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Paul J. Nyden: When there was Martial Law in Kanawha County

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A century ago this month, coal strikes in Eastern Kanawha County turned so bloody that then-Gov. William E. Glasscock declared a state of war on Cabin Creek and placed the district under martial law, the first of three such proclamations he issued.

The strike began on Paint Creek on April 18, 1912, then spread to Cabin Creek after company officials rejected demands from members of the United Mine Workers for higher wages. Many miners also challenged having to work 10 hours a day, six days a week.

To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of these events, the West Virginia Division of Culture's Archives and History Library will hold a forum at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Culture Center at the Capitol. The event is free to the public.

I have been asked to moderate a panel, so for two hours on Saturday, we will have the opportunity to discuss the West Virginia Mine Wars with:

 

  • Ken Bailey, who graduated from the West Virginia Institute of Technology, Marshall University and Ohio State, where he received his doctorate. A retired dean and professor emeritus at Tech, Bailey has published numerous articles and a book, republished in 2008, "Mountaineers are Free: A History of the West Virginia National Guard."
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  • Fred A. Barkey, who received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Marshall University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. A West Virginia Graduate College professor emeritus, Barkey also taught history at the University of Charleston and West Virginia University's Institute for Labor Studies.
  • UPDATE, Sept. 18: This week, a third speaker was added to the panel. Ginny Ayers, daughter of the late Lon Savage, will also speak at Saturday's forum about the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strikes in 1912 and 1913.
  • Ayers is currently completing her father's book on Mother Jones, an iconic figure in the coalfield wars in the early 20th Century. Back in 1986, Savage published the first edition of his earlier book, "Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine Wars, 1920-21." The book has been re-published several times.

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    At this time 100 years ago, union organizing efforts had stepped up in West Virginia. Coal operators began bringing in mine guards, many from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency based in Bluefield. Guards and miners were both well-armed with shotguns, rifles and machine guns.

    As the conflict escalated, Gov. Glasscock imposed martial law on Paint and Cabin Creeks, first on Sept. 2, 1912; then Nov.15, 1912; and Feb. 10, 1913.

    The last proclamation followed the infamous Bull Moose Special attack. To counter striking miners, coal companies sent the Bull Moose Special into mining camps. It was a train filled with armed guards that escorted trains carrying non-union miners and was used to shoot into towns and tent camps occupied by striking miners and their families. The Bull Moose Special's best-known confrontation came on Feb. 7, 1913, when guards on the train attacked a tent colony in Holly Grove on Paint Creek.

    During this time, more than 200 miners and their supporters were arrested, including "Mother" Mary Harris Jones, the nationally-known labor leader who was 76 when arrested on Feb. 12, 1913.

    West Virginia workers of the period grew disillusioned with the state's two-party system and economy that seemed to allow them no influence, and some turned to the Socialist Party.

    Barkey's doctoral dissertation on the subject was recently turned into a book by the WVU Press, "Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party in West Virginia, 1898-1920."

    More than 15,000 West Virginians voted for Socialist Party candidates in 1912, but the group's influence soon declined.

    Another book worth checking out before Saturday's forum is a self-published volume by Dale Payne of Fayetteville. "The Mine War, 1912-1913: Cabin Creek and Paint Creek," reprints excerpts of testimony by miners, company officials and others who appeared before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor. It also includes quotes published in The Charleston Gazette and other newspapers.

    For example, Gianiana Seville from Banner Hollow on Paint Creek testified that 20 company guards entered her house when she was in bed with her baby. She was also five-months pregnant. When she told them to leave, two guards began hitting her and kicking her. "My baby was born dead," she testified.

    Lana Blizzard Harlo, from Eskdale, told a reporter in 1980 she remembered "being thrown out of the house by company guards" when she was 7.

    "I can still remember it. My mother had potatoes on the stove and biscuits in the oven when the coal company men came in to the house. They threw out the biscuits and the taters, shoveled the coal out of the stove and set us out on the road after dark," Harlo said.

    (The Congressional hearings, held in June and September 1912, were published in two volumes, totaling 2,114 pages. The lengthy transcripts are available in reprints online and from sites like Google Books.)

    Glasscock's martial law order issued on Nov. 15, 1912 stated that "... persons unlawfully assembled refused to disperse and retire to their respective abodes and business, but remained in armed resistance to the enforcement of the law by the civil officers, and peace, order and quiet have not been restored, and tumult, riot and insurrection exists in the territory hereinafter described; now

    "Therefore, I, William E. Glasscock, Governor of the State of West Virginia, and as such Governor ex officio Commander-in-Chief of the Military forces of the State, in view of the foregoing, and in order to execute the laws, and to protect the public peace, lives and property of quiet and orderly citizens, by virtue of the Constitution and laws of the State, do hereby declare and proclaim a state of war to exist in the District of Cabin Creek, in the County of Kanawha, and State of West Virginia...."

    After Henry Hatfield succeeded Glasscock as West Virginia's next governor, he declared his "terms of peace" and required the companies and striking miners to accept them, bringing the strike to an end.

    Miners and their allies denounced Glasscock for imposing martial law, but the West Virginia Supreme Court repeatedly upheld his actions.

    Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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