This month’s blog is written about twenty very strong women, whose names I do not know. There was a time when their neighbors, or husbands, or perhaps friends could have listed their identity; but no more. They lived in a small mining community in western Allegany County, Maryland in 1894, and this is their story.
Back in the 1890s the economy of western Allegany County was almost completely dependent upon coal. Eleven miles west of Cumberland, Maryland, nestled between the mountains was a sixteen mile long strip of fertile land called the Georges Creek Valley. The Earth harbored so much hidden coal there that numerous companies set up business and bituminous coal was being dug and sent out at a rate of 8,000 hand-dug tons a week. Thousands of men were employed throughout the region as miners.
The immediate and surrounding area was composed of numerous coal mining towns and small mining villages. While the owners of the coal companies grew rich, the miners worked for 50 cents a ton. On a good day a man could dig 4 tons of coal. Out of his $2.00 haul, he would be charged for the rental and sharpening of his tools, and various other ‘deductions’. His resulting pay was often issued in script; small coins imprinted with the name of the coal company and redeemable at the local company store; which was, of course, aligned with the already prosperous mining company.
Accidents were commonplace and often fatal. Pay was meager and only came twice a month. While the miners dug, often in atrocious conditions, it was the miners’ wives who had to scrimp and save to put food on the table. In the toughest of times a pot of cabbage soup might be all there was to feed a family of nine or ten, for several days straight.
In late 1893 the U.S. experienced a devastating economic depression which affected every American business, including the coal industry. The owners of the Georges Creek coal companies reacted to the probable loss of revenue by reducing the miners’ pay to 40 cents per ton dug.
It was a decision that would have unprecedented ramifications.
At this same time, a fledgling union called the United Mine Workers was headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio and was championing for the rights of American miners. The officials of the UMW decided that a nationwide strike could cripple the coal industry and therefore the owners of the companies would be willing to meet in negotiation. The Allegany miners wanted their 50 cent pay re-instated and were petitioning for safer working conditions.
The strike was set for April 21, 1894 with the hope of including every miner from Indiana to eastern Pennsylvania.
However, three small mining communities in western Allegany County had been through this before. Back in 1882 their miners had gone out on strike for six months. In the end nothing changed, except that many people died from either sickness or starvation because of the six months without pay through a brutal time. Those communities of Hoffman Hollow, Ocean, and Eckhart Mines were not willing to join the current strike.
On April 21st, thousands of men went out on strike while the miners of the three Allegany communities continued to work. The UMW needed the solidarity of all the miners in order to make the strike successful. Violence ensued when striking miners rose up against their non-striking counterparts.
Saturday morning, May 12, 1894, started out quiet as the miners of Eckhart were preparing to go to work, unaware that a vigilante mob had formed the night before. The intention of the mob was to march in force, some 300 men strong, down to Eckhart and force the miners to abandon their jobs or be subject to violence that would leave them with broken legs, or worse.
To this day no one knows how the women of Eckhart found out ahead of time about the mob. But at 6:15am they marched alongside their husbands, supposedly in solidarity of the decision not to strike. By 6:30am the men had turned off toward the Number Four mine and the twenty women continued on their way, but soon encountered the mob of surly men coming down the pike to Eckhart, swinging baseball bats and other weapons.
The mob stopped when it met the human chain of twenty women, some with babies on their hips. Heated words were exchanged. One woman called out that they might prevent the men from digging, but then the Eckhart women would go into the mines and dig in their husband’s place.
About twenty minutes later the angry mob dispersed, apparently not willing to attack women.
After the sheriff got wind of what had happened he telegraphed Governor Brown in Annapolis asking for the National Guard to be called out to help him deal with the escalating violence. Troops of soldiers arrived, along with journalists from the Baltimore Sun Newspaper. Everyone wanted to meet the women who had held off the mob.
But no woman in Eckhart would take credit. In fact, no woman in Eckhart would even admit that she had been there. Six weeks later the strike was over.
To this day, none of the twenty women from Eckhart have ever been identified in print.
But if you are curious about the entire story, be patient. My next novel, Last Curtain Call, tells that story, and will hopefully be out in print by summer 2016.
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