How Miners Won the 1898 Battle of Virden
John J. Dunphy
(Published in the 10/5/98 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Virden is a small, quiet town about 80 miles northeast of St. Louis, the kind of community that seems light-years removed from the violence that has ravaged America through much of its history. A century ago, however, Virden was the scene of a bloody battle between hundreds of striking miners and a company’s private army. This battle galvanized the labor movement and heralded an era of union militancy.
Coal miners were among the most brutally exploited workers of that period. Ten daily hours of dangerous, backbreaking labor for 179 days earned a miner an average of only $187.95 a year. A united Mine Workers of America (UMWA) strike called on July 4, 1897, and settled in January 1898, won miners an eight-hour day and six-day week and set the scale at 40 cents a ton mined. The old rate had been 28 cents a ton.
This rate increase was repugnant to the coal companies with mines along the route of the Chicago and Alton Railroad. The Chicago-Virden Coal Co., whose Virden mine was the largest single producer of coal in Illinois, refused to honor it, and its members chose to strike rather than work for the old 28-cents-a-ton rate. The company decided to lock out its strikers and work the mine with non-union labor.
Agents of mine manager Fred Lukens recruited African-American miners from Alabama to work in Virden. He also had a wooden stockade constructed around the mine and hired 50 goons to guard the stockade. Each man was issued a new Winchester rifle.
The minders learned that a train bringing African-American miners would enter Virden on Sept. 25. Recognizing that a threat to the striking miners of Virden was a threat to all union miners, men from Gillespie, Staunton, Mount Olive, Benld and other neighboring communities poured into the village. Like the company goons, these union miners were armed, although with old shotguns and hunting rifles or even mere pitchforks and home-made clubs.
The train arrived, but the union miners’ presence induced the engineer to take it to Springfield. In the state capitol, the UMWA district president, J.M. Hunter, persuaded the African-Americans to march on the governor’s mansion to show him the desperate measures the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. was using to break the strike. Gov. John Tanner was out of state.
On Oct. 12, another train carrying 300 African-American miners entered Virden. The union miners had posted sentries south of the stockade with instructions to fire their guns into the air as a signal.
Their harmless signals were answered by 75 armed Pinkerton detectives. Vicious, professional gunfighters who were often hired as strike-breakers and union-busters, the Pinkertons stood sentry on the engine and each coach.
Neither the miner sentries nor Pinkertons were injured by this initial exchange of gunfire. But when the train halted at the stockade, it was met by an estimated 700 enraged union miners. A report in the Alton Evening Telegraph states that two Pinkertons disembarked, followed by two African-Americans whom the detectives were to escort to the mine.
A shot rang out, and one of the African-Americans was wounded. The Pinkerton and stockade guards then began shooting into the crowd, and the inadequately-armed miners returned fire.
The ensuing gunbattle was so furious that even the engineer was wounded, and the fireman had to move the train to Springfield. As many as 12 union miners were killed, with 30 to 40 wounded. The company’s hired guns suffered four dead and five wounded. No African-Americans were killed, although it is uncertain how many were wounded.
The union men had clearly caught the worst of the fray, but they had achieved their primary goal: The company had not been able to unload its trainload of scabs and bring them to work the mine.
Shortly after this gunbattle, J.F. Eyster, manager of the company store, accompanied medical personnel to the stockade to care for the wounded guards. Coal town company stores were notoriously exploitative, charging miners’ families outrageously inflated prices for basic goods and keeping them continuously in debt. Upon leaving, Eyster was attacked by miners who saw him as the symbol of the Chicago-Viren Coal Co.’s oppressive policies and disregard for their human rights.
Eyster fled to the store’s roof, firing at the miners below with pistols in both hands. He jumped to the roof of the next building, the Bank of Virden, where he as shot in the side, and then leaped to the roof of the Miners’ Hall but fell through the skylight. The miners beat Eyster until they were dispersed by police. The bloodied store manager eventually recovered from his injuries.
On Oct. 15, the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. again attempted to bring its trainload of scab laborers to the besieged mine. When the train arrived from Springfield, however, the national Guard, which had been sent by Gov. Tanner, forbade the African-American miners to disembark and ordered the company to move its train out of town.
The Chicago-Virden Coal Co.’s determination was clear in a telegram it sent to Lukens that night. The message read: “The employees will be landed if it costs the life of every man on the train.”
By November, however, the company realized the futility of its intransigence and agreed to the new rate of 40 cents a ton. The Chicago-Virden Coal Co. also acquiesced to the miners demand that Lukens be removed as mine manager.
The miners had won a stupendous victory but at no small cost. How greatly they had suffered during the strike was underscored by a visitor’s observation that Virden mining families had no pet dogs and cats. They had all been eaten.
The Battle of Virden was a watershed in the history of the American labor movement. Impoverished, starving miners went to war with a powerful company’s private army to protect their union and receive a living wage. Most significantly, they won.
- John J. Dunphy is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, “Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers” and “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.” His latest book, “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” will be published this winter by McFarland.