for the Republican primary and conducted his campaign by correspondence. A week after graduation, Elkin won the nomination. It was at the same time that he married Adda Prothero, a daughter of John P. and Sarah (Clark) Prothero. Elkin won the election in November 1884 and served two terms in the House representing Indiana County in 1885 and 1887.

On September 14, 1885, Elkin was admitted to the Indiana County Bar. It was during the first session of the House in 1885, that he framed and introduced a bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine (a fatty substance extracted from beef fat and used in the manufacture of margarine) and it was successfully enacted into law.

In the 1887 session, Elkin was chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Reform and worked for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors. Interestingly enough, in his later life as Justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Elkin authored the majority opinion which enabled the Indiana Brewery Company to obtain their liquor license (see a future blog post).

Elkin also served as a delegate to the state Republican Convention in 1887. Just the previous year, he was named a trustee of the Indiana State Normal School and continued in that capacity for the rest of his life (29 years), the last 17 years he was vice president.

It was in 1887 that Elkin also began business as a partner with Henry and George Prothero, opening up mines in the Cush Creek area. Elkin always believed in the profitable operation of the coal lands. The partners also secured a railroad from Mahaffey to Glen Campbell and sold part of the coal lands to the Glenwood Coal Co.

Elkin’s political career however was not over. Elkin served for five years as chairman of the Republic State Committee and in 1898, he conducted the successful campaign of William A. Stone for governor. He was appointed Deputy Attorney General in 1899 and served until 1902. Elkin himself was a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 1902, unfortunately he was defeated by Samuel W. Pennypacker.

After serving as Deputy Attorney General, he returned to Indiana County to practice law. It was in April 1904 that Elkin received the nomination for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and in November 1904 he received overwhelming support, with his majority being 425,000 votes over his Democratic opponent. On January 1, 1905, Justice Elkin began his term as associate justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in which he served until his death on October 3, 1915. Justice Elkin was also favorably considered by the President for a seat on the United State Supreme Court in 1912, but was not chosen. Justice Elkin was considered as a candidate for the United States Senate seat in 1915, but at the time Elkin was serving on the PA Supreme Court and when asked about this possibility Elkin stated “As you know I am on the bench and am out of politics. Just now I am busy writing opinions on cases before the supreme court and have no time to even think of such matters. I am out of politics.” And John P. Elkin would never return to politics.

Justice Elkin, passed away on October 3, 1915, his funeral services were attended by hundreds of people from all over the state and nation. More than 5,000 people lined the roadway in Indiana as the Elkin funeral passed, this included many students from Indiana Normal School. It was after his death that the Elkin Mausoleum was erected in Oakland Cemetery.

Elkin Mausoleum
Elkin Mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery, Indiana, PA

Buttermilk Falls: Home to Fred McFeely’s Estate

Earlier this month, February 19, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. This anniversary got me thinking about Indiana County’s connection to Mr. Fred Rogers, with Buttermilk Falls. The falls are located a short distance off Route 22 at 570 Valley Brook Road, New Florence, PA. The site not only offers a 48-acre natural area, but it also has a unique history behind the grounds which relate directly to Fred Rogers.

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The grounds were donated to the Indiana County Parks in 1995 by the Keystone-Conemaugh Group, who are the owners of the nearby Conemaugh Generating Station. The park features an impressive 45-foot waterfall. More interesting is the history behind the site, it was once home to Fred McFeely’s, Fred Roger’s grandfather, summer estate. Fred McFeely owned the property from 1930 to 1956. The grounds once featured a large house, horse stables, a three-car garage, outbuildings and a swimming area in the creek above the falls. Although the buildings are no longer in existence, stone foundations and dams are still in existence, and with a little use of your imagination you can imagine what the grounds would have looked like to a young Mr. Rogers.

As a child, Fred Rogers, would visit his grandfather’s farm, and walk the grounds with Fred McFeely, after Sunday dinners and during summer vacations. Mr. Rogers conceived many of his ideas for his television program, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” while visiting Buttermilk Falls. Even as an adult Mr. Rogers fondly remembered his time at Buttermilk Falls. In a 1996 Indiana Gazette interview, Mr. Rogers remembered climbing on the stone walls at the site and crawling behind the falls to look through the cascading water

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If you’re looking a springtime day trip, Buttermilk Falls is an excellent place to get away. Enjoy the beauty of this natural wonder, but also do not forget to look for the remnants of the estate that once stood at the site, and picture what it must have looked like to a young Fred Rogers.

Jim Cheney, Pennsylvania Waterfalls: Visiting Buttermilk Falls in Indiana County. https://uncoveringpa.com/buttermilk-falls-indiana-county
Buttermilk Falls Natural Area Brochure

Governor from Indiana County: John S. Fisher

Governor John S. Fisher

After completing the Indiana County-Opoly game, we realized that people had questions about some of the people that were represented throughout the game.  One of those individuals was John Stuchell Fisher, who was the only governor, to date, from Indiana County.  Mr. Fisher was born on May 25,
1867 in South Mahoning Township, near Plumville.  In his early years, Fisher attended a one-room school house at Ox Hill, then attending Indiana High from which he graduated in 1884.  He continued his education at the Indiana Normal School, graduating in 1886 from which he began teaching at the Ox Hill School for about $1 a day.

It was in 1890, that he began to study law at the law office of Samuel Cunningham, passed the bar exam and was admitted to the Indiana County Bar in August of 1893, after which he entered a partnership with Cunningham, which continued for 35 years.  John Fisher married Hapsie Miller on October 11, 1893 and she died on January 17, 1922, never knowing that her husband would become governor.

Fisher was involved in both politics and business and by 1897 was chairman of the Indian County Republican Party, and in November 1900 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate and re-elected in 1904.  As a Senator he supported legislation that prohibited the employment of children under 14 in the coal mines along with an appropriation for the Indiana Normal School in the amount of $75,000.  His second term as Senator gained him national recognition because he chaired a special Senate committee investigating the excessive costs in furnishing the new state Capitol.  The committee learned that the subcontractors and suppliers billed the state for $9 million for furnishings that actually cost only $2 million.

Fisher began his run for governor in 1922, but there were eight Republican candidates for the office so Fisher decided to withdraw.  However, four years later Fisher was once again a candidate, and he won a narrow victory in the primary but won the fall election in a landslide.  After the spring primary, 35,000 people came to Indiana to welcome Fisher home; the Indiana Evening Gazette reported in the May 25, 1926 edition: “…there was joy unconfined and hundreds of pounds of fireworks, red fire and other noisemakers were used, while thousands of peanuts and hundreds of pounds of popcorn were consumed.”

His term as governor will best be remembered by a coal strike in the spring of 1927, beginning because the Pittsburgh Coal Co. broke a 1924 wage contract and also cut miners’ wages by 33%, followed by a reduction again by 20%.  At the beginning Fisher did not intervening and then on March 12 he called for a conference of all the parties involved but no one responded.  The strike ended in July 1928, but Governor Fisher suffered a huge setback in public opinion.  In 1929, he signed the Mansfield Bill which corrected some of the abuses by the coal and iron police.”  He will be remembered as “Fisher the Builder” because while in office, 4,000 miles of highways were paved and 1,000 miles resurfaced.  October 4, 1930, Fisher returned to Indiana to dedicate the Benjamin Franklin Highway (Route 422).  He pushed for construction of the Farm Show Building in Harrisburg, and for new buildings or improvements at State teacher colleges, armory, and hospitals.  Also during his administration the state acquired the land for Cook Forest State Park.

One of the greatest accomplishments while in office was the reduction of debt.  When he became governor, Pennsylvania had a $98 million debt, by the time he left office the state had $29 million surplus.  In 1939, IUP dedicated and named Fisher Auditorium in Governor Fisher’s honor.  Governor John S. Fisher died on Jun 25, 1940 and was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery.

(Sources: Stephenson, Clarence. Indiana County man elected governor. The Indiana Gazette April 7, 1984; Wells, Randy. From Ox Hill to the governor’s mansion. The Indiana Gazette. May 16, 2000.)