Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Cold November: The Coal Strike of 1919

By Richard I. Gibson

This post is based mostly on Anaconda Standard newspaper articles from the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. All the photos and quotes are from those newspapers. Below is the YouTube recording (by the Butte Archives) of a presentation I did on this topic.

So it’s cold in Butte in November 2014. That’s hardly news, although when it goes from +60° to below zero in a day or so, it gets peoples’ attention. Imagine how it would be if the sources of natural gas and electricity that we warm our homes with were cut off.

That’s what happened in November 1919. Coal truly was king in those days, and made Butte habitable in the winter. Certainly, people lived here before coal was readily available, but in the metropolis Butte had become in 1919, coal was very much a necessity.

The Great War had ended November 11, 1918. While the world may have begun to return to some kind of normal – complicated by the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which hit Butte especially hard – Butte was beginning to feel the negative effects of war’s end in a fall in the price of copper. The job situation was tight, and the political situation was tighter. The wartime hyper-patriotism may have diminished some, to be replaced by the first Red Scare. Opponents of the war, ranging from philosophical socialists to radical unionists to ethnic Irish and Finns, were characterized as communist sympathizers, spies, and worse. That tale and more are related in Clemens Work’s book, Darkest Before Dawn.

Strikes all over

The Coal Strike of 1919 was in many ways an aspect of the Red Scare, just as the Seattle General Strike (January 1919), the Boston Police Strike (September 1919), and the Steel Strike (September 1919) were. The United Mine Workers (UMW) led by John L. Lewis had abided by a wartime agreement to refrain from wage hikes, although the mine companies were making plenty of money simply because of increased demand, as was the case in Butte for the copper companies. The UMW demanded wage increases commensurate with the profit increases – but US Attorney General Mitchell Palmer invoked the wartime law against profiteering and interference with the production of necessities like coal. It had never been used against a union, nor was it likely that it was intended for that purpose, and the war, after all, had been over for a year.

Palmer claimed that President Wilson – ill to the point of incapacity – and his entire cabinet approved his move to keep coal miners at work. That was certainly untrue, at least regarding the Secretary of Labor, William Wilson, but nonetheless, on November 1, 1919, 400,000 coal miners walked off their jobs.

The vitriol that came out of the early days of the strike ranged from charges by mine owners that the strike was fomented and paid for literally by Lenin and Trotsky to fear-mongering that the strike was but a start to an American Bolshevik revolution.

By the third week of November, with Thanksgiving in the offing, the coal strike was having a nationwide impact. In Butte, the mines had continued to operate because they had stockpiles of coal, and the coal mine at Diamondville, in southwest Wyoming, was owned by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. The ACM Company used at least 1,000 tons of coal a day just in Butte. By November 25, the low-grade coal from Diamondville that was still being shipped to Butte was turned over to the city fuel administration “to prevent suffering among families whose [coal] stores are depleted.” The mines in Butte were operating on a day-to-day contingency.

“Burning fences”

On Wednesday November 26, two grim headlines were on the front page of the Anaconda Standard: “Cabinet Deadlocked Over Settlement of Coal Miners’ Strike,” and more ominously, “Cold Wave Hits Butte and Fuel Supply Dwindles.” The 40 train-car loads of coal that arrived that week were enough to keep Butte warm for 6 more days. John McIntosh, city fuel administrator, said “What we can get to burn after this present supply is exhausted I do not know, but it looks like Butte would be burning fences before long if more relief does not reach us.”

Thursday was the coldest Thanksgiving in 20 years, at 22 below zero – and that was the first of three such nights, the nadir of a cold wave that had temperatures down to 14 below the previous Tuesday. The forecast high on Thanksgiving day was zero. Meanwhile, failed negotiations between the Federal government and the unions meant that the strike headline read “Peace in Bituminous Fuel Field Appears No Nearer.” But E.H. Lang, traffic manager for the ACM Company, had gone to Salt Lake City where he did a deal with the railroads (probably the largest consumers of coal) to get an assurance of 1,000 tons of coal per day to be shipped to Butte. If not for that, “hundreds of homes would have been without coal within two or three days.”

The deal with the railroads out of Salt Lake was an emergency, stop-gap arrangement, using the low-grade Diamondville industrial coal. Most of Butte’s residential and business coal for heating came from mines at Roundup and Bear Creek (near Red Lodge), and the railroads that transported that coal had embargoed it for their own use. The city fuel administrator telegraphed the regional director of railroads and fuel administrator in Chicago, pleading for more coal:

“… in Butte, with approximately 90,000 inhabitants, situation is critical. There is not a ton in city. Barely enough wood to take care of immediate wants. … There is not a coal mine working in Montana.” — John H. M’Intosh, City Fuel Administrator.

T.W. Proctor, the Chicago fuel administrator, threatened to shut down Butte’s mines and the smelters in Anaconda to save fuel. Such a move was, of course, seen as a disaster for Butte, throwing thousands of men out of work, so that they would be unable to provide for their families. By Saturday November 29, the Union Pacific was threatening to abrogate the deal for 1,000 tons of Diamondville coal a day for Butte, diverting it for the railroad’s own needs. Fewer cars of coal than expected were making it to Butte, and some families “were unable to scrape together coal enough to prepare breakfast.”

It seems that Mr. Proctor did not understand that the ACM was using stockpiled coal of even lower quality than the Diamondville shipments, all of which was being diverted and rationed by Butte city officials to those in need.

Things appeared to be better on Sunday November 30. Twelve more cars of Diamondville coal had arrived, and there was an order (dependent on the miners’ decision) to reopen Montana’s coal mines the following Tuesday. The deal included an agreement to accept the miners’ demand for a 14% wage increase – which seems huge, but it was commensurate with the huge profits coal companies made during the war, when no pay raises were allowed. In fact, Secretary of Labor Wilson was suggesting wage increases of 31.6%, but that suggestion was by no means universally accepted within the Federal government.

The Diamondville coal cost $9.55 a ton. It was a small portion of the annual US output of about 500 million tons whose total value was on the order of $5 billion. Coal mine workers in 1918 averaged annual pay of $1,550.56, reflecting a day rate of $6.18. Total payroll for miners amounted to something like $600 million out of revenue of more than $5 billion.

"Drastic Measures"

On Monday December 1, the Standard sported somewhat contradictory headlines: “Coal Shortage in Nation May Force Drastic Measures,” next to the Butte story, “Coal Situation Looms Brighter as Week Begins.” Although $700 in private donations to help the poor with their coal had been exhausted, local officials were optimistic that more Montana coal would be forthcoming soon.

On Tuesday, National Coal Administrator Garfield promulgated measures more restrictive than those in effect during the war. People were asked to “put up with privation” rather than accede to the miners’ “unwarranted” demands. It was clearly an attempt to break the strike. And despite the previous day’s optimism, the local headline read “Suspension at Coal Mines causes Butte Industries to Close – City Faces Absolute Coal Famine.” What happened? The miners at Diamondville had joined the strike. All the mines in Butte were shut down. And the projected opening of the Montana coal mines was no longer seen as enough to benefit Butte significantly.

“Butte fuel dealers will make all necessary preparations to put a force of men into the hills to cut wood. … How many of the uptown [business] blocks where wood cannot be used are to be heated is a knotty problem and one which must await a solution.”

Butte’s laundries were expected to close, but the schools had about 20 days’ supply on hand for normal winter conditions – but if the present cold weather continued, they could not last “nearly that long.”

Finally, on December 7, the banner headline announced that “President Wilson Settles Coal Strike”. In Montana, Governor Stewart ordered Federal troops into the coal mines to protect the miners returning to work – since the strike had not broken there, as expected. In Butte, the ongoing fuel shortage was causing increasing levels of destitution, increasing at something like 100 families a day who had no fuel, and many who had no food.

Monday December 8. The Union Pacific Railroad seized 20 of the 28 cars of coal bound for Butte. Despite the theoretical, political end to the strike announced the day before, Butte was now “face to face with the most serious crisis since the coal strike was inaugurated.” The 8 carloads were only a 12-hour supply – and the local fuel administration said that the only choice was for people to rely on wood. The ACM was making efforts to import coal from Lethbridge, Alberta, but Canada was also suffering as a result of the US strike. Nationally, more than 250 passenger trains were discontinued in the New York to Boston corridor; 100,000 workers were laid off in Detroit on December 7; martial law was proclaimed in the Oklahoma Coal Fields where all non-essential industries were shut down. 

Shelters opened

On December 9, additional restrictions on coal use nationally were announced. Street lighting was shut down across the country. All businesses were put on plans for rationing both lighting and heating. Manufacturing plants were restricted to three days of operation in a week, and electric street railways, like those in Butte, were required to reduce schedules to a minimum and to not provide heat in the cars. In Butte, the city council allocated an emergency fund of $5,000 to buy fuel and clothing for the needy. The YMCA, the Florence Hotel, the Daly-Shea Chapel, and the Moose Hall were opened up as shelters for those without heat.

And the next day, it was announced that the miners had failed to agree to the Wilson Plan. Old buildings in Butte were torn down for firewood – children of needy families were asked to come and get it at the Jefferson School (Gallatin at Shields, on the East Side), where it was deposited.

The whiplash headlines continued on Thursday December 11 – the strike was finally actually over and mine operations were to begin the next day. The United Mine Workers, meeting in Indianapolis, voted to accept the deal after hours of “incendiary” debate. The 12,000 men in Butte who had been out of work for more than a week would go back to work as soon as industrial coal came into Butte – but it might be 10 more days. And it might be a rough 10 days. Another cold front was coming.

Fifty-six below

A blizzard hit Butte on December 11-12. A foot or more of snow fell, disrupting the trains slated to deliver coal, and disrupting even more the ongoing relief effort in town. The trolley system was completely inoperable, and additional shelters were opened up in the Knights of Columbus Hall and in larger neighborhood homes. Because this time, it was REALLY cold.

On December 8, a low of minus 35° was recorded. The night of Thursday December 11 saw readings in the minus 52 to minus 56 range on the south side of town. The high on Friday was minus 28. Butte was the coldest of the reporting locations around the state: Billings had -13°, East Helena -12°, Basin -30°, and White Sulphur Springs -22°. The cold, deep snow, and coal shortages finally closed Butte schools for two weeks beginning December 14. One school, McKinley, on West Park Street, was unusable because of a damaging fire on December 12. The school survived but the west side of it had severe damage.

By December 19, 1919, things really had changed for the better. A Chinook came through, and Butte’s temperature climbed 65º in 24 hours, all the way up to 28º. And 80% of the coal miners were back on the job, and shipments were on the way. All local restrictions on coal sales and delivery were removed. Three days later, December 22, 8,000 men finally went back to work in Butte’s mines.

It had certainly been a long four weeks.

1920s coal history

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