Miners vs. Coal Companies, Round 3

Alan Pinkerton, whose security agency took over Braidwood during the strike of 1877, is on the left, shown here with Abraham Lincoln.
Alan Pinkerton, whose security agency took over Braidwood during the strike of 1877, is on the left, shown here with Abraham Lincoln.

By Sandy Vasko

It is the spring of 1877. Once again, the coal companies propose to reduce the wages of the miners. But the miners have had two years of that, and they have vowed not to let it happen again. And this time they have political clout. The stage is set for Round 3 – time for the knock-out punch.
In April of 1877, two things happened to impact the miners: The first was that the company’s offer of reduced wages resulted in a strike, and the second was that Dan McLaughlin, head of the Miners’ Union, was elected Mayor. The Union was sure that this was the political clout they needed to win against the coal companies.
By the end of May, the company was using their usual tactics of bringing in “blackleg” (scab) miners from the South. We read, “The H shaft in Braidwood had received up to yesterday morning 195 blackleg miners, about 15 of whom have deserted. The Eureka employs about 70 blacklegs, 23 of whom are literally blacklegs, being Negroes. Citizens inclined to riot are toning down in their threatening demonstration, and sweet peace still reigns in the city of coal.”
One month later we read, “We scarcely know what to say of the miners’ strike in Braidwood, inasmuch as that matters between employers and employed are at a dead lock. The men are strong in their resolution as ever and in their determination not to resume work at the prices offered, while the companies have also “got their dander up” and swear by the eternal that the strikers shall never work for them again, at any price. The result is that “blacklegs” are constantly arriving and being put to work in the mines, and this but adds fuel to the smoldering indignation existing. Though law and order has thus far prevailed, with a few individual exceptions, a collision of the elements is regarded as liable to occur at any hour.”
Some had had enough drama, “The adult population of Braidwood is probably one-third less than at the commencement of the strike.”
Some of the strike breaking “blacklegs” were actually white, usually poor whites from the South. The coal companies had recruited them along with unemployed blacks, not informing them, however, of what the actual situation in Braidwood was. In essence, they were working alongside Negroes to the detriment of white people.
When they found themselves living with their former slaves in company housing, the situation was intolerable. We read in July of 1877, “A heavy consignment of Negro blacklegs, with their families, arrived last Tuesday for the Eureka shaft. Their delightful aroma resulted in every white blackleg leaving on Thursday.”
As the weather heated up, so did tempers. The companies brought in the Pinkertons to keep order, completely disregarding local law men. The companies then owned the streets, with Pinkerton agents on patrol day and night.
As could be predicted, this situation was ripe for trouble. It happened on July 4, 1877. We read, “A horrible tragedy was enacted here this noon, which has shocked the entire community, being the first since the inauguration of the coal miners’ strike now in progress. At the time indicated, James McDonough, one of the special police sent to Braidwood by Allen Pinkerton to insure order during the strike, was shot and instantly killed by a pistol in the hands of John Archie, a Scotchman, resident of this place, who, until a few weeks ago, was an employee of the Chicago and Alton Railroad. Archie, who was drunk at the time of the shooting, claims that the shot was fired accidentally. He is now in jail.”
The black miners, some who had lived in Braidwood for over two years, found themselves in deep trouble. They were escorted to and from the shafts by the Pinkertons. Their families lived in fear indoors, not daring to stick their nose out for fear of having it shot off.
When the black miners complained, a “community stroll” was organized. We read, “At about 7 o’clock on last Friday evening, 2 squads of the Eureka colored black legs marched down Main Street. They went as far as the post office. They passed down without meeting with anything in the way, the miners having to clear the sidewalk in order to allow them to pass; as soon as they arrived at the post office they returned, with beaming countenance, and everything on the way had to be cleared.

“When the first squad arrived at Mc Arthur’s hall, with Deputies Johnston and Galloway in the rear, the colored men come in contact with a good many men, who are in the habit of congregating there, and in order to get through in the manner they were marching, two abreast, the old miners had to either step into the street or be crowded off the sidewalk. Some did get off the walk, and some were pushed off, and in consequence, a rush was made for the black legs, but with the assistance of constables Geddes and Wm. L. Stewart, and several other men, the parties were kept back, and the colored gentlemen allowed to go in peace. Quite a lively tussle was had to keep the men from attacking the black legs. The second squad then came along, and were escorted to their den at the Eureka, without any further trouble.”
The stage was set for violent confrontation.
Will County Sheriff Noble, of Wilmington, had his hands full. His authority had been all but taken away by the coal companies when they hired the Pinkertons to keep the peace. Yet his sworn duty was to keep riot from happening if at all possible.
On Monday night, July 23, Sheriff Noble formed a posse of 16 men, mostly from Wilmington, swore them in and headed for Braidwood aboard the train. We read what happened next:
“Flushed with the news of the big railway strike the miners seemed to think that their affairs should be brought to a climax at once. So, on Monday evening when Sheriff Noble and a posse numbering 16 men alighted from the cars in Braidwood, they were met by what might be termed armed resistance. The sheriff himself narrowly escaped being shot. He was informed by the mayor that his posse would not be tolerated there under any circumstances, and that their lives would be in peril if they did not at once depart. The sheriff and his party took the hint.”
When next we meet, we will talk of flight and fight – none of it pretty.


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