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When Crisis and Catastrophe Struck U.S. Coal Industry

By Philip Scranton
December 30, 2012 9:26 PM EST
Coal mine in Kentucky, 1930.
Source: Getty Images.
Coal mine in Kentucky, 1930.

Commodity prices fell drastically in 1932, with wheat, cotton, oil and especially coal deeply affected by oversupply and shrunken demand. The resulting struggle between coal managers eager for a profit and miners desperate for a fair wage was symptomatic of an industry torn apart by the worsening economic crisis.

At an Interstate Commerce Commission hearing, a railroad-fuel agent said he had bought some coal from Pennsylvania for 72 cents a ton. Five years earlier, the price had been more than $2. National soft-coal production was 300 million tons, slightly more than half the total output in 1926. Consequently, soft-coal employment had slipped by a third by 1932 -- to 400,000 men from 600,000.

To lower costs and reduce the influence of the United Mine Workers of America union, mine operators fired workers and cut wages. Few miners had skills that would transfer elsewhere in an economy already beset by high unemployment. Both spontaneous walkouts and organized strikes spread across Appalachian coal districts.

When mine operators recruited replacements for workers on strike, protests routinely turned into violent confrontations. State police and National Guard units often had to break up demonstrations to ensure strikebreakers’ access to the mine shafts. Miners also battled among themselves: The rekindling of an old family feud in Kentucky resulted in nine deaths in early July.

Summer meetings between mine operators and union leaders to end the strikes stalled at first, but then the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against 136 coal companies. The suit alleged that these companies, which controlled about 70 percent of Appalachia’s mines, had conspired to fix prices. (The Supreme Court would later rule that there was no reason for injunction against the companies.)

In July, Illinois operators and the miners' union agreed to make wage cuts averaging 15 percent in exchange for reopening mines to re-employ an estimated 40,000 workers. Miners rejected the pact by a 4-to-1 margin, denouncing the pay reduction. In December, after a tough debate, the miners accepted a two-year basic wage deal of $5 a day.

That was the only good news for miners that December. Three deadly accidents occurred in the weeks before Christmas. First, a Dec. 7 gas explosion three miles inside a Madrid, New Mexico, mine killed 14 men. The early-morning blast consumed all the oxygen in the gallery, suffocating them.

"Many were found with their lunch pails in their hands," the Albuquerque Journal reported. "Others had not even taken off their coats to begin work.”

Two days later, a blast at Zero Mine in Kentucky killed 23, including two pairs of brothers. One family lost six sons. All were married with children.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a detonation rocked Moweaqua mine in Illinois. Fallen shale blocked passages half a mile inside. Fifty miners who were close to the entrance escaped unhurt; the 54 deeper inside died.

"Attempts by a score of men to dig through the shaft with picks and shovels were hampered by the hysterical wives and children of the imprisoned men," the Alton Evening Telegraph reported.

In three weeks, coal-mining accidents had resulted in 91 fatalities and ripped apart communities. It had been a terrible year in many ways, but the December mining disasters were really too much.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more from Echoes, Bloomberg View's economic history blog.

To contact the writer of this blog post: Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Kirsten Salyer at ksalyer@bloomberg.net.

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