By Mitch Troutman
I want to share a short except from the book of one of the most brazen actions the bootleggers took–aside from seizing company lands in the first place, that is. No word better describes their actions through the 1930s than audacity, defined by Miriam Webster to mean A. Intrepid boldness, or B. bold or arrogant disregard of normal restraints.
Just as talks petered out, the Stevens Coal Company (a Reading lessee) happened to move a large steam shovel to the massive Shamokin Edgewood tract. Until this point, bootleg miners throughout the region focused on mining small, steep coal veins that were unprofitable for companies to mine. Edgewood was the exception. Agor’s News-Dispatch described the tract: “Estimates of the number of men employed in the mine holes on the Edgewood tract vary. All the miners interviewed agreed that the number is at least one thousand. Some of the men think that at least fifteen hundred are at work.”[i] Those numbers are unlikely, but it was certainly over five hundred. One miner told the paper, “No market for Shamokin coal! Hells bells, we can’t mine enough. There’s more coal going out of these holes than could be taken from a good-sized mine, yet the truckers are yelling for more.”[ii]
The description of the tract is incredible. “Shaft towers rear above the trees in an endless row. Most of them are built from untrimmed timber, pieced together and braced in a more or less primitive fashion. They shake as the improvised ‘buckets’ come to the surface, but they stand for all that.” The men built improvised fans—some from wooden planks on a car engine—and linked the mines underground for ventilation. “Vent pipes from the fans to underground present a variety of rain spouting, stove pipe, rubber hose, and old automobile tire tubes.” The miners had committees that settled disputes and collectively hired a night watchman; they even had their own mine inspector! Each coal hole was checked weekly.[iii]
Stevens announced it would strip the tract and destroy the bootleg mines. The company said that once stripping was done, it would open an underground mine on the property and reemploy hundreds. The bootleggers believed that to be far-fetched. Stevens tried to bring in the power shovel the next morning, but bootleggers poured out of the mountain and surrounded the shovel before it entered the woods, forcing the company to move it back into town. Both sides regrouped. The shovel returned to the tree line along with Stevens’s superintendent George Jones and a state trooper, but the bootleggers had built a blockade of fallen trees, rocks, and rubble. Again, the shovel retreated, but this time the miners followed.[iv]
According to the shovel operator, one bootlegger asked him, “Do you stand to lose anything if something happens to that shovel?” He did; he was a subcontractor who owned the shovel. Then they asked, “Is it insured?” The operator said it was. “All right then. Get your men out of the way. We’re going to blow that shovel to hell.”[v]
Hundreds of angry miners crowded around the machine, several attacking it with hammers and axes. Finally, fifteen sticks of dynamite were placed under the motor, and a firing wire and exploders attached. A few minutes later there was a terrific blast and the shovel was reduced to a tangled mass of wreckage.[vi]
And then . . . nothing. Reportedly two thousand people were at the scene when the dynamite went off that December afternoon. The mangled corpse of the shovel sat as a monument in Edgewood for some time, the few functional parts salvaged by its owners.[vii] Stevens Coal Company had little response. This must have driven them mad, but they recognized that there were thousands of men out there with dynamite, and Stevens had much more to lose than a subcontracted steam shovel.
The winter of 1934 started out quite warm, and what would have been a series of blizzards was instead a terrible downpour of rain. The next few weeks left the Edgewood coal holes flooded, halting all work. Six bootleg miners made their way to Superintendent Jones’s office at Stevens Coal. Would he mind, they asked, loaning them a water pump to clear their mines?[viii]
[v] “Barricade Coal Tract,” Pottsville Republican, December 4, 1934.
[vi] “Road Leading to Mine Area Is Barricaded.”
[viii] “Workers’ Representatives Are Placed in Both State and National Capitals,” Philadelphia Record, December 1, 1935.
Mitch Troutman is a writer, educator, organizer, and jack-of-all-trades living in Central Pennsylvania. He is a direct descendent of bootleg coal miners and belongs to the group Anthracite Unite.