Stop 2: The C&A Depot

S Masterson St Virden

Virden Mine War Tour/Stop 2: The C&A Depot
Mother Jones Heritage Project
Written By Mother Jones Heritage Project

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 Stockade

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.

Hired Guns

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.

Peterson: “The truth is that the company here has been deviled and dogged until its tired and they have decided to go about this business this time to settle it. That fence (for the stockade) cost $2,000 and it ain’t a bit too much. Mr. Lukins is going to establish an independent colony of docile labor here."

Divide and Conquer

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.

September 25: African-Americans from Birmingham refuse to be strikebreakers

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.

"We were lined up along the railroad track. We saw that the train was reducing speed and we were preparing to surround it when it stopped. We saw several men poke their heads from the platforms and give the engineer a signal to go ahead. The train then started out at full speed and passed the crowd like a shot out of a cannon. We then knew we had gained our point and there was general rejoicing among the men ..." --Virden miner

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.

One young man from Birmingham, with scarcely enough clothes to cover him: “This is pretty tough. I wanted to come here and work right off as I only get 90 cents a day for driving. Now I have lost my job at home and I don’t know what to do. I guess all I can do is stick with the rest of the crowd. These miners here are all right and I wish I belonged to the union.”

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.

"We are opposed to the importation of colored miners from the south under any and all conditions, as a menace to our peace and that of our city, believing, as we do, that it will depreciate the value of our property, foster crime within our midst, and degrade every social condition now existing in our city."--Petition to Governor, citizens of Virden, September 1898

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.

Company demands troops, places armed guards on train

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.

Miners make their stand

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.

Alex Bradley, President, Mt. Olive local: “I want fifty men, real union men, who will march with me to Virden, where we will be joined with other volunteers ... I want men who do not fear to fight and die for our just union cause if needs be."

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.

Tanner refuses troops

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:

Tanner: "The laboring man's only property is the right to labor, which is as dear to him as the capitalist's millions, and he has the same right to carry arms in defense of his property as the capitalist has to protect his millions."

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.

African American Unionists Arrive

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.

October 12: the train is on the way

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.

A Birmingham recruit learned only as the train came closer to Virden that there was danger ahead: "There was no trouble nor nothing that looked like it until we got to East St. Louis Last Wednesday. Mr. York and the four men with him kept coming into the cars and telling us how good a job we had. The colored men they had with them did the same ... But when the train left East St. Louis they locked the doors. Then they came along and pulled down all the window shutters. It was broad day and with the shutters down it made it dark. We raised them and they came along again and put them down. We asked why and they said we might have some trouble. Then we didn't know what to expect ... At East St. Louis they got some more white men on the train and they had guns."
Union leader Ed Cahill pleaded with Macoupin county sheriff C. C. Davenport "to stop the train at the station so we could talk to the men, but this he refused absolutely to do. I repeated my request to him not more than thirty minutes before before the train arrived. . ."
Davenport: “the women gave me more trouble than the men, outside of the shooting. They were very angry and showed it in various feminine ways, because I did not stop the train at the depot so they might talk to the negroes and induce them not to work for Lukins."
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