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Fueling the Gilded Age

Fueling the Gilded Age: Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in Pennsylvania Coal Country

Andrew B. Arnold
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 287
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  • Book Info
    Fueling the Gilded Age
    Book Description:

    If the railroads won the Gilded Age, the coal industry lost it. Railroads epitomized modern management, high technology, and vast economies of scale. By comparison, the coal industry was embarrassingly primitive. Miners and operators dug coal, bought it, and sold it in 1900 in the same ways that they had for generations. In the popular imagination, coal miners epitomized anti-modern forces as the so-called Molly Maguire terrorists. Yet the sleekly modern railroads were utterly dependent upon the disorderly coal industry. Railroad managers demanded that coal operators and miners accept the purely subordinate role implied by their status. They refused. Fueling the Gilded Ageshows how disorder in the coal industry disrupted the strategic plans of the railroads. It does so by expertly intertwining the history of two industries - railroads and coal mining - that historians have generally examined from separate vantage points. It shows the surprising connections between railroad management and miner organizing; railroad freight rate structure and coal mine operations; railroad strategy and strictly local legal precedents. It combines social, economic, and institutional approaches to explain the Gilded Age from the perspective of the relative losers of history rather than the winners. It beckons readers to examine the still-unresolved nature of America's national conundrum: how to reconcile the competing demands of national corporations, local businesses, and employees.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2495-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in the Gilded Age, 1870–1900
    (pp. 1-12)

    To call the age “Gilded” was to joke that it offered promises of gold backed by realities of base metal. The Gilded Age took its name from the title of a satirical 1873 novel. To the book’s coauthors it was the false promise of effortless riches that seemed to best describe its time. InThe Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley conveyed the idea of an era that truly appeared to be golden—but falsely. To gild was to merely coat with gold or with gold-colored paint. Gold was far too valuable, soft, and heavy...


    • 1 Cultural: Coal Mining and Community, 1872
      (pp. 15-34)

      In November 1872, the coal miners of Central Pennsylvania struck for higher wages.¹ Local coal operators did little but fold their hands. The Pennsylvania Railroad shifted its cars elsewhere; the bustle in the streets slowed; snow covered the tracks; ice covered the snow. The area’s sixteen operators did nothing. Six weeks into the strike, however, managers at one coal mining operation decided to reopen. In doing so, they revealed why they had waited so long, why none of the other operators joined them, and why their effort crumbled so quickly: To challenge the strike in this way was to attack...

    • 2 Formal: The Right to Strike, 1875
      (pp. 35-62)

      In 1873 Clearfield courts ruled union violence to be illegal. In 1875 Clearfield courts ruled the formal, peaceful aspects of unionism to be illegal as well. At the start of the 1875 strike the coal miners showed that they had learned the lessons of 1873. They focused their efforts on formal votes by all the miners in all the mines and engaged in few of the sorts of events that had caused their most disruptive activists to be arrested two years previously. Early in the strike, coal operators treated with respect the miners’ peaceful efforts to hold strike votes in...

    • 3 Secret: Regional Leadership Networks, 1875–1882
      (pp. 63-88)

      The defeat of union activists in 1875 that seemed so simple and complete at the time became more complex and incomplete over the next several years. After the strike and trial of that year, Central Pennsylvania coal miner activists searched for more legal, or at least more safe, forms of power. Often blacklisted from the mines, their leaders found alternative means to make a living and transferred their day-to-day activism from pit committees to broader fields of endeavor. They turned to small, secretive Local Assemblies of the Noble and Holy Knights of Labor, and in the election of 1878 to...


    • 4 Compromise: The Great Upheaval in Coal, 1886
      (pp. 91-116)

      Historians remember 1886 as the year of the Great Upheaval, as a breaking wave of violence, class conflict, and transition. The Great Upheaval brings to mind national strikes for the eight-hour day, urban unrest, mass protest, and the bomb in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. In that year the Knights of Labor grew to a million members spread across the United States. As a mass organization, the Knights promised a new way to organize all of society around a brotherhood of workers, the so-called “Commonwealth of Labor.” But for many Americans its promise of a Commonwealth of Labor seemed more like a...


    • 5 Origins: New Organizational Forms, 1886–1890
      (pp. 119-152)

      In winter 1889–1890, a coal miners’ strike inaugurated a new scale in organization, both for the miners and for the coal operators of Central Pennsylvania. It took place in the western stretches of Central Pennsylvania in the town of Punxsutawney. Now famous for its Groundhog Day tradition, at the time this town in Jefferson County was more important because of its role in expanding the bituminous coal production area westward. For coal miners in the region, the strike gave specific meaning to the founding of the United Mine Workers of America. The meeting that gave birth to the UMWA...

    • 6 Association: Organization and Industry, 1890–1894
      (pp. 153-184)

      Between 1890 and 1894 operators, coal miners, and railroads sought to achieve a national scale through simple, consistent approaches. Operators sought a single price for coal, simpler, more stable freight costs, and a single sales agent. Coal miners experimented with a call for the eight-hour day. Railroads attempted to create a single total freight rate for all coal shipped to the East Coast, no matter its point of origin in the region. All of them insisted at different times that their right to make a decent living by their wages, prices, or freight rates be paramount over the needs of...

    • 7 National Scale: A Living Wage for Capital and for Labor, 1895–1902
      (pp. 185-220)

      In 1894 national unionism in coal had seemed to union leaders to require uniform wages and conditions throughout the industry.¹ The nation was becoming a single market, they believed. Therefore, in order for wages to rise in one place they had to rise in all places. No operator could pay any more or less for labor than any other. The success of their union depended on agreements with every single coal miner and every single coal operator in the nation, or none at all. As they learned toward the end of the century, however, their assumptions about a national market...

  9. Conclusion: Failures of Order in the Gilded Age
    (pp. 221-232)

    What did workers do to create the Gilded Age American economy?

    They built it. They assembled the erector-set bridges and city skylines, dug the subways, laid the track, mined the coal, sewed the clothes, cleaned the houses, hewed the wood, chopped the cotton, cooked the bacon, cobbled the shoes, puddled the iron, and played the tune. But if this was all they did, then all they did was do as they were told.

    They did more. They fought to define the proper role of workers as workers and citizens. They fought for higher pay and respect. They fought for broadly...

    (pp. 233-240)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 241-268)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 269-276)
    (pp. 277-277)