On this day in history, The Battle of Virden, also known as the Virden Massacre, took place in Virden, Illinois during a miner’s strike, leaving four security guards and seven striking mine workers dead, and more than thirty people wounded.
Virden sits atop a large seam of coal. After the 1850s, when the Chicago and Alton railroad was completed, coal-mining became quite profitable.
As Jeff Biggers reports in his history of the incident,
‘When mining began,’ noted a U.S. Coal Commission report in the 1920s, examining the conditions before the union movement in 1897, ‘it was upon a ruinously competitive basis. Proﬁt was the sole object; 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. . . The average daily wage of the miner was from $1.25 to $2.00.’
Francis Peabody, the namesake of the world’s largest coal company today, called it ‘survival of the fittest.’”
The United Mine Workers of America was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890, with membership growing rapidly. There was a bitter six-month statewide strike in Illinois at the end of 1897 for better wages. Despite an agreement arrived at in January of 1898 to settle the strike, Chicago-Virden Coal Company determined it would not in fact pay the new higher wage scale of 40 cents per ton of coal mined. Instead, the coal company built a timber stockade around its minehead adjoining the railroad tracks, and hired African-Americans from Southern states to come to Illinois as coal miners. The Chicago-Virden Company knew that African-Americans, who were attempting to escape Jim Crow labor conditions, would not request union-scale wages. (In any event, the black coal miners were mistakenly told that the regular miners had left their jobs to serve in the Spanish-American War.)
On September 24, a trainload of potential strikebreaking African-American miners recruited by the company pulled into Virden on the Chicago & Alton railroad and were informed by representatives of UMWA Local 693 that they were entering a strike. That train continued north to Springfield, Illinois without incident.
On October 12, 1898, another train pulled into Virden, loaded with some fifty additional potential strikebreakers. This train also carried ex-police from Chicago and private detectives from St. Louis all armed by The Chicago-Virden Company with brand new Winchester rifles. The train stopped on the C&A RR tracks just outside the minehead stockade. As the strikers attempted to surround the train, the guards opened fire.
The strikers were also armed. A gun battle broke out in and around the strikebreakers’ train. After a short time of firing on both sides, the train’s engineer reconsidered stopping in Virden and continued on to Springfield, his strikebreaking cargo still aboard.
The mine owners capitulated in mid-November and accepted the UMWA unionization of the Virden coal mines. The union and the mine owners also agreed to segregate the Virden mines, and Virden remained a “sundown town” for decades thereafter. (A sundown town is a town, city, or neighborhood in the US that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown.) (Today, Census data reveals that of the 3,375 citizens of Virden, a total of five are black.)
A monument in the Virden town square commemorates the coal strike and the battle of October 12th. At the center top the bas-relief is a bronze portrait of Mary Harris Jones (“Mother Jones”), who supported the strikers.
For many historians, the defiance of union coal miners at the Virden Massacre marked the turning point in the labor movement.