Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

During the early morning hours of December 5, 1885, John Lynot labored hundreds of feet underground in the stale air of his “breast,” a black chamber in the coal seam the size of a small room, preparing an explosive charge. An anthracite miner for the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, Lynot earned eighty-five cents for each two ton mine car he filled. Finding the weakest point on the working face, he proceeded to drill a deep hole with a small hand auger. He fashioned a cartridge from some blasting paper and loose black powder, gently tapped it into the bore hole and sealed it in place with damp muck from the mine floor. He paused briefly to survey his handiwork by the spare glow of his cap lamp, lit the homemade fuse and scrambled through the darkness for cover. Upon reaching a safe enclave he halted and began counting the seconds to the blast. He waited; nothing happened. The charge had failed to go off.

What thoughts entered this man’s mind as he fidgeted in the murk? Company account books reveal that the rent on his house was due to increase. Perhaps his wife or child was ill and required medical atten­tion, which meant payment to the Company doctor above the compulsory one dollar fee charged each month to all married employees. Doubt­less, Lynot realized that this delay in “firing the shot” could cost him dearly: a fixed number of empty cars were sent below at regular intervals, and if the coal in his chamber was not blasted loose and and ready when they arrived, he would miss a trip. These factors, or similar ones, possi­bly prodded the miner, and he moved forward toward the breast.

An enormous roar shook the gangway. The sputtering fuse had ignited just as Lynot reached his chamber, crashing five tones of coal and rock down upon him. He was found still alive, with one leg smashed and nearly severed from his body, suffering lacer­ations and powder burns “of such a character,” lamented a local newspaper, “that death would be a great relief.” Three days later, relief did arrive for John Lynot. Listed in the state mine inspector’s annual report as simply” Accident No. 62,” he was only one of the more than 9,394 fatalities to plague the hard coal mines of nineteenth century Pennsyl­vania. Pennsylvania did not begin compiling mine accident statistics until 1870 and since active mining on a large scale dates back to the 1840s, the real but unknown fatality figure for the century must be substantially higher.

In the nineteenth century, anthracite production was king of Pennsylvania’s indus­tries. Sparking the Industrial Revolution and fueling the homes of millions, it annually employed more than 100,000 workers by the mid-1880s, providing means of livelihood for up to seventy-five percent of the population in the seven hard coal counties.

The process of extracting the “black diamonds” levied a heavy human toll. “Another year and the harvest of death and misery produced by the anthracite mines of Pennsyl­vania is recorded,” announced the Scranton Truth on New Year’s Day, 1897. “The figures are appalling; a glance at them shows the havoc of gas explo­sions, falling roof, and the various other dangers that lurk about the underground workings.” Although the coal regions were rocked by major mine disasters throughout the late 1800s, most accidents occurred singly, or in groups of two or three. Lacking the tragic drama of the great catas­trophes, they nonetheless yielded frightful results: during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, nearly two men were killed and five injured each day.

The Commonwealth’s response to anthracite’s peril­ous working conditions was notable. Between 1869 and 1897, the state legislature passed six major mine safety laws. These statutes sought to remedy technological deficien­cies in the collieries and regulate the competency of the workforce. They also estab­lished and maintained a system of state mine inspec­tion, the first ever in the United States.

Reporting the industry’s injury rate for 1896, the Chief Inspector of Mines noted glumly, “the stubborn fact remains that there is no perceptible reduction of casualties.” A contemporary student of the anthracite trade, the Rev. Peter Roberts, concurred, adding, “from the study of mine accidents one feels how impotent legislation is to prevent them.”

As the century progressed and the inefficacy of anthracite safety laws became apparent, state inspectors, the public press and mine operators increasingly blamed “miner carelessness” for the annoy­ingly constant accident rate. Inspector George Williams reported 379 accidents in one district, aU attributed to “the mistake, oversight, error of judgment, or indifference of those who suffered.” The Pottsville Miner’s Journal opined, “by far the most numerous class [of accidents] are those precipitated by the miners themselves,” and the mining superintendent of the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Company defined the corporate view with the rather laconic remark, “sometimes the men go where they ought not to, and they get killed.”

A cursory glance at any inspection report or newspa­per column of the period seems to confirm such judgments. Miners consis­tently refused to prop their chambers with adequate timber supports, recklessly handled explosives or, against warning, steadfastly insisted on laboring in the presence of known quantities of danger­ous gases. Mine workers, however, were not irrationally foolhardy or blindly “suicidal.” Indeed, their propensity to court disaster can be viewed, in large measure, as a tragically local response to the mounting economic pressures they faced. Burrowing deep in the damp, sulfurous coal breasts, blanketed with black dust, soaked with mine seepage, the nineteenth century miner possessed little time or energy to ponder the vagaries of the anthracite market. Nonethe­less, the market – more than anything else – determined how he lived, worked and ultimately died.

Even during the halcyon days of the mid-1800s, the anthracite industry was a troubled giant. A headlong expansion of coal lands and collieries to meet the fuel and forging needs of the Civil War spawned rampant overcapital­ization and tumbling prices soon after Appomattox. The presence of several large coal concerns, each striving to acquire a competitive edge and consistently unwilling or unable to combine and coordi­nate supply, led to chronic overproduction, which further drove price levels down.

Toward the end of the 1870s, hard coal began to be replaced in the manufacturing sector by an even cheaper alternative – bituminous (or soft coal). By 1889, the indus­try’s official organ, The Coal Trade, could announce: “Hard coal is now almost entirely a domestic fuel.” Continued reliance on the household consumer required delivering a clean, uniform-size product to market, as well as catering to a highly seasonal demand. For coal producers, this meant great expenditures in coal breaking, sizing and cleaning facilities and a wildly fluctuat­ing production schedule, making long-range planning impossible and greatly exacer­bating the persistent problem of oversupply. Faced with a chaotic market, anthracite capitalists searched for the means to cover losses and exact profits from their ailing trade. They eventually found it in the structure of the indus­try’s economic reward system.

Nearly all nineteenth century hard coal miners labored under a piece-rate, or contractural basis, earning an individually bargained amount for each car filled, ton blasted, or yard driven. It was a system which evolved with the anthracite industry; the pioneer miner negotiated for piece-rates as a skilled artisan. By mid-century, the institu­tional necessity of contract mining was duly recognized by mine managers, well aware of their inability to impose proper supervision in the isolated, multi-chambered coal seams. And amidst the market ills of the late nineteenth century, piece-rate provided an effective device for slashing labor costs and reaping incidental profits from mine workers.

The system of individual bargaining lent itself well to corporate cost cutting. As Rev. Roberts editorialized, “the cry of the operators is ‘cheap coal,’ and foremen, anxious to respond, have sometimes resorted to cunning devices which oppress the employ­ees.” Mine bosses paying by the linear yard doubled the required width of the breast without increasing the rate of compensation. While continu­ing to be worth around eighty-­seven cents when filled, the capacity of the Delaware & Hudson’s coal wagons increased from 70 co 140 cubic feet, a phenomenon which caused one disgruntled local mayor to accuse the company of constructing their carts of “live oak.” Although ostensi­bly bound by law to the standard long ton, 2,240 pounds, mine owners who paid by weight were at times able to demand as much as 3,400 pounds of hard coal on their scales before crediting a miner with “one ton.”

Freeing them from paying a uniform daily or weekly wage, piece-rate mining further encouraged anthracite opera­tors to saddle market problems onto their employ­ees. When business dulled due to a glut of supply, colli­eries worked one-half or one­-quarter time, or shut down completely until trade picked up. Similarly, management enforced the exacting quality control necessary to appease the household consumer by “docking” or rejecting mine carts that allegedly contained slate, dirt or inferior “boney” coal. Neither the periodic work stoppages nor docking cured the persistent problems of overproduction or seasonal domestic demand, but both served to significantly pare already low workers’ wages.

Finally, contract mining functioned within and supported an all-encompassing order of corporate pater­nalism. American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers described the typical nineteenth century anthracite town as a place where: “Children were brought into the world by the company doctor, lived in a company house, or hut, were nurtured by the company store, baptized by the company parson, buried in a company coffin, and laid away in the company graveyard.”

Each paternalistic unit, from meager company houses with heavy rents to company “pluck-me” stores with overpriced goods, was created and operated to produce a profit. Under the contract system, miners were obliged to furnish their own tools and supplies, and usually compelled to purchase them­ – at highly inflated prices – from company stores. Between 1881 and 1897, the coal companies made an estimated windfall of thirty-four million dollars from black powder sales alone; picks, shovels, lamp oil and blasting cotton were similarly lucrative.

In the context of an unsta­ble market, such assured incidental profits were essential to anthracite capitalists. But as they were funded by de­ductions from miners’ monthly earnings, they combined with the effects of cyclical unemployment and docking to weave a patchwork of economic misery that plagued all anthracite contract workers – and so inspired their seemingly inexplicable underground recklessness.

Paying a predetermined rate only for coal actually extracted, while ignoring non­productive “deadwork” such as timbering, in the calcula­tion, the inherent dynamic of piece mining encouraged careless work habits. “The system of working by contract,” noted one mine inspector, “naturally breeds haste.” Under the strain of market pressures and reactionary corporate practices, the miners’ need to cut as much coal as quickly as possible became crucial. The same inspector continued in his 1890 report that because “the poor miner cannot spare … pecuniary loss, he is thus driven to take risks and jeopardize his life.” A Luzerne County Common Pleas Judge, commenting on the mine laws, was likewise aware of the miners’ proclivity to flirt with the colliery’s dangers “in order that the wolf might be kept from the door at home.” No party could express this hard choice between safety and penury with more eloquence than the men labor­ing below. One, a “miner­-poet” named Anthony Piotrowski, set it down in rhyme:

To be ruthlessly maimed in one’s youth,
at this ghastly thought you wonder.
But to tell the honest truth,
‘Twas merely to escape the pains of hunger.

Grim numbers attested to the accuracy of such observa­tions. Of the 4,930 inside employees fatally injured between 1883 and 1897, eight out of ten worked at piece­-rates. While some contempo­rary commentators identified the causal link between accidents and contract mining, few specific remedies were proffered. At least one inspec­tor, however, exasperated by his own inability to curb the injury rate, argued, “if the system at present in vogue was changed so that miners were employed at so much per day and not so much per car. .. accidents would be greatly reduced.”

But the system was not changed. Anthracite capitalists were adamant in defense of piece-rate payment, and their hegemonic power enabled them to defuse sporadic drives for docking and weighing reform throughout the century. Moreover, the anthra­cite reward system enjoyed sustained support among the class it injured the most – the mine workers themselves.

Although the miner’s milieu was shaped largely by market forces outside his control, it would be a mistake to consider him merely a victim of the dynamics and economics of anthracite. Contract mining created its own ideology, which was widely accepted and fully affirmed in the custom, culture and folklore of the coal mining community. Appealing to their self-interest and sense of independence, contract labor found favor among the men. Free to work extra time (at least in theory), a miner could fill more cars or blast more yards to boost his earnings, while a thrifty miner, on the other hand, could quickly make a satisfactory cut and leave the shafts early. Although corporate policies continually thwarted the economic promise of contract, its potential remained powerfully attrac­tive; as late as 1902, miners testifying before the Anthra­cite Coal Strike Commission unanimously opposed any sort of alternative daily wage.

In the social realm of the coal fields, the contract worker was bestowed the highest status and communal esteem. Young boys picking slate in the breakers dreamed of a day when they would work their “own” breast, and local maidens sang, “to none but a coal miner will Papa give me and the goat.” Indeed, the rigors of piece-rate were instrumental in forming the characteristics of that unique breed of creature: the fearless, resilient and fatalistic anthra­cite coal miner. After each shift, it was ritual for the mine workers to gather in local taverns and saloons to boast proudly of their prowess in chants such as “A Celebrated Workingman”:

I’m a celebrated workingman,
My duties I don’t shirk;
I can cut more coal than any man
from Pittsburgh to New York.

But the human toll of contract mining was extremely high. Burdened by overcapi­talization and overproduction, and forced to cater to the whims of a fickle consumer, industry shifted its woes onto its employees. Slashed wages, quarter time, docking and the “pluck-me” store defined the reality of the anthracite economic reward system. In daily subterranean struggles against such enormous pressures, the miners took risks – and all too many lost their lives.


For Further Reading

Aurand, Harold. From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. Revised and edited by Phillip Taft and John A. Sessions. New York: Dutton, 1957.

Graebner, William. Coal Mining Safety in the Progressive Period. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1976.

Mumford, John K. Anthracite. New York: Industries Publishing Company, 1925.

Roberts, Peter. Anthracite Coal Communities. New York: Macmillan, 1904.

____. The Anthracite Coal Industry. New York: Macmillan, 1901.

Roy, Andrew. A History of the Coal Miners in the United States. Columbus: J.L. Trauger Co., 1903.

Trachtenberg, Alexander. The History of Legislation for the Protection of Coal Miners in Pennsylvania, 1824-1915. New York: International Publishers, 1942.

Yearley, Clifton K. Britons in American Labor, 1820-1914. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univer­sity Press, 1957.

____. Enterprise and Anthracite. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951.


Charles T. Joyce, Jr. is a native Pennsylvanian who traces his roots to the hard coal fields where his father and grandfather worked as miners. He is a second year law student at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. This article was adapted from a research and undergraduate thesis completed at the University of Virginia, for which he received two awards.