Mother Jones fearlessly questioned corporate rule and earned the title “the grandmother of all agitators.” She is a figure who lives on because the issues she raised are still of concern to us, still relevant in the twenty-first century.
The Chicago & Alton Depot used to be located at this site, but the railroad tracks are in the same location they were in 1898. The C&A railroad was a silent partner of the coal operators in the confrontation. The miners and their supporters massed here to prevent trains from bringing in replacement coal miners--strikebreakers. It was possible for the coal operators to bring strikebreakers through other transportation, in small groups. But the mine owners wanted to provoke confrontation, to force Illinois' Governor Tanner to bring in state troops--they knew that's how they could defeat the union. They counted on violence to justify bringing in the troops, so that set the stage.
The company prepared by building a stockade made of high board fence with barbed wire along the top; the miners believed the company intended to electrify the barbed wire. The stockade with it's towering mine tipple could be seen easily from this location by looking north down the railroad line to the west, and you can pass by a stockade company home in the tour. Stockades were associated with war, and with southern convict labor systems, and they were used to break strikes elsewhere. The most notorious use was at Homestead steel mill lock-out in 1892 in Pittsburgh. The Chicago-Virden Coal Company brought 34 stockade houses into the interior of the stockade, and was set to have an armed camp housing 300 employees and their families in these houses. In the weeks before October 12, miners witnessed wagons of high powered ammunition including Springfield rifles and Winchesters brought into the stockade. Management wanted the miners to know they were preparing for war. On October 11, the guard within the stockade raised sentry boxes on every wall . These were made of 4x4 planks and were elevated above the 8 foot fence.
The Thiel Detective agency of St. Louis was the source for most of the hired guns. These agencies, the most notorious of which was the Pinkertons, regularly provoked violence in order to force governments to act, to bring in the state troops and public police forces. Thiel manager Cyrus Peterson was hired by Lukins and Loucks, and came to Virden on October 4 to oversee the operation. Fifty Thiel agents, including ex-Chicago and St. Louis policemen, were stationed inside the stockade in the days before the train arrived under his command.
The mine owners also counted on using racism to defeat the union and provoke violence. The Chicago-Virden Coal Company recruited and transported African-American workers from Birmingham to act as strikebreakers. These strikebreakers were deceptively hired by the company. The were not told there was a strike on, but were told that they were needed because the miners were away fighting in the Spanish-American War. But opportunities to work were so limited, and exclusions from jobs so fierce, and racial boundaries so stark, that the invitation was enticing.
The first trainload of strikebreakers, some with wives and children, arrived at this depot September 25th, accompanied by Mr. York of the company. The Alabama recruits only began to realize there was something deceiving when, upon nearing Virden, Mr. York ordered the locking of doors and pulling shades over the windows so they could not leave. The Virden miners were alerted that the train was on its way, and hundreds of them massed at this location next to the depot. They gathered from Saturday night, through Monday, in heavy rains, determined to stop the train. The sheer numbers massed at the depot station and blocked the north switch of the mine. This frightened the train engineer, who refused to stop at this depot or the mine.
Against York's orders, the engineer kept going 25 miles north to Springfield. There, John Hunter, President of the Illinois UMWA, ran to the depot from the union office and jumped aboard the train, out of breath, but vouching, "We are your friends" and promising they would not be harmed. After much discussion, and objections from and debate with the labor recruiters, they voted to take the union's offer of fare to Chicago or back to Birmingham, to not play the role of strikebreakers.
In the days after the strikebreakers agreed to leave, prominent citizens of Virden made a racist appeal to the Governor expressing their opposition to the Black workers.
Throughout the union campaign, racist constructions of black recruits as "convicts" mixed with expressions of solidarity across racial lines. The Union also gathered a petition to the Governor, and cast the battle as more about living wages and the protection of newly won standards, denied any racism, claiming that African-Americans were accepted on equal terms in the Illinois United Mine Workers of America. The UMWA's official policy on racial inclusion made it the most advanced organization on the issue of race in the country. Still, racist sensibilities dominated central Illinois, and Black union miners were fighting for open inclusion and advancement in mines across the state.
The refusal of the Alabamans in September was a critical factor that led the company to up the ante. They announced they would bring in another trainload of strikebreakers and demanded state troops to facilitate the landing of the train. This time the leaflet distributed in Birmingham offered even more money per day, and claimed in bold that the STRIKE HAS ENDED. Thousands upon thousands were distributed to entice another group of strikebreakers. Lukins let the union know that the next trainload of recruits would be guarded by armed Thiel agents.They hired dozens of Thiel agents to accompany the next train from Fulton, Kentucky or to be stationed inside the stockade.
In response, miners from across the state, but especially Springfield, Mt. Olive and other central Illinois towns began to march to Virden to make their stand.
Armed miners patrolled the railroad line with small arms in the days before the conflict. Heavy rains and deepening cold October weather set in as miners camped out.
Republican Governor Tanner rebuffed all attempts to send in the state militia to safeguard transport of strikebreakers and prevent violence. He also warned company officials that any attempt to import strikebreakers into the state would make them criminally and morally responsible for violence. He issued one of the most stunning statements of the era from a governor:
Governor Tanner warned company president TC Loucks via telegram on October 10th that by importing labor he would provoke a riot and bloodshed.
Loucks replied that he was acting within the law, protecting the rights of African-Americans to cross state lines for job opportunities, and warned that Tanner would be liable for any violence and for failing to keep the peace. Tanner replied that he would not allow troops for the purposes of strikebreaking.
Tanner's declaration steeled the miners determination . It also outraged Lukins and Loucks, who knew that troops had been continually used in such a manner since the 1870s.
Lukins and Louck pressured Sheriff Davenport to demand troops. Below is Davenport's urgent message.
On October 11, African-American union miners from Springfield came to Virden, joining the 7 Black members of the Virden miners union. They sought to make this a class, not race, conflict. They brought a significant number of arms and ammunition by covered wagon (because they couldn't bring them by train) in the pouring rain of October 11, stowing them away, but ready to confront the Thiel agents and Chicago guards. They too were ready to face the armed guards.
Around 10 am the next morning, October 12 union guards were alerted to the special train on its way. Miners crowded around the station and at the entrance to the stockade, half a mile away.