The Anthracite Coal Region

September 14, 1901, William McKinley died, and Theodore Roosevelt became the President of the United States. McKinley’s untimely passing resulted from his assignation and created one of the great pivotal points in world history while setting the stage for a great human drama in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. Upon McKinley’s death, a funeral train proceeded south from Buffalo, New York through the heart of Pennsylvania and the northeastern anthracite coal fields. Aboard this funeral train with President William McKinley’s body road Teddy Roosevelt catching his first glimpses of the anthracite coal region. Little did he know that this collection of patchwork towns that had built up around the coal mines would play a major role in his first presidential crisis just a year later. A state-of-affairs that would change the course of our nation’s future and firmly place the anthracite mineworkers as stakeholders in control of our nation’s energy reserves for years to come.

As the train proceeded south to Washington, DC Roosevelt got his first quick look at the lives of coal miners and the people who energized a nation. The anthracite coal fields of 1901 were populated with a cast of nationalities that emigrated to the United States for a better life for themselves and their children. The coal miners of the anthracite region were made up of mostly Eastern Europeans such as Italians, Poles, Slavs, Russians, and many other immigrant families. A troupe of humanity that would play out history on the stage of the anthracite coal fields forever leaving an indelible mark on our nation and demonstrating the importance of immigrant labor to the future well-being of the United States.

As the 19th Century slowly gave way to the 20th Century, the industrial revolution was chugging along on the backs of the coal miners. The entire nation cooked on coal, heated with coal, and manufactured with coal. Coal was the energy currency of the day; black gold dug out of the deep mines by cheap labor for the industrialists. The Anthracite coal fields in Pennsylvania were the energy epicenter of the United States industrial revolution it was the immigrant coal miners who toiled and labored to fuel a hungry young nation.

The Strike of 1902

A year after Roosevelt ascended to the Presidency he was faced with a crisis of significant proportion with a winter fuel famine impending due to the striking anthracite miners. Despite numerous pleadings and the threat of military intervention from President Roosevelt the men and women of the hard coal regions stood fast against labor, and all the eyes of the nation were upon them searching for a glimmer of hope that the strike of 1902 could be averted.

New York City Mayor Seth Low wired President Roosevelt “I cannot emphasize too strongly the immense injustices of the existing coal situation. Millions of innocent people will endure real suffering if present conditions continue.” By this time the coal strike was five months old, and with coal production, at a standstill, the entire country was in a panic with winter only a few short weeks away. No one in the country was more aware of these facts than President Roosevelt.

John Mitchell was the leader of the United Mine Workers at the time, and he would not relinquish to the request of the mine operators or the President. The region had erupted into a chaos of violence, murders, assaults, trains being wrecked, and mines flooded by the striking miners. As the strike dragged on the entire eastern coalfields were placed under military jurisdiction by the President.

John Mitchell made the following public statement to reinforce the position of the Union and the families it protected “The present miner has had his day; he has been oppressed and ground down and denied the right to live the life of a human being; but there is another generation coming up, a generation of little children prematurely doomed to the whirl of the mill and the soot and the noise and the blackness of the breaker. It is for [them] that we are fighting. We have not underestimated the strength of our opponents but in the grimy hand of the miner is the little hand of a child, a child like the children of the rich.”

The early immigrants that worked in the mines were men that toiled long hours in unhealthy working conditions risking their very lives for the promise of a better life for their families. The Anthracite Region was the stage of an energy revolution, the stuff of folklore with legendary names such as Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Clarence Darrow and many others playing their roles. The immigrant miners clothed in humble trappings reminded the world that it was now a world that ran on energy, the energy produced from anthracite coal. Coal was King and the workers who mined it was the custodians of this black gold doling it out a shovel at a time for pennies a day.

Past vs. Present

Over one hundred years have passed since these poor immigrants from Eastern Europe brought the country to a standstill and caused then President Theodore Roosevelt to intervene. Although several generations have come and gone since the coal strike of 1902 the lessons that were taught are undeniable. Our economy and our world runs on energy. The nations of the world have an insatiable appetite for energy in all forms, and without it, the planet will come to a grinding halt. The turning of the 20th to the 21st Century was not that much unlike the turning of 19th to 20th Century in terms of energy advancement. The world now as then is dependent on the assurance of a continuous supply of cheap, reliable energy resources.

The need to convert to renewable or alternative energy is essential to the Nation’s future. Lessons learned from the coal strike of 1902 cannot be ignored, and the future depends on our ability to grow out new renewable energy resources and create jobs that are part of a new clean energy economy. Going forward access to cheap and reliable energy resources will continue to be a driver for the world’s economies.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest forecast projects that world energy consumption will grow by 28% by 2040. In November of 2017, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued its annual global estimates, the World Energy Outlook 2017 with global demand expected to grow by more than 28% by 2040. These two reputable organizations predictions are quite similar and are a forewarning to all of us for the need to transition our energy portfolios to renewable energy now. The madness that transpired in the Pennsylvania coalfields of 1902 was real, and history provides us a glimpse of what well may be our future if we cannot come to terms with the need to transition to renewable and alternative energy resources.

The world of the 21st Century would be ill-advised to repeat history for undoubtedly even the slightest imbalance in the energy flow creates mass unrest and upheaval. Hurricane Maria and the aftermath experienced by the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, an island without power, provides a modern day illustration of the confusion, panic, and suffering that Mayor Seth Low referred to in his wire to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902.

The Energy Cycle

The history of energy transformation is well documented and can be observed in our own Nation’s growth and industrialization. The early colonial families that colonized the U.S. used biomass for all their fuel needs until 1840. In 1840 coal was discovered in the eastern coalfields of Pennsylvania and began being shipped by the existing canal system to the industrial centers of the east and eastern seaports. By 1860 due to the enhanced steel manufacturing process and the availability of cheap and reliable energy reserves the railroad infrastructure was developed.

Large shipments of coal were being shipped throughout the Northeast and other parts of the U.S. The dawning of the turn the century saw the industrial revolution which became the genesis of modern manufacturing and economic world dominance for the U.S. at the time. While all the time oil was quietly making its appearance as a new energy reserve with the drilling of the Drake Well in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Over the next 40 years and with the advent of the internal combustion engine the slow but dogged transition to an oil-based economy began. The need for new delivery systems, storage containers, and distillation processes grew into the modern petrochemical industry we know today. As the full utilization of oil and associated petrochemical fuels was realized oil replaced coal and the demise of King Coal was assured.

Lessons Learned from History

The significant points that history teaches us with regards to energy utilization are numerous, and several essential elements are axioms of the world’s energy cycles. The points I refer to are that:

  • Global economies are affected and transformed by new energy development;
  • New energy technologies and economies are historically developed in 50-year to 100-year cycles;
  • Renewable energy sources like oil are the next generation of new energy; and
  • The world is on the cusp of the cycle of renewable energy as the alternative to fossil fuels.

The quote by Winston Churchill that, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” are words well worth remembering as world energy demands continue to increase over the next 30 years. Ultimately, I have faith in the eventual transition to renewable energy from fossil fuels over the next Century. But, the more unsettling question is will it be soon enough? Will we learn from the lessons of the past, or will it take a dire threat like the “Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902” to open the eyes of world leaders for the necessity to escalate and fund the full development and transition to a worldwide economy based upon renewable energy?

Humanity tends to wait until the clock is about to strike midnight before it takes collective action to prevent an impending crisis. Fortunately, even to the casual observer, the transition to renewable energy infrastructure is already underway. Just as oil replaced coal and led to the demise of the anthracite coal fields, renewables are now beginning to replace fossil fuels as the dominant energy source to power the world of tomorrow.

Author: Steve Bartos

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