The Virden and Pana Mine Wars of 1898 1997
Written and Contributed by Victor Hicken

The Virden and Pana Mine Wars of 1898
Victor Hicken
28 Sept 1921 - 8 Apr 2010)

(Originally written for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 52, 1959.)

A native of southern Illinois, Victor Hicken is a professor of history at Western Illinois University, Macomb. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois, where his written dissertation was on the political and military career of John Alexander McClernand.

Although the best-known examples of the bitter and explosive violence that often marked the relationship between capital and labor during the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century were the Homestead and Pullman Strikes, there were others of varying importance all across the nation. Not the least of these were the clashes that developed along that storm front between coal feudalism and the rising labor movement in Illinois - particularly those at Virden and Pana in 1898.

Looking back, it is not difficult to understand just how feudalism came into being in the coal fields. The description of conditions at Spring Valley, Illinois, which Henry D Lloyd called but one pustule of a disease spread through the whole body, could be applied to any number of mining villages, including Pana and Virden.1 In Spring Valley, feudalism was inherent in the founding of the town in the 1880's. Miners who flocked to this area in answer to newspaper advertisements that it was a good location for business and that it had steady employment were soon caught in a trap of high food and land prices.2 In a short time the miners found themselves employed at low wages and under the burden of heavy debt, which sometimes increased but seldom decreased. There were times when Spring Valley miners earned as much as $60 a month,3 but more often the pay was considerably less, as in the case of one miner who drew the meager sum of $23 for a month's work. After paying grocery, fuel and smithing expenses, he had nothing left.4

Nevertheless, those were really the good years, for what miners all over the nation suffered in the depression of the early 1900's is beyond description. The numerous stories of workers eating their dogs and of whole families starving are scarcely exaggerated.

Yet, despite all the hardships of his lot, the American miner did not want charity, even after toiling and moiling, sweating and fuming for the mere existence of his family.5 What he wanted, in general, was recognition of his human dignity. More specifically, in the words of John Mitchell, he wanted a sufficient amount of money to enable him to live . . . educate his children, clothe them properly, and . . . enable him to live when old.6 Just how far Illinois miners were from these goals in 1897 is not difficult to demonstrate. The average worker of that time toiled a backbreaking ten-hour day, 179 days a year.7 He was paid about thirty-five cents a ton for the coal he mined.8 Since a miner's usual rate was three tons per day, his yearly income averaged $187.95.9 It is not surprising, then, that Illinois miners quickly joined the general coal strike called by the United Mine Workers on July 4, 1897 following the collapse of negotiations, for which the operators were held responsible.

By the end of that year, however, the coal operators were ready to negotiate. After a preliminary settlement, a joint conference was held in Chicago in January. When the meeting was over, miners all over the country had won great improvements in wages and working conditions. Besides the very substantial victory in the eight-hour day and six-day week, there were definite area agreements relative to screening rights and pay increases. Each of these agreements was to become the basis for further discussions between area operators and district organizations of the union. One of the gains pertinent to the later troubles in the Pana and Virden pits was that which set as a mining rate for most of Illinois the scale of forty cents per ton of mine-run coal, an increase of about fifteen cents a day for the common miner.10

Late in 1898 a conference between Illinois operators and the Mine Workers was held for the purpose of adjusting pick and mining prices in the Illinois fields. In these discussions a strong protest against the rate increase agreed upon the previous January was made by the operators whose mines stretched along the Chicago and Alton Railroad south of Springfield. These owners, led by representatives of the Chicago-Virden Coal company, argued that the rate increase would price them out of the Chicago market.11 On August 8, four mining concerns, including the Pana Coal Company, agreed to submit their case to the national executive board of the United Mine Workers, headed by President Michael D Ratchford. Signers of this article of agreement stipulated further that they would be bound by the decision of the board.12

The protest against the original contract made at Chicago was not the work of the small operators. In all, twenty mining companies were in revolt against the new scale, with the Chicago-Virden Company the most powerful of the group; in 1897 its mine at Virden was the largest single producer of coal in the state, hoisting 348,000 tons.13 Consequently, any success on the part of the major operators in turning back the new scale would lead to rejections elsewhere. Frank W Lukens, manager of the Chicago-Virden mines, reportedly appealed for support from other operators. When the national executive board did return a verdict unfavorable to the operators, the four companies rejected the decision, notwithstanding the previous agreement and the lack of support from other operators.14

Following the rejection of the national board's findings, the mine owners set about to operate their mines with nonunion labor. At Pana some attempts were made to bring nonunion white workers into the pits, but the miners offered such stiff resistance that the efforts failed.15 The Pana Company then made ominous threats of importing Chinese labor from the west.16 By August, however, most of the insurgent operators, including those at Pana and Virden, had settled upon the less troublesome method of tapping the huge Negro labor market of the South. Agents sent to Alabama to recruit experienced Negro miners met opposition only from the Afro-American Labor and Protective Association, which was vigorous but ineffectual.17 The following circular was typical of the appeal made by agents of the Virden Company to Negroes of Alabama:

Wanted-One hundred and seventy-five good colored miners for Virden, Illinois. Pay in full every two weeks, 30 cents per ton, run of mines. . . . Want nothing but first class miners; all coal weighed on top. Bring your tools well tied up if you wish to carry them. Will leave Birmingham Thursday night at 8 o'clock, September 22. . . .18

Agents for the Pana Coal Company used a quite different manner of recruitment, which was described months later by two of the hired Negroes:

Benj. Lynch and Jack Anderson being duly sworn, upon their oath say they are residents of Birmingham, Ala., resided at Birmingham for 11 years; occupation coal miners; say that on Monday, Aug. 22, 1898, they were approached by two white men and one colored man who represented that they were from Pana, Ill.; that most of the miners had gone to the war for two years; that there was a new mine opening there and a great demand for labor, and they wanted 150 men; and there was no trouble there; said about eight or nine months ago there had been a little trouble but that was all settled; affiants said they were working. . . . but on being told that they could make from $3 to $5 per day were induced to give up their jobs and go to Pana.19

The report of the maneuver by the Pana operators aroused strong indignation among the miners of that city. A large local meeting was held on August 23, resulting in the dispatch of representatives to Centralia to attempt to persuade the Negro miners to turn back. A small number did leave the train, but the majority remained aboard, perhaps fearing the miners' representatives even more than their own white guards. From Centralia to Pana, however, the Negroes rode in a sweat of fear, having been told by their white protectors that they were not to appear at the windows of the train lest they be fired upon by hostile workers.20

The arrival of Negro labor in the heart of the state posed new problems for state authorities and the merchants of Pana, as well as for labor groups. To the latter the issue which arose was one which scarcely involved color; instead, it was centered around the simple economic fact of imported cheap labor. Though he had seen operators use the same expedient before, the American miner was still not inured to the practice. In the previous, as well as in the 1890's, a tremendous influx of Slav labor had taken place. In spite of the fact much of the Illinois labor force was immigrant itself - in most cases from the British Isles - it had tended to think of the Slav invasion as the greatest threat to its security.21 Thus the Welsh, the Irish, the English and the Scots saw their refuge and their strength as existing only in organization. Leadership was provided by such men as Ratchford, William D Ryan, Tom Lewis and John Mitchell, all of British background.22 With the coming of the Negro, however, the Slav was no longer considered the

Picture: John Mitchell

greatest of the cheap labor threats. Now the menace was the imported Negro worker, who often did not understand the underlying implications of why he had been brought north. He accepted the word of the white agents, that greater opportunity for his advancement lay northward, and did not question the reasons for his need there.23

The local businessman of Pana saw the invasion of the Negro as a definite threat to the future of his interests. Higher wages for the miners meant a greater volume of business for him, and the Negro worker represented neither higher wages nor greater volume of business. Pana businessmen felt so strongly that, shortly after the arrival of the Negroes, a delegation traveled to Springfield to present their case to Governor John R Tanner. The Governor was not there, however, and no one else would listen to them.24

The Negroes, now housed safely but unhygienically behind the Springside stockade at Pana, presented an imponderable problem to the Illinois politician. The time was 1898, a year of important mid-term elections. If the miners alone had been offended by the importations of Negro labor, both major parties might have ignored the issue, but there were many other elements in the state which were also involved. The politicians made note of the huge mass meetings in Springfield,25 and they could tally with shrewdness the effect of a huge meeting of three thousand people in Kankakee. The ambitious of both parties read with interest the resolution which congratulated Governor Tanner on his early support of the miners: As American citizens we desire to congratulate you on the stand you have taken on behalf of the oppressed coal miners of Pana. . . . You have set an example; let others follow.26 Others did. Both political parties quickly recorded their support of the miners' cause!27

Tanner's early stand in favor of the Virden and Pana workers was one of calculated political perception. He must have recognized the political danger of not so acting, since the leader of the Democratic opposition was former Governor John Peter Altgeld, who had already established himself as supporter of labor with his pardoning of the Haymarket rioters. Moreover, since the war in Cuba was becoming an embarrassing burden upon the Republican Pary, the Virden-Pana episode was greeted as a welcome diversion of public sentiment. The importations of Negroes offered the Republicans an opportunity to renew their support of the Illinois laboring man and they did so.

By September the situation in the coal fields south of Spingfield was growing worse. The Chicago-Virden Company, in preparation for the installation of Negro labor at Virden, had begun construction of a stockade around its mine. As the little fortress grew, local tension heightened. Varying reports sifted out of Virden concerning the stockade itself. One traveler noted simply that it provided an excellent point of vantage.28 Another deprecated its protective qualities: I saw the famous stockade at Virden as I came up from St Louis. It is not in any sense a formidable looking affair and a well intentioned donkey could demolish it in an hour. . . . The Virden situation is the sole topic of conversation on the trains.29

The stockade completed, a second step was taken by the Chicago-Virden Company to forestall any retaliation by the hundreds of miners pouring into the little village from outlying towns. Under of the leadership of Lukens, fifty guards were imported to the wooden fortress. All of them were intimately acquainted with firearms; twenty-one were expolicemen from Chicago; eighteen more were agents from the Thiel Detective Agency of St Louis; and the rest were hired guards from the surrounding area.30 With the guards hired and fitted out with new Winchesters, the company felt the time appropriate to bring in the Negro workers.31

On September 24 Virden was seething mass of angry miners, many of whom were armed and all of whom were determined to thwart the plan of the Chicago-Virden Company. Patrols of workers were directed to the outskirts of the village in order to signal the approach of any suspicious train. One patrol spiked the switches of the Chicago and Alton Railroad,32 but this action failed to accomplish its purpose, for later that day the train bearing the Negroes drove through the outer patrols and entered the town. But when the engineer saw the large number of workers concentrated about the stockade, he opened the throttle once again and roared northward toward Springfield. At the capital, J. M. Hunter, the Mine Workers' district president, boarded the train and managed to persuade many of the Negro families to leave it. Hunter then marched the group through the streets of Springfield to the Governor's Mansion, perhaps hoping to cement Tanner's sympathy to the union cause.33 Unfortunately for Hunter, the Governor was out of the state. The union leader then took the Negroes to Allen Hall and supplied them with odd fare of beer, crackers and cakes.34

The initial success of the Virden miners served to stiffen the attitude of the workers of Pana. On September 24, and in the days thereafter, there were violent disturbances and shootings. In one of these outbreaks, John Mitchell, then vice-president of the United Mine Workers, was able to save two of the mine operators from death at the hands of some angry strikers. It was a deed of rare courage, even for the young and ambitious Mitchell. His participation in the incident, his admonitions against further violence and his subsequent arrest at Pana, all served to project his name into public view, a circumstance which helped lead to his election as president of the United Mine Workers.35 Yet, even with Mitchell's calls for caution, order did not prevail at Pana, and before the end of the month the National Guard was brought in. With a few exceptions, its presence prevented any further outbreaks.36

In the early weeks of October there seemed no end to Negro trains and rumors of Negro trains. Sixty Negro workers, bound for Pana from Washington, Indiana, were forced off their cars at Tower Hill and persuaded to return to their former homes.37 Another two carloads were sidetracked at Galesburg.38 Fourteen Negroes were taken off a train near Minonk.39 Apparently any Negro traveling through central Illinois was under suspicion.

At Virden, meanwhile, the mining company was ready to make its second attempt to bring Negro labor into the town. An appeal was made to the Governor for military protection -- which he quickly rejected. Tanner's reply, made a month before the 1898 elections, obviously was directed toward the electorate. The laboring man's only property, he asserted, is the right to labor, which is as dear to him as the capitalist's millions.40 The company's immediate rebuttal was that the Governor's statement gave sanction to violence.41 Nevertheless, the company proceeded with its do-or-die plan. On October 12 forty-three Virden miners received their last pay envelopes. Enclosed in each was a copy of an admonition against interfering or intermeddling with the business of the company.42

The next day, October 13, was indeed an evil one. Toward noon another Negro train approached Virden, and the engineer was under strict orders to discharge his human cargo within the village. As the train rolled to a stop in front of the stockade, heavy gunfire broke out between the guards and the miners.43 It was a perfect illustration of raw violence, the kind men resort to in utter desperation. To one of the Thiel Agency detectives, well schooled in conflict, it was warfare hotter than San Juan Hill. When the wounded engineer again moved his train in the direction of Springfield and away from the battlefield, the combatants counted their dead. Of the miners, about thirty were wounded and four killed. None of the Negroes were killed, but several were wounded.44 The suffering of those who were wounded was greater than necessary because no physician could be found to attend them.45

As the train rolled off toward Springfield, the miners vented their wrath at another symptom of coal feudalism: the company store. They swarmed about the store, apparently with the intent of wrecking it, and when the store manager fired at them from a window, a group of miners entered the building and chased him to the roof. Rather than be caught by the mob, the fear-crazed man leaped through the glass skylight to the ground floor. Barely living, he was rescued by more temperate miners and taken away.46

The miners had accomplished their purpose. No Negroes had landed in Virden. Despite the brevity of the conflict, the bitterness with which it was fought is almost unparalleled in labor history. To the Virden miner it was a struggle to maintain the sanctity of his home and the security of his future.47 To the operator, it was an attempt to preserve those rights which he held dear: the right to protect property and the right to hire whom he pleased, when he pleased. That the operator lost is proof that property rights are only as strong as the human element protecting them, in this case fifty guards.48

Reactions to the incident were prompt and varied. While Illinois newspapers continued to support and miners and Tanner, eastern newspapers vigorously attacked them. The Boston Transcript wrote of Tanner that he encouraged a furious mob by announcing his purpose of not interfering. The Baltimore Sun asked: Was the Civil War in vain?

Picture: Miner's Cabin

Other newspapers such as the Indianapolis News, the Rochester Post-Express and the New York Tribune were strong in their denunciations of the Illinois workers and their sympathetic Governor.49 The gunfire at Virden had its repercussions in Washington, too. R. A. Alger, the Secretary of War, quickly placed the Fifth Illinois Volunteer Infantry at the services of Tanner in the event the National Guard should prove to be insufficient.50

But the National Guard was easily able to maintain order. Shortly after the bloody shooting, the Sons of Veterans Company -- one hundred men under the command of Captain William Fervrier -- had marched into Virden.51 They were the representations of an angry Governor who, upon receiving the news of the massacre, had hurled this savage condemnation: These mine owners have so far forgotten their duty to society as to bring about this blot upon the fair name of our state; have gone far enough . . . they had fair warning from me.52 The president of the Chicago-Virden Company, Thomas Loucks, retaliated with the bitter accusation that the blame for the bloodshed rested in Springfield with the Governor. Loucks then fled from Virden to Chicago, where he hurriedly shook off reporters with the comment, I shan't say a word, not a word; don't stop me.53 This was the action of a man who realized that the sympathy of the Illinois press was lost.

What about the Negroes? The majority of them reached Springfield in a pitiful condition -- frightened, tired and shamefully disillusioned. Besides, they were kept as virtual prisoners aboard the train. When J. M. Hunter, the district leader of the United Mine Workers, tried to board the cars for the purpose of persuading the Negro families to leave their confining quarters, he was promptly thrown off by their white guards. Although badly injured, Hunter found a policeman who would accompany him, and boarded the train again. This time he talked some of the unfortunate Negroes into leaving their semi-imprisonment.54 Shortly thereafter most of them were taken to St Louis, where some found employment. Others drifted back to Birmingham, disillusioned but infinitely wiser.55

By the middle of November the Chicago-Virden Company had realized its defeat. The mines were once again opened, this time at the forty-cent rate.56 In Pana, however, the situation had not ceased, nor would it for some time. No more Negro workers were imported, for the National Guard was under strict orders to prevent such an occurrence.57 but the miners were faced with the problem of preventing the mines from operating with the Negroes who had been brought in earlier. A temporary injunction was obtained, but the court declined to make it permanent.58 In March, 1899 the Mine Workers' National convention resolved that Governor Tanner be petitioned to remove the State troops and disarm all Negroes in Pana and force said operators and miners of Pana to make . . . a settlement.59 In April the state board of arbitration offered its services, only to be turned down again by the Pana operators. However, by October, 1899 the Pana company was ready to admit its defeat, and agreed to pay the new scale and to re-employ its former workers.66

The implications of labor's victory were significant. The old coal feudalism, with all of its viciousness, was now on its way out. The United Mine Workers of America, a comparatively new organization, was stimulated by its victory and proceeded successfully to organize other mine fields in which miners had been reluctant to join the union movement. Perhaps the most important result was the establishment of Illinois as a spawning ground for the nation's labor leaders -- a position the state was to hold during the first fifty years of the twentieth century.


1. Henry D Lloyd, A Strike of Millionaires against Miners: or, the Story of Spring Valley . . . (Chicago, 1890), 10.
2. Ibid., 25.
3. Ibid., 37.
4. Ibid., 44.
5. Elsie Gluck, John Mitchell (New York, 1929), 23.
6. United States Industrial Commission, Report, XII (Washington,1901): 41.
7. Ibid., cxviii.
8. Chris Evans, History of the United Mine Workers of America (Indianapolis, n.d.), II: 550-52.
9. U.S. Industrial Commission, Report XII: cxxiii. Operator Dalzell testified that the miner's usual rate was three tons per day. Compare this wage to the average American wage of $749 in 1901.
10. Evans, United Mine Workers, II: 550-52.
11. Ibid., 576.
12. Ibid., 599.
13. Frederick Saward, ed., The Coal Trade: The Year Book of the Coal and Coke Industry (Washington, 1897), 102.
14. Coal in Illinois (Eighteenth Annual Coal Report Prepared by the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, Springfield, 1899), ii.
15. Pana (Ill.) Palladium, July 19, 1898.
16. Coal in Illinois (1899), 12.
17. Pana Palladium, Aug. 25, 1898.
18. Ibid., Aug. 25, 26, 1898.
19. Affidavit quoted in ibid., Aug. 25, 1898.
20. Ibid., Aug. 25, 26, 1898.
21. Frank Julian Warne, The Coal-Mine Workers: A Study in Labor Organizations (New York, 1905), 210.
22. Gluck, John Mitchell, 12.
23. Coal in Illinois (1899), 6.
24. Illinois State Journal (Springfield), Sept. 6, 1898.
25. Ibid., Oct. 12, 1898.
26. Ibid., Sept. 8, 1898.
27. Ibid., Sept. 9, 1898.
28. Chicago Tribune, Oct 13, 1898.
29. Ill. State Jour., Oct. 7, 1898.
30. Chi. Trib., Oct. 13, 1898. Later, J. M. Hunter, the Mine Workers' district president, was presented a gavel carved from a post to which an exChicago policeman, caught hold . . . as he was falling to his death, at Virden. Evans, United Mine Workers, II: 672.
31. Chi. Trib., Oct. 13, 1898.
32. Ibid., Oct. 13, 14, 1898.
33. Ill. State Jour., Sept. 26, 1898.
34. Ibid., Sept. 26, 27, 1898.
35. Gluck, John Mitchell, 47-49.
36. Ill. State Jour., Oct. 5, 1898.
37. Pana Palladium, Sept. 30, 1898.
38. Ibid., Sept. 27, 30, 1898.
39. Ibid., Sept. 27, 1898.
40. Ill. State Jour., Oct. 10, 1898.
41. Chi. Trib., Oct. 13, 1898.
42. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Oct. 12, 1898.
43. Ill. State Jour., Oct. 13, 1898.
44. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Oct 13, 1898. Estimates of the number killed vary considerably.
45. Chi. Trib., Oct 13, 1898.
46. Ill. State Jour., Oct. 13, 1898.
47. If the company had achieved its goal, the miners would have lost both their homes and their jobs.
48. In the case of the Pullman strike, the U.S. government had intervened.
49. New York Daily Tribune, Oct. 16, 1898, quotes editorial comment by other newspapers.
50. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Oct. 14, 1898.
51. Chi. Trib., Oct. 14, 1898.
52. Ibid., Oct. 13, 1898.
53. Ibid., Oct. 13, 14, 1898.
54. Ill. State Jour., Oct. 13, 1898.
55. Ibid., Oct. 16, 1898.
56. Ibid., Oct. 16, 17, 1898.
57. Chi. Trib., Oct. 15, 1898.
58. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Sept. 20, 1898.
59. Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the United Mine Workers of America (Washington, 1899), 153.
60. Arthur Suffern, Conciliation and Arbitration in the Coal Industry of America (Boston, 1915), 49.

Written permission to include: I give Gloria Frazier permission to put my articles, The Virden-Pana Mine Wars of 1898 and Mine Union Radicalism in Macoupin and Montgomery Counties in the Macoupin County Illinois USGenWeb Archives. Signed Victor Hicken, October 9, 1997.

transcribed by Gloria Frazier

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