A Labor Trilogy Part II – 1894: Year of Protest in Indiana County

Historians accord considerable attention to the labor disputes, mass movements and political protest parties of the 1890s.  However, the linkages among these movements receive less coverage and activities in the less populated counties of the East get little notice.  Indiana County provided no events of national significance, but protest movements gained support and their connections offer examples of joint actions by producers.  The Populist Party spearheaded protest activities in many areas and played a role in Indiana County as a political presence and a catalyst to other movements, particularly the “industrial armies.”  Coxey’s Army, the most famous industrial army, never entered Indiana County but other groups of unemployed workers passed through the county.  Coal mining hadn’t reached a high level of production.  However, some mines operated, particularly in the Glen Campbell area, where miners joined the widespread coal strike.

Popular ferment shook the nation in the 1890s as the beneficiaries and victims of industrial capitalism clashed over the distribution of wealth and power.  The Farmer Alliances and the Populist Party spearheaded agrarian discontent.  Farmers, particularly cotton and wheat growers in the South and West, complained about the currency, transportation and political systems and sought an alternative society which would recognize the values of the producers and offer them greater access to wealth and power.

In some cases coal miners joined the struggle, creating a fragile farmer-worker alliance.  However, coal miners more often used the United Mine Workers to obtain higher wages and better working conditions.  The effects of the Depression of 1893 intensified the underlying problems facing workers and farmers.  Mass unemployment became more prevalent and the government remained unresponsive to the growing demands for aid.  Therefore, some unemployed workers joined “industrial armies” which marched and rode across the county to raise the consciousness of the nation and to pressure the federal government to create jobs.

Popular protest in Indiana County found diverse channels for expression.  The Knights of Labor, a fading factor in national protest movements, remained somewhat active in Indiana County.  For example, in February, Knights of Labor Assembly 2043 of Indiana entertained the Blacklick Assembly with refreshments and an interesting program.  The county assemblies of the Knights of Labor planned to celebrate Labor Day with a program featuring prominent labor speakers.  In September, the Blacklick Assembly reciprocated the hospitality of the Indianan Knights by hosting them for a meeting and a meal.  The Farmers’ Alliance generated more support and conducted activities.  Blacklick Township was its major stronghold.  A well attended hospital lecture in January later in the year and a giant picnic in August provided the highlight of Alliance activities.  The event featured singing, music, and speeches.  Marion Butler, president of the national Alliance, addressed the crowd.  Warren A. Gardner, the state president delivered the main speech.  He supported more coinage of silver and government ownership of the railroads.  Burrell Township and Kellysburg were other centers of Alliance activity.  Burrell Township organized a unit in January which remained active throughout the year.   Kellysburg hosted meetings, addressed by prominent speakers and welcomed a county convention which drafted resolutions in behalf of a road system, government ownership of the railroads and inflation.

While relatively few workers supported the political protest movement, more workers struck, particularly the coal miners of Glen Campbell.  In April they struck for higher wages, a demand which the operators declared they couldn’t meet.  The following month the miners dispatched a delegation to Indiana to solicit aid for the 280 strikers – a trip which raised $52.75 in donations.  The character of the strike changed with the arrival of the Coal and Iron Police.  Prior to this time, the strike had been peaceful and the strikers had the support of local professional and businessmen.  The community resented the presence of the 30 police.  Some residents cried “Down with Captain Clark who fights the poor man” while others wavered in their support for the strikers.  Conditions continued to deteriorate with the arrival of troops in late June and the presence of deputies who exchanged gun fire with strikers in early August.  Soon after this battle the strikers returned to work for the wages set by the employer.  The company refused to rehire 35 or 40 strike leaders.  In the aftermath of this strike defeat, some residents returned to political action and the Populists finished second in the 1895 election.

However, the Populist Party drew its leadership and supporters from farmers, as comparatively few workers followed the lead of the Glen Campbell miners and urban areas remained unorganized.  The former Greenback-Labor Party leaders and supporters formed a core of Populist strength.  Robert Alexander Thompson, the leading Populist in the county who served as state chairman for seven years, had been a Greenback and edited The Indiana News, a Greenback and Populist organ.  Thompson, a wholesale lumber dealer, came from a prominent and respected family.  His forbearers included Major Samuel Thompson, who obtained recognition as a leading abolitionist.

The Populist Party in Indiana County emerged from an organizational meeting held in late March 1892.  The party structure solidified in the 1894 campaign when delegates met at the Indiana Courthouse to pass resolutions and nominate candidates.  The visit of Jerome T. Ailman, the Populist candidate for governor, highlighted the campaign.  He spoke to a large audience at the GAR Hall in Black Lick where he ably presented the fundamental principles of the party.  Later he stopped in Indiana to meet with Robert Thompson.  Thomas escorted Ailman to the offices of The Indiana News where the candidate met and talked to visitors.  The election results in Indiana County surpassed the statewide performance.  Ailman won 7.5% of the county vote compared to 3% of the Commonwealth total.  In Burrell, Grant, Rayne, and Washington Townships he won more than 20% of the vote.  The role of the Populist Party in Indiana County went beyond electoral activity.  Party officials coordinated the travel plans and arranged the activities of the industrial armies.  For example, they announced the arrival of Randall’s Army and Robert Thompson went to Black Lick to plan for Randall’s visit to Indiana.

Industrial armies visited the county, although Coxey’s Army went directly from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.  Galvin’s Army, Randall’s Army and the Thomas contingent of Fry’s Army passed through Indiana County.  The arrival of Colonel Galvan’s Army in late May began the cycle of arrivals and departures of industrial armies.  The Blairsville Evening Courier provided its readers with information about the army and its leader.  The newspaper described Galvin as a well informed, quiet and earnest person with leadership ability and experience as a stone cutter.  His army was composed of American citizens of working class background who behaved in an orderly manner.  The army of 75 arrived in Blairsville on the 17th, where residents provided accommodations and donated bread, beef and coffee.  A meeting to welcome the contingent attracted an audience of almost 1,000.  They heard remarks by Galvin and a speech by Major Ward.  Ward expressed his support for the issuance of greenbacks, a graduated tax system and employment on public works for the unemployed.  The orderly and well-behaved crowd contributed about fifteen dollars to Galvin’s Army.  Randall’s Army and a contingent of Fry’s Army headed by Colonel Thomas arrived in late June.  The Randall Army reached Indiana after stops in Blairsville and Black Lick.  They marched up 7th to Philadelphia Street where their presence excited much interest from community residents.  Randall spoke at the Courthouse before an audience composed of the Kellysburg martial band and several hundred residents.  Randall, who edited a Populist newspaper, delivered an effective speech in which he condemned politicians and the accumulation of wealth.  The Thomas contingent, the last industrial army to visit Indiana County, received an enthusiastic welcome in Blairsville.  The Boy’s Brigade greeted them and residents provided provisions.  Colonel Thomas spoke in behalf of silver coinage and the protection of workers.  At the conclusion of his speech he left to deliver an address in Indiana.

The 1890s marked a major watershed in U.S. history.  By this time the USA had emerged as the world’s dominant economic power.  This new status raised urgent questions about the distribution of wealth and power.  The increasing bipolarization of society set the stage for titanic battles including the Homestead Lockout and the Pullman Boycott.  Mass movement also arose, most notably Populism and the industrial armies.  Pittsburgh and Chicago provided the major battlefields but other areas were affected.  In Indiana County some producers struggled for a better society.  Their activities reflected discontent and generated public support.  By the early 20th century, industrial capitalism became more entrenched and the public agenda narrowed.  Nevertheless, new groups, such as the Socialist Party of American, emerged to continue the struggle nationally and in Indiana County.

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.

coal and iron police act

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!