By Daniel Tyson
register-herald reporterTwo books shed light on WV coal history - Beckley Register-Herald: News
Two new books from West Virginia University Press highlight the trials and tribulations of coal mining before the union gave miners the eight-hour work day, safety standards and collective bargaining.
The books, Davitt McAteer’s “Monongah” and David A. Corbin’s “Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields,” are rich in details, yet easy to read for those interested in state history. Neither is shy about blaming greed and out-of-state corporations for the ill-treatment of miners until President Franklin D. Roosevelt basically forced the union on coal companies.
Corbin’s book is the more scholarly one. It’s an overview the life of southern West Virginia miners, from birth to grave, giving special attention to religion, living conditions and immigrants.
Perhaps, the most interesting part of the book is his straight forward approach to telling the influence coal companies had on state officials.
The coal establishment controlled the state’s executive and legislative branch as far back as 1888. From 1888 until 1924, Corbin writes, nine governors were coal company officials or chosen by the industry “after certain understandings had been reach.”
The industry did face some opposition in the Legislature. Agriculture counties still possessed considerable influence and power in Charleston, which hindered some of the coal companies’ political plans.
Corbin writes after a period of time, the northern and eastern agriculture counties influence declined as southern West Virginia’s increased. That is when coal became king in West Virginia.
Under industrial influence, southern West Virginia became a mono-economy, with the coal industry calling the shots.
An example Corbin gives is how the state’s child labor laws were ignored by the coal operators. At the time, the mandated minimum working age was 14.
“These laws, however, contained so many defects and loopholes that the National Child Labor Committee ranked West Virginia 34th (out of 46) in child labor restrictions and last among the industrial states,” writes Corbin. “An investigator for this committee branded the child labor laws of West Virginia ‘absurd’.”
The laws at the time contained no educational requirements for working children, nor did the child labor laws detail which occupations were too dangerous for children, writes Corbin.
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McAteer’s “Monongah” is about the 1907 mine disaster, deemed the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.
The book starts with the events of Dec. 6, 1907, at the Fairmont Coal Co.’s No. 6 and No. 8 mines. About 10:30 a.m., an explosion occurred officially claimed 367 men’s lives. To this day, the cause is still only speculation.
McAteer, a former U.S. assistant secretary of labor, studied a number of primary documents before penning “Monongah.” For more than three decades, McAteer studied every piece of information available on the explosion.
The book goes into great detail about the explosion, the political power plan after the deadly disaster — it was partly owned by a U.S. Senator and his contemporaries — and the area and its people around the mines.
This story has many sad events, but one of the saddest concerned fundraising efforts to help the thousands of family members affected by the explosion. A fund was set up with a goal of reaching $250,000. Only days into the fundraiser, the local Red Cross sent out an appeal for funds. The next day, the local newspaper published that the amount had been reached and to stop giving. Sadly, less than half the goal was reached and the Red Cross raised slightly more than $3,000 before calling off its efforts.
Both books are informative and quick reads. They shed light on events that were not taught in West Virginia history or were only a footnote. Give the books a read, disappointed you will not be.
Note: Full disclosure, for a short period of time Davit McAteer was the president of the college from which the author graduated.
— Email: dtyson@ register-herald.com