No Strikes for Mr. Donner — The Battle of Virden

No Strikes for Mr. Donner — The Battle of Virden

This is the last of a three-part series covering devastating strikes of the 1890s, strikes that surely helped cement anti-unionism in Donora’s founder, William Donner.

The gunfight lasted just ten minutes, but its effects reverberated within the coal mining community for decades. The year was 1898. William Donner was talking with James McKean, president of the Union Trust Company of Pittsburgh, about building a tin plate plant in Monessen. The nation was raging war with Spain over its refusal to withdraw from Cuba. And four days before Christmas Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium. In October of that year, in the tiny town of Verdin, Illinois, a war erupted between coal miners and coal barons from Chicago.

Coal miners at the time worked under horrendous conditions. “Profit was the sole object,” read a US Coal Commission report. “The life and health of employees was of no moment. Men worked in water half-way up to their knees, in gas-filled rooms, in unventilated mines where the air was so foul that no man could work long without seriously impairing his health. There was no workmen’s compensation law, accidents were frequent.”

In addition miners were frequently out of work during summers and had to move around to find work, usually as poorly paid day laborers. Miners and their families typically lived in company-owned houses, had to shop in company-owned stores, and were paid in a company script valid only at company businesses.

The formation of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1890 was a direct response to those deplorable conditions. The union called for a nationwide strike in 1897, though they expected little to happen in Illinois; the group counted fewer than 400 members in the entire state. Little did they know that thousands of Illinois miners would be swept into the UMWA movement by one man, Alexander Bradley.

‘General’ Alexander Bradley in an outfit he wore in mockery of how mine owners often dressed

Bradley had immigrated here from Britain when he was nine and had been working in coal mines throughout his life. He was 30 when the energetic and persuasive Bradley joined the national strike and led a march of miners in protest of their work conditions. Bradley was a veteran of hunger marches in Washington, DC, in 1894, and it was then that he not only gave himself the title of “General,” but also began wearing what would become his signature frock: a Prince Albert topcoat, silk top hat, and black umbrella with a curved handle.

Bradley led a fifty-mile march from Mt. Olive to Belleville in 1897, asking miners to join him in striking for better wages and shorter work hours. The march served as “a catalyst for marches across the coalfields that brought the union its first union contract, including the 8 hour day.”

The following year, Bradley again hit the pavement. “I want fifty men, real union men,” he said, “who will march with me to Virden, where we will be joined with other volunteers from Coffeen, Girard, Taylor Springs, Springfield, and Belleville UMW members. I want men who do not fear to fight and die for our just union cause if needs be.”

He gathered far, far more than fifty miners in his march; thousands joined him on his march to Virden. The miners of the local coal company struck.

The owners reacted strongly and decided to break the strike. It hired a large number of Black miners from Birmingham, Alabama, and brought them by train to the town. The miners had been told that they would be taking the place of miners who had left town to fight in the Spanish-American War.

Artist’s rendition of the Battle of Virden

When the misinformed strikebreakers arrived in Virden, at about noon on Oct. 12, they faced a throng of angry, armed miners at the station. The Birmingham minors were being guarded by armed agents of the Thiel Detective Service, a St. Louis agency. The guards immediately started shooting at striking miners.

Although the strikers fired back, they were outgunned. The Thiel agents had brought with them Winchester rifles, the latest in rapid-fire weaponry, and quickly overpowered the miners, who had brought only shotguns and hunting rifles. In all a dozen men were killed in the firefight — seven miners and five agents. Forty strikers lay wounded. None of the Birmingham men were hurt.

Gov. John Tanner had been urged prior to the event to send state militia to guard the miners arriving from Birmingham, but he refused. By the time he relented and sent the national guard, the battle was over.

The strike ultiimately led to an increase in hourly wages for the miners and served as a clear signal that the days of coal barons stepping on their minions were coming to an end. Today a large, bas relief monument stands in the middle of Virden, commemorating the fight for fair working conditions.

Battle of Virden Monument, sculpted by David Seagraves of Elizabeth, Ill., Figures across the top show labor activists and prominent individuals who played roles in the riot.

Part 1: The Homestead Strike

Part 2: The Pullman Strike

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