Vail Valley Voices: You need to mine the past to understand what’s happening now |

Vail Valley Voices: You need to mine the past to understand what’s happening now

John Watson
Vail, CO, Colorado

Life without a little historical perspective is a bore.

The death of 29 miners in West Virginia and what it means to us or the health care debate or John Paul Stevens’ replacement or anything else can’t really be understood without a sense of history.

For 30 years I worked, and my grandfather and father for 60 years before that, covering news in Pittston, Pa., near Scranton, a town that probably has had more mining deaths than any place in America.

The worst by the sheer number of dead miners was the Twin Shaft Disaster of 1896, at which about 137 miners found their graves. The actual number has never been determined.

The mayor of Pittston at the time was lucky. An employee of the mine, he was on an extended trip to Ireland to see his family. The acting mayor, however, was killed.

The Pennsylvania Coal company was the major entity in those days, a holding of the Carnegia empire, and workers were expendable. Corpses that were found would be taken by horse and buggy and placed unceremoniously on the front porch of the family shanty, which was most likely owned by the coal company. In fact, the company controlled all areas of a miner’s life. Groceries were purchased from the company store, and the coal company police kept the order. There were little or no government or publicly supported authorities.

I got a real kick when one of the bartenders in a scene on the HBO series “Deadwood” was from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and spoke of the Pinkertons and the coal company police with total historical accuracy. What a great show.

For 50 years, starting just before the Civil War, the hunt for anthracite was fierce. And the coal companies’ rule was politically fierce. In one case, a coal company baron, escorted by the coal company police, shot a union organizer in the head while he was giving a speech at the public square in Scranton. The coal baron was given a citation for good citizenship by the Lackawanna county courts.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, the Scranton anthracite vein is the same vein present in Wales, where the original miners came from in the 1840s. Isn’t it strange that the same vein of rare anthracite, separated by millions of years of continental drift, fueled both the British and the American industrial revolutions?

It was Scranton coal that was first used to make steel to build Eastern cities and the rail systems that took people west. It was the coal miner, including my great-great-grandfather, killed at Gettysburg, who fought for the Union Army against the Confederacy.

As production after the Civil War and massive wealth were being created, working conditions and wages actually got worse. By 1900, it was customary to start work in the mines at 6 years old as a coal picker in the breakers. Mule drivers started at age 9.

Public education didn’t exist. Like health care, it was provided by religious orders, holding classes at night after children got out of the mines. Living conditions were horrible.

It all began to change with the Strike of 1902 headed by Johnny Mitchell, which forged unionism in America and brought about many of the rights we take for granted today.

Mitchell, a pious Protestant from Kentucky, was able to organize only 10,000 of more than 100,000 mainly Catholic, immigrant coal miners in the Scranton area, but that was enough to halt production.

Yet, the Strike of 1902 would not have succeeded in ending child labor or the other atrocities of the coal companies without political courage, that coming mainly from Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, who sided with the miners.

There’s a small statue of Mitchell in Scranton today. But most people, even there, wouldn’t know who he was.

Laws continued to improve the rights of workers in America. After World War II, when American industry dominated the world, workers made great strides, prospering with higher wages and health care obtained from union negotiations with large employers. The GI Bill helped a generation get educated and the savings-and-loans were created under tight regulations to lend people money for a home. America boomed.

But Pittston and Scranton were left to rot.

In 1943, my grandfather wrote a front-page editorial in the old Wilkes Barre Times Leader pleading for government help after 6-year-old Joan Fulmer fell into the mines while walking on the sidewalk in front of her home, a block from downtown, her body never to be found.

“How could this happen in America?” he wrote.

Oddly, I have never actually seen an active coal mine because the industry came to an abrupt end in 1959 with the Knox Disaster when the Susquehanna River, one of the largest rivers in North America, came crashing in on the miners, forever flooding the coal veins of the Wyoming Valley. (The state of Wyoming was actually named after Wyoming, Pa.) They tried to block the hole with railroad cars, but the river swallowed 30 of them like match sticks going down a toilet.

By this time, the large companies had long sold out their interests in coal and secondary operators took over, removing the protective pillars and corrupting any system of regulation. We called it organized crime, but they strangely resemble the operators of today.

In the ’60s and ’70s, while the rest of America was developing, my home area was literally burning, the waterways were running in chemical colors, and the voids were being filled with vast amounts of toxic waste, surreptitiously being deposited through hundreds of illegal “bore holes” into the mine voids by large chemical companies to avoid the cost of proper disposal. Organized crime, of course, was there to help with the trucks and the bore holes.

There were entire neighborhoods in Pittston with cancer rates as high as 50 percent. They were dumping pure cyanide by the truckloads, and the deadly molecules would leach into homes and businesses from the vast catacombs beneath.

And then, eventually, into the Chesapeake Bay for your crab cake enjoyment.

The first help actually came from Republicans, from the Nixon administration, which founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and then from GOP senators such as John Heinz. I recall interviewing Arlen Specter as a much younger man at the Butler Mine Tunnel, a toxic-waste site and symbol of hundreds of similar sites.

Today, the Susquehanna, second only to the Amazon in the Western Hemisphere in the number of indigenous plant species, is getting clean again. You can catch a Muskie, or a channel cat, if you’re good.

The chemical companies of New York and New Jersey paid their modest fines, and strong regulation has been put in place by both Republicans and Democrats.

In Pittston, which had regularly made the notorious list of Top Mafia Cities by News and World Report, the Mafia is nothing more than a few pretenders who watch too many movies. In fact, the Scranton area is ready to come to economic life again.

So, as we move forward nationally to right the ship by sensible and enforceable regulation of mining and banking, whatever your politics, I hope people conduct the debate with our common history in mind and respect one another’s views. They’ve been hard won. Believe me.

Politics are the diet of democracy, issues are its proteins and politeness should be its ground rules.

The savagery of today’s dialogue, along with being heartbreaking to a wonk like me, muddies the waters and makes meaningful discussion impossible, which, of course, is exactly what it is intended to do.

Without a sense of history, we just end up calling one another silly names. And that’s a real bore (hole).

John Watson is a former newspaper publisher who lives in Avon.

Support Local Journalism