Joining us today is Mitch Troutman, Anthracite Unite member and author of the brand new book The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an Industry, 1925-1942, which came out this week with PM Press.
Anthracite Unite: Welcome, Mitch. Thanks for talking with us about this exciting new book. Let’s start with the basics: Tell us, what is the Bootleg Coal Rebellion?
Mitch Troutman: Throughout history when there were strikes in the anthracite mines, one of the things the miners had done to hold out against the companies was dig their own coal from company lands. This helped the strikes last a little longer.
In the late 1920s / early 1930s, when the coal companies started closing down lots of mines, people started doing this again. Mines were closing at the time because the companies considered them inefficient. They closed the North Franklin Colliery in Trevorton, for example, which was still using mules, while the newer operations had machines that would pick up rail cars and hold them upside down. So the companies claimed they needed to shut down the mines that required the most manual labor.
But ultimately it was Wall Street – particularly JP Morgan, who controlled the biggest chunk of the anthracite coal industry – who made the call because they were trying to divest. They could’ve just sold the land to other coal companies because the demand for coal was still strong, but they didn’t do that because they wanted to keep their monopoly.
These towns had little to no other jobs available, and so the closure of the mines was a massive blow. Instantly unemployment rates were 50% in some places. People tried a lot of different things: they tried negotiating, setting up unemployment relief, asking the government for help, building roads to put people to work. But none of that put a dent in the unemployment. And so people went ahead and started digging the coal on their own.
At first these ‘bootleggers’ were mining coal secretly at night, using camouflage to cover up their holes. As it became clear that this was the only feasible option to keep people employed and for folks to make money, they started doing it in broad daylight. That’s when it really became a rebellion.
Eventually it became not just acceptable in these communities, but respected. The companies’ private police force would arrest and charge people, but the movement eventually had such widespread support that miners sent to jail would just be let out the back door or exonerated by juries. Ultimately there were about 14,000 people from five counties mining coal from company property and selling it all the way from Maryland to Connecticut.
AU: What made you want to tell this story?
MT: It’s mentioned here and there in various history books, but no one has really gone into much depth. Most of the people involved have died at this point, but I stumbled upon some audio cassettes that were interviews with bootleggers. So I started researching more and structuring the book around the words of the miners themselves.
It’s a very inspirational story. I think people will appreciate their attitudes, their actions, their fearlessness. Their humor, too. And the level of solidarity is almost unprecedented. Not in the sense that they were a big happy family. They probably didn’t get along much better than people do today. But they had each other’s backs regardless and they did that through forming a bootlegger union, which is pretty bold to have public representatives of an illegal industry.
The other reason I wanted to tell this story is because so much has been forgotten. I really want people to remember, not just the sacrifices that their ancestors made – although certainly that’s something to be proud of – but also how, when it came down to it, they had to choose between survival and corporate property rights. And they chose survival.
AU: Do you have a personal connection to this history?
I didn’t think so at first because I’m not a miner. But along the way I realized that this is my history too. It’s everybody’s history, actually. I mean, people across the East Coast were able to keep their houses warm during the Great Depression because of bootleg coal.
As I started sharing details with him, my dad remembered his family working in a bootleg coal hole when he was young. Also my great grandfather, like other bootleggers, wrote ‘independent miner’ as his occupation on his World War II draft card.
People are still mining this way today. As much as I think that we really need to do away with fossil fuels and leave most of that stuff in the ground, the work that underground miners do today is so impressive. Because it’s a direct lineage: they have a million little tricks that they do on a daily basis that have been passed down through the generations. If those if those guys stop mining today and somebody else tried to start tomorrow, it would take them 100 years to figure that stuff out again.
AU: These folks were resourceful, weren’t they?
Yeah. The difference between a company mine and a bootleg mine is capital. At first you’d think they didn’t have the raw materials to build a mine, but they made up for that by using 2x4s, gutters, whatever they had around that could be put to use. Since they were mad at the company for abandoning them, they also raided what they could from the empty collieries. They were getting that coal out of the ground by any means necessary.
It was very innovative. They used wood to make rails; they would keep a coal stove at the bottom of the mine to force heat upwards and create a draft so that the air inside the mine was clean. The crown jewel was when they took one of the wheels off of a Model T car and put a cable on the rim. They put it in drive to pull the coal up, and in reverse to lower the cart back down.
They were innovative and resourceful in the way they structured things, too. The coal holes were partnerships – that’s what they called them; you can think of it as similar to a co-op. There’d be a few families in it, and whatever money they made they’d split between the people in the partnership.
Their primary demand to the companies, though, all through the depression, was: We will stop bootlegging the day you reopen the mines. Because they knew there was a market for coal. They were selling it. They were making a living off it. And they were all united around that demand. Two different times they went down to Harrisburg to fight anti-bootlegging bills, and both times they brought 10,000 people with them.
AU: What seems impressive about this is how it’s a case of working people looking out for one another, making sure their neighbors and their families had what they needed, as opposed to demonizing other workers who couldn’t find work.
MT: Right, right, right. The United Mine Workers (UMW) were very much anti-bootlegging, but the thing is they couldn’t get the rank and file on board. Because the one guy who still has a job in his family, all the rest of his brothers, cousins, sisters, daughters, they’re still bootlegging and making their money that way, and so he’s not going to sell them out.
AU: In what ways do you think the story of bootleg mining in this era characterizes this region and its history?
MT: The coal region has a lot of history. Certainly only as much literal time as any other place, but so many momentous events that are important, not just to the coal region, but to the whole country. The Lattimer Massacre, the Great Strike of 1902, the Molly Maguires – those are all very important parts of US labor history. But these histories tend to get neatened up. They’re often told through the eyes of the UMW, for example. By looking at the bootleggers and listening to the story from their perspective, we really see that by-any-means-necessary spirit. We’re going to do what we have to do to survive; we don’t give a damn what the companies say. You see that in its raw organic form.
I’m also really impressed that this is a movement that’s not just about the coal region itself but it looks outwards, too. Because this coal is going to places where it’s being sold for a dollar less than company coal, which in the Great Depression means a lot to people, and so they established networks all across the East Coast by just showing up and knocking on doors and finding customers that way. Eventually, people who live in the places where they were selling the coal got involved too – like, there was a Black trucker’s union in Baltimore that became part of this bigger network.
AU: What would you say to a critic who suggests these folks are thieves who should not be celebrated?
A lot of the miners refused to call it theft all the way to their grave. Because they just completely did not recognize the companies’ right to control this land without using it. Plus the company imported all these people to the area to mine coal. If they weren’t able to mine, they were going to starve. Some clergy considered it gleaning, which is the biblically-condoned practice of farmers leaving a little bit of their food in the fields, allowing the poor to come and gather what was left behind.
I also think those companies deserve to be stolen from. The anthracite coal region produced a ton of wealth, and most of it was siphoned off by Wall Street while the miners went through hell for such little pay. I think they should’ve stolen more from them if they could.
AU: Does the book teach us lessons that are relevant for today, particularly for struggles around worker rights and the like?
MT: I want readers to answer that question. I purposely wrote the book so that it came across in the miner’s own words and left it open to interpretation.
But I will say that it’s hard to think of an industry today where people can just take from corporations in this way. I do, however, see the value in studying how the unemployed councils work. I see value in embracing the organic nature through which they organize. Nobody came in with a program, they didn’t try to reinvent new ways of doing everything. They just used what they had at their disposal.
Really I want readers to understand what it felt like. Because so much of this rebellion was about feeling. There’s one story where a cop comes upon a coal hole and says to the miner, “Come out here, I’m arresting you.” And the miner, from down in the hole, said: “Blow it the hell shut. What’s the point?” As if to say: go ahead and take my life, I’ve got nothing to lose.
Small events like that slowly showed people that they could get away with some things. If we’re going to take the coal, we’re going to take it. We’re not going to mull it over, we’re not going to ask anybody’s permission. And then we’re going to defend what we’re doing. You can just feel the attitude dripping out of these people’s words. So the lesson might not come from what the situation was or what their goals were. It’s also about the spirit that it takes to stand up and fight.
AU: Thanks, Mitch. It was great talking to you. We look forward to reading the book and are indebted to you for the work you’ve done in unearthing this important chapter of working class history.
You can purchase The Bootleg Coal Rebellion here or wherever books are sold.
Come hear Mitch Troutman talk about his book at one of these upcoming local events. You’ll find more information here.
Thurs Aug 18 at 7pm – Himmelbach Library, Lewisburg, PA
Fri Aug 19 at 6pm – The Foundry, Trevorton, PA
Sat Aug 20 at 4 pm – The Washington Hotel, Minersville, PA
Sun Aug 21 at 11 am – Hope & Coffee, Tamaqua, PA
Sun Aug 21 at 2 pm – Pioneer Tunnel, Ashland PA
Thurs Sept 8 at 7 pm – Fight-Don’t Starve (Virtual)
Tues Sept 20 at 7 pm – Trinity Church, Mahantongo Valley
Sat Sept 24 – Eckley Miner’s Village, Eckley, PA
Sat Oct 15 at 2 pm – Otto Bookstore, Williamsport, PA