Loading Bootleg Coal

The Bootleg Coal Rebellion

“My brother had a coal hole, on the Reading ground. They blew his hole shut. That was it! Things got rough then… They had to let the people make a living or there would have been a civil war. Reading bought that ground for four dollars an acre… How in the hell? … Four dollars an acre! … It was the people’s ground. That’s the way we figured. We were digging our own coal. We owned the land! Land of the free!”

– Joe Padelsky, Primrose, PA

This story comes form one place more than any other. In the 1980’s, Mike Kozura interviewed over 100 bootleg miners and wrote an essay called “We Stood Our Ground.” When he did, they told him something over and over again: if you want to understand the bootleggers, you’ve got to understand the Molly Maguires. They were outlaw miners who violently fought the company over terrible working conditions.

The Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company is called Reading Anthracite today. They are the same company that hung the Molly Maguires. By the time of the great depression, they owned a full third of the anthracite coal region. It was the southern end, from Trevorton over to Minersville and back down to Lykens. They owned the land, the collieries, and the railroads.

"Bootleg Mine Shaft" by Jasontromm.
Bootleg mine shaft near Ashland, PA. Two miners would crank the line and a third would ride the bucket down.

The towns had little other industry and were totally dependent on the mines for work. The area was the coal region mix of Irish, Lithuanian, Polish, and other Eastern European immigrants. The southern end of the region was home to a lot of Pennsylvania Dutch, as well.

In the late 1920s, the company started consolidating their operations, putting communities out of work. They shut down many collieries and started investing heavily in two centralized coal breakers: St. Nicholas and Locust Summit. The timing of this couldn’t have been worse for people of the region – constructions on the St. Nicholas breaker started in 1928, just months before Black Tuesday and the start of the Great Depression. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of miners were thrown out of work.

Pickin’ Coal

Coal banks are a landmark of the anthracite coal town. The companies dumped their waste coal there, but the miners were the ones who paid for it.

When a miner sent up a car of coal, the company deducted any waste (dust or other rock) from their pay. There was usable coal mixed in the piles, and naturally, the community felt they had a right to it. In cold winters, women and children would pick through it to heat their homes. If they picked extra, they’d barter it around town. The companies didn’t much care. This was tradition going way back.

Things changed with a long strike in 1925 that went all through the winter. The story goes that the coal banks were picked clean. Some miners started digging coal from company land in order to outlast the company. Many of them were arrested by the Coal & Iron police. The strike ended in a stalemate, and the miners went back to work.

The crash and the spark

Reading had already been closing mines by the time the Great Depression came around. Their badly timed investment also put them into bankruptcy.

A man stands with explosives at the entrance to a bootleg mine in Lykens, PA.
A man stands with explosives at the entrance to a bootleg mine in Lykens, PA.

Because of that, the depression hit the southern end of the coal region the hardest. Unemployment was near 50%. In Shamokin, 4 out of 5 collieries closed. In Mahanoy City, 6 out of 7. Lykens lost the only colliery they had, along with virtually every job.

“Branchdale was reduced to a state of shock and denial. They shut the thing down altogether. They shut the boiler house… there was no steam to run the generator or pumps. They shut everything down… We thought the end of the world was coming.”

– Mike Lucas, Branchdale, PA

This is when miners took things into their own hands. Thousands of miners dug illegal holes on company land. For nearly a decade, bootleg output rivalled the largest coal companies.

We want work – and we’re going to take it.

Local charity and relief couldn’t keep up with the crisis. Dignity was nowhere to be found.

Starvation was a real concern. The closings created desperation and also triggered a deep, old anger against the company.

“There was hate for the company… We couldn’t understand why all the mines were shut down. The companies came in, they raped the land and pulled out… It was their way of punishing the people [after the strike]. We were very bitter. That’s when the bootlegging started… Since the coal was in the ground and we all knew where it was at… people started digging their own coal holes.”

– Jack Campion, Greenbury, PA

The company tried to stop them at first, but it didn’t take long before there were thousands of bootleg shafts. For every the company blew shut, a miners opened a dozen more.

“Equipment was minimal. Typically, a hand windlass and a metal bucket were employed to lower miners into their holes and to bring the coal up to the surface. As operations went deeper and became more substantial, bootleggers would often place an old car or truck up on blocks, attach a rope over a wheel, and use the car engine to power an improved lift.”

– Face of Decline, by Thomas Dublin & Walter Licht

Bootleg Mine Accident
A crowd gathered around a bootleg coal mine in Shenandoah where an accident has just occurred. A policeman is at the scene. People are looking into the mine.

In the beginning, bootleg holes were guerilla operations. They were disguised and camouflaged; the coal usually only being transported at night with lookouts clearing the way. They were family operations, and women widely worked right alongside the men.

“I know a little bit about bootleg coal. In those days, that was the only thing… to survive. Even my mother and my sisters and I used to go into the drift. We used to scoop the coal after my father would fire. We’d scoop it on a wheel barrow and wheel it out and… scoop it on a truck and my brothers would haul it home… We used to scoop it on different screens to size it… stove coal, nut coal, pea coal, buckwheat. I know a little bit about coal!”

– Mary W.

The bootleg coal was bartered and sold locally. Since there were a lot more goods to go around than money, bartering replaced the cash economy in some towns. Local shops were generous with credit to help people get items not produced locally.

“There was no such thing as money. We bartered.”

– Pat Sanza, Branchdale, PA

“It was people helping people. People who had cows, they shared milk. People who had pigs, they shared their meat.”

– Jack Campion, Heckscherville, PA

“I traded flour or potatoes for coal… and I sold the coal in town”

– Mick Kozak, delivery driver for his father’s grocery store, Minersville, PA.

In short time, Mick would be one of the first to save up money and buy a dump truck. Others did the same and within a few years, there were thousands of “bootleg truckers.” They could take the coal to markets in Philadelphia, New York, New England, New Jersey, and Maryland. It was easy to find buyers when they sold coal for less than the companies.

Lookouts would help truckers evade the “Coal & Irons,” but once they made out of the region, they were home free.

Demand for bootleg coal shot up. With real money coming in, depressed towns were revitalized. Miners were making more money than they had working for the companies. Communities became totally reliant on the expropriation of coal from company lands..

“The money you made, you spent. You didn’t hoard it… like the rich guy hoards it… You had to spend it. You kept the wheels turning in this county.”

– Joe Padelsky

“Bootlegger cash supplanted barter, but the ethics that governed the exchange economy mutual obligation, sharing, solidarity remained deeply ingrained in the practices of the illegal industry.”

– “We Stood Our Ground,” Michael Kozura

With new markets, bootleg operations outgrew families. Partnerships started between friends and neighbors. Acting as cooperatives, they would share in the decisions, risks, and profits. They worked with other bootleggers, sharing roads and access to the coal lands and even building ventilation shafts shared between mines.

“The bootleggers… we were all neighbors, so to speak. We all had a lot in common. No one resented the other person. Everybody tried to help each other. We shared equipment, new ideas… a new technique in mining.”

– Jack Campion

Reading mines hadn’t totally disappeared, but legally employed miners would often leave work and go right to a friend or family’s bootleg hole. The coal miners’ union, the UMW, officially opposed bootlegging, but more than once, company miners struck in solidarity with the bootleggers.

No trespassing: community support

Men loading a truck with coal at a bootleg mine in Schuylkill County.
Men loading a truck with coal at a bootleg mine in Schuylkill County.

When the coal company fell apart, so did its systems of patronage and power. The businesses were with the miners they kept the local economy alive. And without a doubt, they had the support of the churches, both Catholic and Protestant.

The clergy were often asked about the morality of bootlegging. Pastor Butkofsky of St John’s Reformed in Shamokin gave an answer similar to many priests and pastors: “No human being will condemn another when a man who is out of work and hungry will walk along a road, see an apple on a tree, and take that apple. We call it stealing, but morally the man is justified.”

Another clergyman quoted Leviticus: “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest. Thou shalt leave them unto the poor.

Bootleggers kept the the local economy and dignity alive. The public, including magistrates and judges, sided with the bootleggers. When arrested, local courts often let miners go for “lack of evidence,” or gave them $1 fines. When word spread about this, the industry spread like wildfire. The Coal & Irons could blow bootleg holes shut, but they couldn’t keep up with how fast it was spreading.

People wanted work, not welfare, and now they had a way to get it themselves.

Organization

By the early 30’s, dozens of towns organized “bootleg unions.” Their purpose was to spread information and coordinate actions. They began setting coal prices, promoting the industry, organizing rescue teams, running safety trainings, and hiring lawyers for legal defense. Weekly meetings were held at fire companies and union halls, with elected officers and voting on decisions.

“As soon as we got a union everything was going our way. All the men stuck together. We had a guy going from coal hole to coal hole with buttons, ‘independent miners’ buttons… Everybody that was in a coal mine got a button. If you were in trouble and you had a button, you were okay. We fought for you! … If you went to jail or were told to get off the ground, we were right there fighting for you.”

– Pat Sanza

Once the unions started, miners no longer accepted small fines in court. They now pled “not guilty” and demanded jury trials. Juries, made up of local people, would find them not guilty. This made it expensive and fruitless for the companies to arrest miners.

Some unions held mass meetings, inviting activists to speak.

Akulauckas, a bootlegger from Minersville, recounts the message delivered by the widely respected local socialist Con Foley: “Where did the company get the deeds? Did God give them the deeds? Go and mine the coal! They don’t own the land. Don’t run. Let them take you to jail. Send your wife and children to the courthouse and let them feed them.” According to Akulauckas, speakers like Foley “put nerve in the people.”

We Stood Our Ground

Loading Bootleg Coal
A 1939 etching showing men loading coal intoa truck at a bootleg coal mine.

The company was being defeated on all fronts. They began bringing larger groups of armed police to dynamite holes in pre-dawn raids. Hundreds of people, often lead by women, would actually march right into the holes and to stop the detonations. Though people were sometimes injured in these confrontations, locals did not get violent.Feeling proud and legitimate, bootleggers didn’t like the term “bootlegger.” Instead, they called themselves “Independents”.

News spread fast, and it might not seem possible, but the region grew even more militant and organized. Towns would set off fire whistles, waking people who would come by the thousands to defend the mines.

After driving the police out of the mountains, the victorious crowds would hold parades through town, cheered on by the town. Being unsuccessful, Reading slowed down attempts to blow the holes shut.

In Gilberton, the community dynamited the car of a Coal & Iron police after he’d blown shut some bootleg holes. In Shamokin, on the Edgewood bootleggers’ tract, miners blew up a steam shovel.

The company easily picked off lone bootleggers. There was incentive to join the unions.

By this time, there were 13,000 Independent miners, truckers, and breaker operators. They were responsible for 10% of all anthracite being sold in the US, an equal share as the largest companies still operating.

The coal companies demanded that PA Governor Pinchot intervene. The Independents had already convinced him it would be a bad political move to harass them. Being a smart politician, he refused to intervene, suggesting that companies could stop bootlegging by reopening their mines.

Coal companies in other regions were settling strong union contracts elsewhere so they could stop bootlegging from spreading.

Strippin

Shut down in the government, the companies tried a technological strategy: strip mining. If they could strip the bootleg fields, they would make underground mining impossible.

One of the first shovels was brought into Minersville and was set near the mines outside of town.

A large bootleggers’ union meeting was held that night, and the union came up with a plan to stop it. Steve Nelson was there:

“The next day, I heard a fire whistle blow and drove out to observe the situation… State police were protecting the shovel… Hundreds of miners had gathered and got into arguments with the police to divert their attention… While all this was going on, someone put dynamite under the shovel… and blew it up.

Through the Great Depression, dozens of power shovels, drag lines, and bulldozers were blown up, set on fire, or sabotaged.

Political organization

The coal companies had lost all control of the situation. Desperate, they went to the state legislature.

In 1935, a bill was pushed through requiring coal trucks to have receipts from state-licensed weigh stations. It was aimed at busting the Independent truckers when they were on delivery.

Four other anti-bootlegging bills were scheduled and a special committee was created to investigate bootleg coal in the market.

Responding to the threat, the bootleg unions united, creating an executive committee. Clergy, civic groups, and town councils gave statements of support. Sixty delegates met in Shamokin for the first convention of the united bootleg unions. They called for a public hearing and a march on the capitol.

10,000 Independents flooded Harrisburg in the back of coal trucks.

They marched through the streets to the capitol. Their dirty work clothes left the capitol covered in coal dust. The public hearing was quickly moved to the much larger farm show building, but still only 7,000 miners could fit in the arena. When coal company officials attempted to speak, they were driven from the platform, and the miners took over the meeting.

It was a powerful show of force. The miners had defeated the companies again. The anti-bootlegger bills failed. The weigh station bill was already law, but Independent breakers simply had their scales certified, and then issued documents to the bootleg truckers.

The Independents established themselves in state politics. For the next four years, they maintained their power. Governor George Earle, a New Deal Democrat, didn’t openly endorse them but did regularly consult with them. He ordered state police to stay neutral in the future, unless the miners got violent. (The Coal & Iron Police had recently been abolished.)

The showdown

The companies and Arthur James, the next governor, went at them hard. There were nine unsuccessful anti-bootlegging bills. The company began leasing to strip miners, and the governor sent in the state police.

At first, the strippins didn’t interfere with the bootleggers. But in 1941, a company brought in a massive new shovel, and the Independents quickly organized. They called a mass meeting and asked the governor not to send state police. Six more shovels showed up in the morning, and the miners flooded in to block them from moving.

Key leaders among the Independents were also arrested. Another mass meeting was called, so large it was held outdoors in February. There, they condemned the arrests, voted unanimously to defy the Committee’s plan, and organized round round-the-clock pickets of the strippin shovels in the West End.

Summer came, and the blockade had stretched six months. Desperate, the strippin company brought in armed guards from outside the area. The night they arrived, some of these guards ran their mouths at a local bar. Before the sun could rise, 1,000 miners had shown up to the blockade. Word spreads fast in the Coal Region.

After guards fought the miners with billy clubs, they broke out their guns and shot at the crowd. Two had shotguns and two had revolvers. Thirteen people were wounded.

The crowd charged the guards, who fled into the bucket of the shovel and called for a truce. The guards were disarmed and promised safe passage out. Before they had made it to their cars though, a new contingent of miners showed up and, seeing their wounded friends, “beat [the guards] all to hell.” The state police arrived and took the guards away. Meanwhile, the enraged miners set the shovel on fire.

They were seeing red.

“One of the miners said, ‘Hey, there is a shovel moving in at Good Spring.’ Hundreds of cars drove up to Good Spring. Somebody took the oil plug out and left the diesel engine run until it froze up. Then somebody said, ‘There are shovels in the Bear Valley,’ and we stopped those.”

“We thought we had them on the run.”

– Leon Richter

By the end of the day, several more shovels had been burnt and state police had deployed all over the area.

The violence worked in the companies’ favor. State police maintained a heavy presence, stopping the Independents from blockading any more strippins. This demoralized the Independents, and their organizations started to fracture.

It was the same year that the United States entered World War II. Soon, the draft began.

Local draft boards filled southern anthracite induction quotas with bootleggers since miners employed by “legitimate” companies were considered necessary to the war effort and therefore exempt. The older men, the women, and the children were left to hold their ground as best as they could. And hold it they did.

– We Stood Our Ground

The End?

Bootleg Picnic
A couple of miners hanging out at the 25th Annual Independent Coal Miners Picnic (2009)

By the mid 1940s, local governments had seized a lot of land from Reading because of unpaid taxes. They leased it to Independents. Other lands were sold to investors, who also leased to the Independents.The Independents didn’t die. They eventually become legitimate in the eyes of the law.

Then, in 1953, the state brought the Independents under regulations and taxes, fully legalizing them.

There are still Independents in the mountains. There are less of them than there used to be though. They’ve been struggling with federal regulators who want them out of business to make room for bigger companies. There was a documentary made in 2006 about the current struggles of the Independents, available for free on the internet, called Hard Coal: The Last of the Bootleg Miners.

This is our history. We needed work… when no one gave it to us, we took it ourselves – property rights be damned. When they attacked, we organized and fought back. And won. It was us against the company, not just miners but the whole community.

Heart Belongs to Coal Mining
miner’s hat, from the 25th Annual Independent Coal Miners Picnic (2009)

We still don’t much respected Reading. We treat the strippins like they belong to us. They’re a great place to offroad, party, camp, or hunt. The police won’t really go there, and people ignore the occasional Reading guard who shows up. Some families still keep an old bootleg hole for their winter heat.

We’re due to remember that today it seems like us against us. We blame our neighbors or people from the next town.
When the collieries closed, we didn’t call the miners lazy. We blamed the company for shutting down, not the miners. When families had to break the law to make a living, we supported them. Let’s remember that spirit.

 

 

Main Sources

10 comments

  1. Liked the piece. It struck home in a few personal ways. My parents got oil heat last month. No more tending the furnace, or tending to the ashes. At 86, that’s probably for the best. I’ve got a picture or two I’ll show you next time I see you.

  2. Interesting and well written article. I hadn’t thought about bootleg miners much. Not many people back home did it, but that’s the difference in anthracite and bituminous. Still a few folks, including my great uncle, would have a small “house” mine where they’d get coal to heat the house with, but they couldn’t really mine anything for profit without more money.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Nick. I’ve read a little bit of your blog and can’t wait to read some more of it! Are you from WV? Are you going to the Matewan museum opening?

  3. Thanks for this article. Was doing some research into it as I just recently discovered my grandfather had been hired by the local NY county back in 1934 as a Deputy Sealer Of Weights and Measures to check for bootleg coal into NY State – and had no idea what that meant. I know our family has roots before that corner of Pennsylvania, so I guess it makes sense. First I had ever heard of “bootleg coal” and this history is quite fascinating!

  4. I appreciated especially that the clergy, at least in this case, were on the side of justice. Perhaps if we went back to a barter economy we’d all be better neighbors again.

  5. I gave the eulogy at Mike Kozura’s funeral in 1996. He wanted to see this material expanded. Somewhere in storage, which means not available at this time, I have Mike’s attempt at a longer work. It is good to see this interest.

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