Coal was the lifeblood of Indiana County and many other rural areas of Southwestern Pennsylvania from the late 19th century through the 1980s.
Along with the strength coal mining provided to the region's economy, there also were negative side effects -- one being acid mine drainage that has prompted ongoing efforts to treat those sources of pollution and restore affected waterways.
Another consequence, in the closing decades of the 1800s and the early part of the 20th century, was clashes both large and small between miners aggrieved by poor working conditions or pay and the private police that coal companies hired to quell them. Those incidents form a chapter from local history that is little remembered now, as the older mine retirees and their families who lived through the end of that era are dwindling.
Indiana resident and freelance writer Spencer J. Sadler has brought the story of "Pennsylvania's Coal and Iron Police" back into focus with a comprehensive photographic history in a book of the same name. Released by South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing as part of its Images of America series, the 128-page volume is new on bookstore shelves.
Sadler, who is a journalism instructor at Indiana Area High School and a frequent contributor to The Dispatch and the Sunday Tribune-Review, previewed his book's topic during a recent lecture he gave in conjunction with the ongoing exhibit "A Walk Through Time: Pennsylvania Coal Culture" that runs through Dec. 5 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's University Museum.
Both that show and Sadler's volume draw upon some of the images to be found in IUP's coal archives. To illustrate his text, he also mined a variety of other collections, including those of Clymer historian and retired IUP professor John Busovicki, and New Alexandria's Ray Washlaski, who has an online museum of local coal history and images at patheoldminer. rootsweb.ancestry.com.
There are more than 200 vintage images featured in the book.
A release from Arcadia notes that armed coal and iron police ruled small mining patch towns as well as industrial cities for their company bosses from 1865 to 1931. While backed by state legislation, these private enforcers had a "practically unspecified jurisdiction" that, in effect, gave them unchecked power in many of the communities where they served.
Sadler details occasions when the coal and iron police functioned as strikebreakers, sometimes resorting to intimidation and violence. He notes the unpopular police, whom miners referred to with such names as "pussyfoots" and "yellow dogs," also took on a Big Brother-like role: they "reported to their bosses nearly every aspect of the workers' lives. Things like who shopped where, or who was seen conversing with whom... were duly noted."
The book covers such major headline-grabbing confrontations as the extended vigilante-style warfare associated with the Molly Maguires, a group of Irish miners who disrupted coal production in Schuylkill County during the Civil War and the years following.
It also documents the Homestead strike of 1892 that saw the National Guard arriving in Pittsburgh to supplement forces of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in a clash that helped to bring about the signaled beginning of the demise of an early union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.
Five years later, 19 were killed and 38 maimed when forces organized by Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin fired on a mass of striking miners who marched into the town of Lattimer. Martin and his deputies later were acquitted of murder in a jury trial.
Closer to home, Sadler also offers an account of additional labor trouble in the Westmoreland Strike of 1910, during which mostly Slovakian workers and their families were evicted from their homes and took shelter through the winter in tents provided by the United Mine Workers of America.
Also covered is a a 1919 miners' strike in the village of Coral, in which Indiana County Judge John Langham issued an injunction that prohibited strikers from engaging in activities that impeded production. As a result, local strike leaders were found in contempt of court and were jailed.
Sadler notes the small coal town of Whisky Run, in Indiana County's Young Township, became notorious for a string of unsolved murders between 1907 and 1926.
According to Sadler, Pennsylvania authorized its own state police force, the first such policing organization in the nation, in 1905. It eventually replaced the coal and iron police, though the two existed side by side for some time.
Sadler's book also is available at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.