Agents of Change: Pioneering Roles in the
Nation’s Early Labor Union Movement
After the Civil War, three rival railroads pierced the rugged, mineral rich hills of the eastern Hocking Valley of Ohio where coveted veins of bituminous coal, measuring up to fourteen feet in thickness, were sought to fuel the nation’s energy-thirsty industrial revolution. Along the quickly built rail lines that connected the region with ports on Lake Erie to the north and the Ohio River to the south, dozens of “little cities” appeared suddenly “if by magic.”
The investors not only built the rail lines, they purchased the land and mineral rights where they quickly opened coal mines, iron ore furnaces and company stores. Clay mining, brick making and an oil boom would further add to the wealth of the investors and stabilize the local economy. The investors and owners first employed mostly American-born miners of Welsh, Scotts-Irish and English descent. As labor tensions rose, they were soon followed by a flood of new workers who were made up of African Americans recently freed from slavery in the South, and central and eastern European immigrants recruited directly from immigration centers at ports in New York and Philadelphia.
The newly arrived coal miners of the region fervently embraced the secretive international Knights of Labor Union (K of L) movement during its formative years (1869-1878). The K of L built either the first, or one of the first labor union halls in the region at Shawnee in 1881, known as the K of L Opera House. The first floor of the building housed an experimental cooperative store operated by the miners. By the 1880's the syndication of the mine owners into a powerful corporate entity to better control the increasingly ardent labor movement irritated the miners who were already angry over the harmonious goals of the K of L which forbade strikes. This discontent resulted in early “trade union” organizing and the historic and nationally-watched Hocking Valley Coal Strike of 1884-85. The aftermath of the landmark strike resulted in setting significant labor union precedents in America, which included legislation that mandated government arbitration of labor strikes; initiated regulation of the truck system that forced miners to shop exclusively at company owned stores and gave rise to the early “joint conference” system of labor negotiations between owners and the miners which led to the nation’s first annual labor contract negotiated between workers and owners . Following the strike, the national headquarters of the new The National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers trade union was established at New Straitsville in the Hocking Valley. The frustrated Knights of Labor National Assembly, responded by creating National Trade Assembly #135 with National Headquarters also at New Straitsville. After two national conferences in 1888 and 1889 in nearby cities failed to unite the factions, secret meetings held at Robinson’s Cave in the woods above New Straitsville between representatives of both parties, including union leader Chris Evans, led to the long awaited formation of one of the nation’s most powerful unions, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), in nearby Columbus, Ohio on January 20, 1890.
Miners from the Little Cities region played important roles in the formative years of the union. After serving as the Executive Secretary of the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers, New Straitsville’s Chris Evans went on to organize miners in West Virginia and Colorado before penning a two-volume history of the UMWA’s early years. African American miner Richard L. Davis of Rendville, broke the color barrier by being at the United Mine Workers organizing convention in 1890, and then by rising to the National Executive Committee of the union in 1895. Shawnee’s Thomas L. Lewis was elected to the UMWA’s presidency in 1910, after organizing alongside Mother Jones in the coal fields of West Virginia.
By 1925, the great national union which the miners of the Little Cities helped form, would eventually find it necessary to turn its back on the region as electrification of underground mining in newly opened coal fields in West Virginia, Kentucky, eastern Ohio, Illinois and elsewhere resulted in more efficient coal production. The antiquated mines in the Little Cities region were unable to pay the hourly wages and eight hour work day negotiated by the UMWA’s long powerful president John L. Lewis in 1925. This contract signaled the end of the boom in the Hocking Coal Valley Coal Fields as most mines were forced to close and a protracted strike in the Hocking Valley was never settled as the nation entered the Great Depression.
Individuals of national historical significance from the Little Cities emerge from this period of early labor union history in the United States. Chris Evans, a Knights of Labor organizer who came to the Hocking Valley from Pennsylvania in 1875, formed two historic locals at Shawnee and New Straitsville. He then defected from the Knights in favor of forming a trade union for miners and led the Hocking Valley Coal Strike of 1884-85. He made his home in New Straitsville as he served as the Executive Secretary of the American Federation of Miners during the period after the strike, leading up to the formation of the National Progressive Unionism and the United Mine Workers. His calm, persuasive style led actual elected leaders of the Knights of Labor to the trade union movement. The year prior to the formation of the UMWA he was elected as the Executive Secretary of the American Federation of Labor serving under Samuel Gompers. He returned to New Straitsville in mid 1890’s and traveled regularly to organize miners nationwide to join the UMW and write the two volume history of the UMWA which serves as a valuable source of documentation of this long buried story which gives prominence to the Little Cities microregion in the nation’s history.
Colonel William P. Rend was a maverick industrialist from Chicago who opened racially and ethnically integrated mines at New Straitsville and Rendville (named after him) in the Hocking Valley. He refused to join the syndicate of mine owners and kept his mines open during the Hocking Valley Strike refusing to reduce miners’ wages. After the strike, he joined with Evans to lead two unsuccessful “Joint Conferences of Miners and Mine Owners of the United States” at Chicago and Pittsburgh in 1885. In their third try at Columbus, Ohio in 1886 they were successful in establishing the nation’s first ever collective bargaining agreement .
Shawnee’s William T. Lewis was the first Noble Master Workman to lead the K of L’s National Trade Assembly in 1885. He defected to the American Federation within a year at the persuasion of Evans. He went on to become the Commissioner of Labor in Ohio under then Governor William T. McKinley, traveled in Europe studying labor issues which led to the formation of the “Ohio Idea” which led to the formation of the nation’s first government employment offices to connect idle workers with jobs. This model was adopted on a nationwide basis and still is in existence to this day. His younger brother, T. L. Lewis fought alongside Mother Jones to organize miners in West Virginia in the early 1900’s and was elected the president of the UMWA in 1910.
Richard L. Davis, was a miner and fiery union organizer from Rendville who rose to the Executive Committee of the UMWA in 1896. His story is detailed in the second theme of national significance pertaining to African Americans and immigrants.
Primary sites of interest for the labor history theme include:
- The Shawnee Historic District (National Register of Historic Places), one of the best standing examples of a turn-of-the-century eastern boom-town architecture in the United States and home to what is believed to be the first, if not one of the first, labor union halls built in the United States in 1881. The structure, the Knights of Labor Opera House, was home to a “cooperative store” experiment, opera house and the K of L headquarters which housed a library for miners and hosted language schools for newly arriving immigrant miners.
- Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville, a large sandstone outcropping in woods on the steep hill above Main Street of this once bustling mining town. Here miners held secret meetings that led to the setting of underground mines on fire during the Hocking Valley Strike in the fall of 1884; and meetings that led to the end of four years of battling among rival groups to become the nation’s single mining union and brought miners together in Columbus, Ohio in January 1890 to form one of the nation’s most powerful labor unions, the United Mine Workers of America.
- New Straitsville Cemetery – Burial site of Chris Evans.
- Rendville-The location of Colonel William P. Rend’s mines and a site of significant African America firsts in Ohio and the nation (see detail in "Breaking Barriers: African Americans & Immigrants" which follows).
- Nelsonville, the largest and original Little City of Black Diamonds where many union rallies were held at the gateway to the Little Cities along the main route of the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad.