Midnight at Noon
A history of coal mining in Sangamon County
Sangamon County Historical Society
This was the sixth of the pamphlet histories published by the county historical society’s Bicentennial Studies in Sangamon History. It was the most ambitious of the series; we even dared to risk the cost of two-color printing. It paid off in every sense.
A great deal has since been added to the record on central Illinois coal mining. Much of it is more detailed than is Midnight at Noon, and some of it is more accurate. But this remains a fair introduction.
To Sangamon County generations raised since World War II, these words bring to mind images of grimy mining towns perched on Applachian hillsides, of mammoth steam shovels tearing great mouthfuls of earth from atop southern Illinois strip mines, of tired, flood-lit faces waiting through long nights for word of the dead in Pennsylvania mine blow-ups. Coal mining to them is a life for other people in other places, no more real than anything else they know about only from books and film.
To many of the county's residents, however, mining means much more. For years Sangamon County was the leader among all coal-producing Illinois counties in output, and the thousands of men who made a living digging it out of the ground were the backbone of the area economy for nearly a century. Further, as capital of one of the most important coal states in the union, Springfield was the stage upon which opposing factions of the United Mine Workers union acted out a bloody ten-year drama touched off by the organization of one of the very few surviving independent miners' unions in the country.
It is impossible in this short space to do justice to the personalities and issues that shaped the story of coal mining in central Illinois. The factional strife that tore apart the United Mine Workers in the 1930s, for example, poses particular problems. Feelings generated by that struggle linger even today, and any account of the events of those troubled days is likely to leave readers of one or the other faction firmly convinced of the writer's bias. In anticipation of such criticisms, I can state only that it was not my intention to either condemn or defend any one group or individual, but to present as balanced an account as possible of this turbulent era.
This account does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of any of the men or movements here depicted. Its focus is largely limited to the borders of Sangamon County. As a result, events such as the rise and fall of the Reorganized United Mine Workers union or the organization of the Progressive Miners of America (events which are generally considered no more than footnotes to the broader history of the United Mine Workers of America) are here given disproportionate attention. In each case it was the event's relevance to the history of Sangamon County, rather than its relevance to union history in general, that dictated the nature and extent of its treatment.
I would like to thank the people who assisted in the preparation of this manuscript. They include Cullom Davis, Christine Skoczynski, and Robert Howard, who kindly agreed to review the article in draft form, David Domino, who proved invaluable in tracing hard-to-find research materials, Debbie Krohe Swartz, who volunteered to type the article, and the staffs of the Illinois State Geological Survey, Lincoln Library, and Illinois State Historical Library.
James Krohe Jr.
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More than 250 million years ago the land of central Illinois lay under the vast blanket of swamps and marshlands that bordered the inland seas of North America. The earth then was hot and damp, a gargantuan greenhouse festooned with sixty-foot ferns and primitive soft-tissued trees like the Lepidodendron. The age of the great dinosaurs was still millions of years in the future, and the first amphibians were just beginning the long climb from their watery cradle onto dry land. It was an era now known to geologists as the Pennsylvanian Period, and it lasted roughly thirty million years, until grinding convulsions in the earth's crust slowly lifted the continent out of the reach of the sea and emptied the swamps of water. Today, aside from an occasional fossil outline of some primeval plant captured and preserved in stone, there is little evidence to remind us of life in that distant age.
Except coal. Year after year, throughout the vast stretches of Pennsylvanian time, dead marsh vegetation sank and accumulated on muddy Illinois swamp bottoms. Gradually buried by sediment washed into the lowlands from higher ground, this once-living green matter was transformed by heat, pressure, and time into nearly 70 percent pure carbon—the "dirty, dusty black rocks of the earth" known as coal.
The coal lay buried for eons, protected by a mantle of earth from the cycles of drought and flood, desert heat and glacial ice that flayed the surface. Centuries stretched into millions of years, and the dinosaurs rose to dominate the land, then surrendered to their more adaptable mammalian cousins—the mastodons, the great bears, monkeys, apes, and, finally, man.
During man's long ascendancy, while civilizations rose to glory and crumbled to oblivion, while wars were won and lost and nations conquered and reconquered, while men taught themselves to bend nature to their own ends, the Illinois coal remained buried. It remained buried, in fact, until the 19th century, when men finally found a reason to dig it out.
Coal had been discovered in the United States as early as 1673, when French explorers Marquette and Jolliet noted outcroppings of coal along the banks of the Illinois River between Ottawa and Starved Rock. In 1766 the rich anthracite fields of western Pennsylvania were discovered, but no significant use of coal was made for nearly a century thereafter. The nation's known coal reserves were located far from the populated stretches of the eastern seaboard, and the young nation's transportation network was too fragmented, and its industrial economy too primitive, to make the long-distance haulage of coal feasible. America's stoves and furnaces were fueled by wood, and as long as the nation's forests were able to provide cheap and easily accessible supplies of wood to her growing population the market for coal would remain limited.
The exploitation of the Midwest's coal reserves had to wait for white settlement of that region. Until the middle years of the 19th Century the area west of the Alleghenies was still largely wilderness. Distances between neighboring farms were measured in days instead of miles, and what passed for towns were mostly accidental accretions built up around convenient springs, landings, or crossroads. Most farm and household goods were handmade, and what little need there was for finished manufactured goods was supplied by factories of the East.
But the land was too fecund, the prices too cheap, the attractions of a new life too seductive for the region to stay wilderness for long. New cities soon took root, sprouting like prairie flowers after a spring rain, and enterprising manufacturers hustled to satisfy the area's newfound appetites for iron plows, leather, and machine-woven cloth. Their factories burned coal, a lot of it, and provided Midwestern coal diggers with their first major market.
In the early 1850s, coal production in Illinois had been largely limited to the harvesting of "crop coal" from seams left exposed at the surface by the eroding effects of the weather. For many years nearly all Illinois coal was taken from such outcroppings along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for shipment by wagon to the factories of Peoria, Belleville, and St. Louis.
As demand increased, "drift mining," in which tunnels were cut horizontally into the exposed coal face, became more common. Such mines were usually located within a day's wagon ride of the factories which consumed the bulk of their output, and their proximity to major rivers made the loading of coal for shipment to more distant cities by steamboat convenient.
Most drift mines in antebellum Illinois were modest operations—some run by as few as two men—whose market likely did not extend beyond the county line. Coal mining during these years was a business; it took the Civil War-era expansion of Illinois' railroads to turn it into an industry. In 1850 Illinois had only 111 miles of track—barely enough to cover the distance between the state capital and St. Louis. By 1864, Illinois railroads were hauling soldiers and war material over more than 3,000 miles of road. During the same period, coal production in the state jumped from 300,000 to more than a million tons per year. Much of this increase in output was sold directly to the rail lines to power their growing fleet of steam locomotives. But vital as the railroads' role as consumer was to the developing Illinois mining industry, it was their role as carrier that transformed the industry by providing the crucial transportation link between the scattered coal fields and the new industrial centers like St. Louis and Cincinnati.
The shelling of Fort Sumter had signaled not only the start of the Civil War but also of an urgent search for new coal in Illinois. The Union's voracious appetite for steel and finished industrial goods could not be satisfied by factories dependent on dwindling supplies of coal from the state's drift mines. Unable to keep pace with the steadily rising demand for their product, mine operators in the mid-1860s concentrated their energy and their dollars on the exploitation of the coal reserves known to be hidden deep beneath the Illinois prairie.
As was the case in the rest of the state, mining in Sangamon County before the Civil War was limited to the quarrying of crop coal. Production was modest (an estimated 3,300 tons in 1840) but even that meager output was enough to supply the few forges and furnaces in the area that burned coal. Typical of the Sangamon County mines of the period was a crop mine worked through the 1850s in what is now Springfield's Washington Park. There, in a small ravine on the park's western edge, workers "gophered" coal from a thin exposed vein and loaded it into wagons for transport to Springfield. Few attempts were made to explore for other veins. A few of Springfield's newer businesses like the Springfield Gas Light Company burned crop coal (in its case taken from mines along Spring Creek north of town) as early as 1854, but most of the town's manufacturers still depended on wood. As historian Paul Angle notes, "All that was needed to ring in the machine age (in Springfield) was the development of coal mining, which was still confined to outcrops on hillsides and creeks and river banks."
In 1858 the Springfield City Council commissioned well-diggers to sink an artesian well on the city's east side. The diggers' drills bit into a six-foot seam of coal some 200 feet down and passed through as many as four more veins before hitting bedrock at 1,100 feet. But water and mud flooding the excavation made accurate analysis of the strata impossible, and the coal was judged to be no thicker than two feet—not thick enough to risk the construction of a full-scale mining facility.
It was not until late in 1865 that new borings were made in search of deep coal. Parley L. Howlett, a brewer in the village of Howlett (now Riverton), sank a drill into the banks of the Sangamon River near his distillery and brought up evidence of what looked like an eight-foot coal seam at 210 feet. No one, including the state's chief geologist, was willing to verify a vein of that size, and Howlett moved on to begin a second test boring nearby.
While Howlett was sinking test holes along the Sangamon, workmen hired by ex-dry goods clerk Jacob Loose were busy tunneling through 200 feet of clay and shale at lies Junction, two miles south of the capitol. Test drilling during the summer of 1866 had revealed a workable coal seam at 237 feet and Loose was determined to work all winter to get at it.
Loose's lies Junction mine was the first deep coal mine worked in Sangamon County, and its opening in April of 1867 was cause for a community-wide celebration (the first load hauled from the pit was auctioned again and again for the benefit of the Home for the Friendless). A few months later Parley Howlett opened a shaft on his property in Howlett, having at last been convinced that his original discovery had not been a fluke. At the same time William Beard and William Saunderson began selling coal from their "Old North" mine on the Henry Converse farm one and a half miles north of town.
The discovery of deep coal within a streetcar ride of the statehouse meant nothing but good things for Springfield and Sangamon County. The Capital City already was criss-crossed by more rail lines than any city her size in the state, and her water and sewage systems were second to none. But it was her coal that would, in time, enable Springfield to outshine sister cities like Decatur, Bloomington, and Jacksonville. Coal in Sangamon County was incredibly abundant—"enough to propel the machinery of the world for a dozen generations," according to one over-enthusiastic analyst—and "as cheap as any in the world," selling under contract for as little as 7 cents a bushel. "Business," as one local observer noted in 1872, "will gravitate to where it can be done most economically, and for Central Illinois that place can be no other than Springfield."
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Within four years of the opening of Loose's lies Junction mine, Sangamon County miners were unearthing nearly 120,000 tons of coal per year; ten years after that, average annual output had spurted to more than 634,000 tons. By 1893, twenty-one mines were being worked within Sangamon County's borders. Together they employed 1,200 men and accounted for 1,400,000 tons of coal per year, enough to rank the county fourth among all the state's coal-producing counties in output.
A half-century earlier coal had been used for little more than the forging of plow blades and horseshoes; by the turn of the century coal had become essential to what was becoming accepted as the "American way of life." Americans were using coal to heat their homes, to power their new electric lights, to carry their food to market, to run the factories where they worked, even to motor the streetcars they rode to work on. American industry was building a new world, and Illinois coal was helping make it possible.
Keeping the country's coal bins full meant steady business for Sangamon County coal operators. Work in the mines was regular, and the long strings of hopper cars that rode the rails out of Springfield toward Chicago and St. Louis were carrying more than 3,000,000 tons of coal per year by 1902. The year 1893, in fact, had marked the opening of a decade during which Sangamon County ranked as the most important coal county in the nation's most important coal state. By the end of that decade Springfield was ringed with mines whose tunnels fanned out in all directions from the shafts. (In time all but the central core of the capital would be undercut by a maze of coal tunnels.)
As the new century dawned some 2,500 county men depended on the mines to keep food on their tables and roofs over their heads. One writer described what had become a common sight in Springfield like this:
For eight months of the year, from September through Aprfl, these men can be seen daily on their way in the mornings to the various tipples which mark the entrances of the mines, and returning home late in the afternoons with blackened faces and grimy clothes that suggest something of the dingy realities of this underground occupation. Some of them have been digging and loading coal; others have been laying tracks, timbering passages, driving mule-drawn cars, or "trapping" (tending passage entries). The shot-firers begin their work at night when the others leave off; theirs is the dangerous task of handling explosives and blasting out walls of coal for the next day's work . . .
The men who did this work during the early years of Illinois mining were largely English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants, many of whom had been miners in their native lands. Those miners who did not come from the British Isles were likely to have come to this country from northern Europe; in 1890 only 7 percent of Illinois' miners came from non-English-speaking countries other than Germany or Scandinavia. But the coal fields held out the promise of jobs to the thousands of immigrants pouring into this country from southern and eastern Europe during the closing decades of the 19th century, and by 1899 fully 25 percent of the miners in Illinois had been born in France, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or Belgium.
In Sangamon County, as in the rest of the state, the largest single immigrant group in the mines was the Italians. (Their numbers were approached in the Sangamon County area only by the Lithuanians.) Many of these men and women had come to industrial America from peasant backgrounds, and were more familiar with plows than picks and shovels. But hundreds of them, finding it impossible to establish a farm in this country, had to seek their living underground. Even skilled craftsmen were frequently kept from their trade by barriers of language or prejudice. Mining, along with factory work and other types of heavy labor, often provided the only opportunities for the new arrivals to make a living.
Whatever their differences in language, customs, or religion, native and immigrant miners alike shared the backbreaking labor of life in the pits. Mechanization of the mines, which was the earn the curse of many an idle miner in another era, had not yet begun, and Sangamon County miners did their work with tools no more complicated than picks and shovels.
Early mornings found groups of miners clustered around the entrance to the main shaft, lunch buckets in hand. Once aboard the caged elevator the men dropped two hundred feet or more "past walls dripping with black water" into a darkness one visitor called "comparable to nothing one would call dark on the surface." Leaving the cage at the foot of the shaft the miners fanned out, some on foot, most aboard mule-driven coal cars, on their daily trek to the coal face—a trip of as much as two miles in some of the larger mines. Along the way they passed caverns cut into the rock walls where repair shops and mule barns had been built, the latter to house the dozens of animals who spent most of their lives strapped to the squat metal cars that carried coal from the working face back through the blackened tunnels to the main shaft for hoisting to the surface.
Jutting at right angles from the main tunnels or "entries" were series of rooms twenty-five feet wide and as high as the coal seam was thick. The narrow wall opposite the entrance to each room was formed by the exposed coal face itself. It was at the face that the workers dug the coal, biting deeper and deeper into the seam until the room reached as much as 250–300 feet in length.
It was at the coal face that each day's work began. The miners usually worked two men to a room. One man attacked the face with a pick, finishing the job started the night before by the shot-firers, while his partner separated the coal from the waste rock that had fallen with it. The coal was then shoveled by hand into cars for hauling back to the main shaft.
Miners were paid only for loaded coal. A good miner working a good seam could load as much as four or five tons a day, and he sweated for every pound of it. One miner describes the work:
(It) meant drilling, blasting the coal, loading the coal, timbering rooftop, and throwing back the impurities. The actual loading of the coal was only part of your day's work. All this other stuff you handled, like slate and sulphur and rock that came with the coal, you had to throw . . . back into the "gob," for which you got no pay . . . .
Coal mines were no place for the weak or timid, and courage was as much a prerequisite for the work as a strong back. Crouching in the dim light of their carbide lamps for all of their eight to ten-hour work days, choking on air thick with dust, working in isolation from the surface world, even from other miners in the same pit, miners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lived out much of their working lives in a dark, cramped world in which danger was an almost tangible reality.
Every time a man set foot in a mine he stared catastrophe face to face. The shot-firers, for example, earned their pay by blasting coal loose from the solid face with black powder charges. They started their day when the other miners were ending theirs; safety regulations and common sense both dictated that as few men as possible be underground when blasting was going on. Alone in the pits, each shot-firer drilled several inch-wide holes into the coal face, packed each hole with up to sixty inches of powder, set his fuses, and ignited the charge. If his luck held and he hadn't taken any chances the charges would break the coal up into man-sized chunks ready for the next day's sorting and loading. If his luck was not good, or if he hadn't spaced his shots properly, or if he struck up a stray spark, or if he made any one of a dozen different mistakes, the face would collapse into a cloud of dust and combustible gases which, catching the flame of the shot itself, would erupt into a hurricane of wind and fire. Such explosions, once ignited, roared through the abandoned tunnels in all directions, feeding off dust and gas swept up by the violence of their passage.
The devastation wreaked underground by such an explosion was often massive. At 6:45 P.M. on February 25, 1903, for instance, there was a blow-up at the Auburn and Alton Coal Company's mine in Auburn. A state mine inspector described what happened:
The carbonic gases given off by these shots took fire from the flame of the (two over-charged) shots, the force of the blast raising the fine dry coal dust in the room, and with the dust from the shots, which also ignited, greatly intensified the explosion.
The flame from these blasts passed through a crosscut into the room adjoining, where other shots had been previously fired; the gases from these shots also took fire, which, with the force of the explosions and flames, passed out into the entry. Near the mouth of the room in which the explosion took place, and on the entry, a box containing powder was blown to pieces; the powder exploding greatly increased the force of the blast. Two mine cars standing on the entry were blown to pieces. The fan was blowing a direct current of air down the air shaft; about 16,000 cubic feet per minute was passing in the first and second entries; the force of the blast went against the current of air and forced the doors off the top of the air shaft; fortunately, however, the fan was located back from the air shaft and was not damaged. The flames following the explosion passed out on the return entry for a distance of 600 feet; the bodies of the two shot firers and the driver were found at this point. The force of the explosion had evidently hurled these men a great distance along the entry, as their bodies were terribly mangled and burned.
Ordinary miners were not immune to risk underground. Explosions caused when pockets of methane (a colorless, odorless by-product of the process of vegetable decay that produced the coal itself) were touched off by the miners' carbide lamps were a constant peril. Gas explosions strong enough to knock a man backward a dozen feet, like a rag doll thrown aside by a bored child, were commonplace; more disastrous blow-ups, like the one that killed ten men in Randolph County in 1883, were relatively rare.
The threat of cave-ins haunted the pits, and every miner kept an ear cocked for the unmistakable creaking sounds of a roof about to give way. Pockets of carbon monoxide or "black damp" could suffocate a man in minutes, and heavily-laden coal cars rolling through dimly-lit tunnels were often fatal traps for the careless. As one local miner put it, "There was so many ways you could get hurt in coal mining, it was different than anything else. There were two things you had to do. First, you had to learn to take care of yourself, then you learned your job. 'Cause if you didn't learn to take care of yourself, you didn't need any job, 'cause you weren't going to have any."
Sangamon County mines were considered safer than most, a blessing for which nature, not the owners, was responsible. Coal Seam No. 5, the principal target of mining operations in the area, Was covered by a solid "top" or roof of limestone which lessened the chance of cave-ins by supporting the enormous weight of earth sitting atop coal tunnels buried more than 200 feet below the surface. County mines were also relatively free of deadly methane gas.
But a coal mine that is "safer than most" is still not necessarily safe, and Sangamon County miners left their share of widows. During the ten years during the county led the state in coal production, 61 area miners died in mine accidents and another 143 were hurt, many permanently. It is from annual reports prepared by the state, in pages of dry prose recounting the accidents that befell Illinois miners during the year, that one learns the specific nature of what one union official called "the awful catastrophes which (sweep) our fellow craftsmen to untimely graves by the thousands." Typical of the tragedies which routinely felled men underground were these accidents, described in the Coal Report of 1902:
August 26, 1901, James Ryan, mine manager, age 52 years, married, leaves a widow and four children, was killed by being caught by mine cars on the endless rope chain in the Capitol Cooperative Coal Co.'s mine at Springfield, Sangamon County. He was walking on the rope plain behind a trip of cars; the couplings between the cars suddenly broke, allowing some of the cars to run back, which caught him . . .
September 21, 1901, Wm. S. Owens, miner, age 52 years, married, leaves a widow and two children, was injured by a fall of slate in the Junction Mining Co.'s mine in Springfield, Sangamon County, which caused his death Oct. 21, 1901 . . .
January 21, 1902, Andrew Janesky, miner, age 17 years, was killed by a fall of rock in his working place in the Chicago Virden Coal Co.'s No. 2 mine at Auburn, Sangamon County . . .
January 21, 1902, Edward Megaha, cager, age 34 years, married, leaves a widow and three children, was caught under the cage, both legs were broken and his body badly bruised, from which he died Feb. 3, 1902 . . .
In its annual Coal Reports, the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics published meticulous records of all phases of the state's mining industry. In each of these reports, buried among figures indicating the number of days worked and the total tonnage produced each year, is an entry headed simply, "Number of Children Made Fatherless."
It was not only grown men who risked injury or early death in the mines. Young boys, some as young as ten or eleven, were also employed underground. One of these was Joe Ozanic, who started a life's career in the mines in 1910 at the age of fourteen, when, as he put it, "I wasn't old enough and my bones weren't even sturdy enough to do that kind of work." Ozanic, like many miners of the period, had followed the example of his father, who had emigrated to this country from Austria in 1890. Ozanic remembers the day he learned of his first job:
. . . with no education, my dad had nothing to do but to work in heavy industry. So he became a coal miner. Nine of us boys and three sisters were born into that family. It was a larger family than he could support on the meager earnings that he made in the coal mines in those days. So, like father like son, we wanted to be coal miners. In fact, we had no choice except to be coal miners. So my dad, when I got out of the sixth grade, said, "I got a job for you, kid." "What kind of a job you got for me?" "Got a job for you at the mine." "Fine! I'll be a man!"
Like many miners' sons before him, young Ozanic started work as a trapper boy responsible for tending the trap doors that controlled ventilation through the entries to the coal face. For this work he was paid 98 cents a day. From trapper Ozanic graduated first to car greaser, then switchman and mule driver. Each step up the job hierarchy brought him more pay, until, as a mule driver in 191 1, he was making $2.10 a day. In 1911 $2.10 a day was a relatively generous wage. But the most generous wage is no guarantee of an adequate income unless a man is able to work regularly, and steady work was something few Sangamon County miners knew about in the second decade of the 20th Century.
In 1914 a research team from the Russell Sage Foundation commissioned to study industrial conditions in the Capital City noted that "irregularity of employment is greater among coal miners in Springfield than in any other important occupation group." Area miners, for their part, did not need the Sage Foundation to tell them why. First, the coming of spring each year dropped the demand for coal for home heating to a fraction of its wintertime levels; so severe were these warm-weather slowdowns that many mines simply closed down for the summers. For another thing, the mining industry was plagued by the existence of many more mines than . . . continued on Page 2