Regional History of Appalachian Ohio: Terra Incognita


PRIDE AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF COAL: COAL BARONS AND COMPANY TOWNS

In 1980, a casual observer can look at the once prosperous Hocking Valley mineral region and see economic and social conditions that seem appalling to the comfortable and relatively affluent representative of Middle America. Poverty, squalor, ignorance, deprivation, underconsumption, and backwardness constitute a partial list of the descriptive terms used to describe life in the area. Those of a liberal persuasion can cite the Hocking Valley as an example of the end result of what happens when the forces of an unrestrained and irresponsible form of capitalism is allowed to run wild. Conservatives might tend to view the area's problems as the result of human failing on the part of the local populace or stemming from a misdirected loyalty to organized labor. Although some degree of both truthfulness and falseness can be found in these oversimplified interpretations, the region's history reveals a considerably more complex situation that does not readily accommodate any preconceived philosophy.

Regardless of one's contemporary viewpoint, there would seem to be little doubt that things went wrong somewhere in the past. The purpose of this, however, is not so much to ascertain where events went amiss or to affix blame, but to examine the earlier attitudes and images and the way in which Hocking Valley people saw themselves and their area in an earlier era. Attention will focus upon the business elites together with individual communities and their spokesmen.

In the beginning, local leaders visualized industrialization not just as a positive benefit but also as a panacea for what one might term an earlier form of poverty and squalor. By 1868, the Jeffersonian ideal of a rural land of small farmers had become obsolete. In calling for industrialization, the editor of New Lexington's Weekly Democratic Herald took pride in predicting:

There is no doubt, the whole line of the Company's road from New Lexington to near Millertown (some ten miles) will, within less than ten years, be like a continuous village not such dilapidated hamlets and contemptible cross-roads villages as we now have, filled with idlers who have neither the disposition nor opportunity of earning an honest dollar, and where small groceries and whiskey shops are almost as numerous as customers; but flourishing towns, filled with an industrious, sober, intelligent population, alive with business activity, and adorned with churches and school houses.

The following year, the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad reached Nelsonville and intiated and immense coal boom that would last for a half-century. A Hocking County Sentinel journalist reflected optimistically on the recent events in 1870 thusly:

Our valley smiles as it never did before, and laughs all over, when the cars come murmuring through cut and curve with their long line of heavy loads of black diamonds. Give us the Hocking Valley yet

The coal business greatly stimulated the local economy and created moderate fortunes for a new and irregular employment for thousands. Of those who attained some degree of wealth, an examination of the careers of a selected dozen shows them to have been varied a lot. For the purpose of this study, I have chosen twelve to examine in some detail, although no great amount of biographical detail is available on any. Ten of these so called "coal barons" owned and operated mines in the Hocking Valley while the other two confined their activities to the Jackson County coal fields. Their numbers include those who were both: foreign and native born, local and absentee owners, Democrat and Republican politically, philanthropic and non-philanthropic, and those who did and did not have smooth labor relations.

The earliest successful mine operations entered business in the decades prior to the arrival of railroads. Then, the Hocking Canal provided the only transportation outlet for Hocking Valley coal. Lorenzo D. Poston, the first to achieve prosperity through sale of the "black diamonds", came to Nelsonville in 1833 from his Virginia birthplace at the age of twenty-one. Poston operated a general store for some twenty years and also engaged in coal mining from 1852. In 1873, he sold his entire operation to his sons and died two years later. By 1883, the Poston Brother's operation mined about 100,000 tons. Clinton L. Poston, the principal son, continued and enlarged the business until 1902 when he sold everything except his mineral rights to the J. P. Morgan syndicate. In 1905, he helped organize the Sunday Creek Coal Company and became a member of its Board of Directors. At the time, Sunday Creek constituted the second largest coal company in the world, operating thirty-three "mining properties" in the Hocking Valley and an additional twenty-seven in West Virginia. Clinton, a former Ohio University student, evidently preferred residence in the college town of Athens over his native Nelsonville and constructed a splendid Victorian mansion at 29 Park Place adjacent to the college campus.

The other real pioneer in the Hocking Valley Coal industry, Peter Hayden, also entered business in 1852. Hayden's mines also bordered on the Hocking Canal in Green Township a few miles east of Nelsonville. The proprietor, a native of New England where he was born in 1806, began operation of a foundry in Columbus in the 1840's which he apparently operated with the partial aid of convict laborers leased from the Ohio state prison. Hayden also started the valley's first company town and store at the site of his mine. He apparently ran his community with a considerable degree of benevolent paternalism and enjoyed generally peaceful relations with his labor force. In 1877, he and his wife sponsored a Christmas celebration where Mrs. Hayden "entertained the families of the employees [in a] princely manner." The children received gifts at a Christmas tree while adults "banqueted on oysters, etc." From 1882 Hayden's firm also manufactured ceramic products and eventually discontinued coal mining. Despite his favorable reputation as an employer, Hayden probably best typifies the absentee owner, because he finally forsook Columbus for New York City where he died in 1888. Under a series of successors, most notable the National Fireproofing Company, Haydenville remained a corporate controlled community until 1964 when the factories and kilns shut down for the last time.

Still another Columbus mine operator, W. Barker Brooks, entered business at Nelsonville in 1859 at age 39. His firm soon surpassed that of Poston as the largest shipper and expanded even more after the railroad arrived in 1869. By 1883, his two large mines produced some 200,000 tons annually which, until some firms began consolidating later that year, made him the largest shipper in the Valley. Brook's relations with his employees seem to have varied from good to bad at different times. His men appeared to have had some respect fro him as an employer but apparently detested his son, Frank, who managed an increasing share of the family business form the early 1880s. Although quite wealthy at one time, Brooks later reportedly suffered a series of business reversals in the late 1880s and early 1890s and is said to have died a pauper.

The last major operator to enter mining prior to the arrival of the railroad, Thaddeus Longstreth, a native of Warren County, purchased the smaller "coal works of W. G. Power and Co." at Nelsonville in 1867. In 1869, Longstreth bought out his hitherto existing partners and expanded the firm. In 1871 he laid out an extensive real-estate subdivision bearing his name in the east end of Nelsonville. In 1878 he purchase and developed additional mining properties in Ward Township, Hocking County. The village of Longstreth, partially a company town, developed around the mines there. Employer-employee relations often tended to be strained in Longstreth's mines and in 1884 striking miners manifested considerable hostility against him.

All of these early operators maintained company stores. According to later testimony of W. B. Brooks, he became the first employer to pay his labor supply in cash rather than store-orders back in the early 1860s. However, apparently neither he nor Poston owned much company housing units at their Nelsonville properties. Since Nelsonville existed as a town before mining came into the scene, corporate housing seemed unnecessary. Longstreth contained both company and private housing and Haydenville constituted a totally company owned town. Despite the contention of Brooks about using cash to pay wages, he later used scrip as did Longstreth, Poston, and probably most other operators in the Gilded Age.

With the coming of railroads to the Hocking Valley, a number of new mining towns developed in the region. The first of these communities, New Straitsville, proved to be one of the most successful. The town's founder, John D. Martin, set something of a precedent among coal operators in regard to townsites. He surveyed the town and sold lots in addition to opening a coal mine. Thus individual ownership became much more common than corporate holdings in the towns. Several company towns existed, but they tended to be small and in isolated locations.

John Douglas Martin, born in 1819, engaged in banking and other business in Lancaster and became an early stockholder in the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad. In 1869 he organized the Straitsville Mining Company which bought several hundred acres of land near the proposed terminus of the Straitsville Branch of the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad. Little is known of Martin's relationships with his workers, but there seems little doubt that the Martin Family possessed genuine affection for New Straitsville as a community. Edwin S. Martin, the founder's son, made the town his home most of the time from the age of sixteen in 1871 until his death fifty-one years later. The younger Martin served as a member of the town council and school board and purchased the first instruments for the local high school band. As coal mining began to decline, his interests extended into banking, real estate, and brick making. In 1900, he donated a building to the town fro library purposes and his second wife, Maria Ewing Martin, served as librarian-- apparently without pay--from 1895 until her death in 1942. Edwin Martin's son, John D. Martin II , also lived a considerable part of his life in New Straitsville before moving to Columbus, and eventually Cincinnati where he died in 1969.

John R. Butchel probably deserves to be known as the most idealistic minded of the Hocking Valley coal barons. Born in 1818, Butchel first attained business success in the city of Akron as a manufacturer of farm implements--Buckeye reapers and mowers. However, beginning in 1877, he organized the Akron Iron Company and gave full attention to his coal and iron properties. The town of Butchel grew up around the Akron Furnace and by 1883 it contained 184 company houses and the largest and best-furnished store in the entire Hocking mineral region. The store contained an Opera House which seated 500 persons and some additional lodge, store, and office spaces. Butchel charged fair prices at his store, although they tended to appear high because he sold only the better quality of goods. He also endeavored to keep intoxicating beverages out of his community, which he thought would benefit the health and welfare of his community. As might be expected, many of his employees resented this type of paternalism, although they respected Butchel as a man of high integrity. Some of this feeling may have terminated when numerous striking workers and their families were evicted from company housing in the great strike of 1884. Most of the blame fell on other leaders of the hated "Syndicate" or Columbus and Hocking Coal and Iron Company into which the Akron Iron Company had merged in 1883. Many apparently believed that had Butchel been in charge of his cold firm that it would have escaped the disastrous strike with its violence and suffering. Later, he began to make the company houses available for purchase by their occupants. Although Butchel practiced considerable philanthropy, it most benefitted the townspeople of Akron where he founded Butchel College, which became the forerunner of the University of Akron.

Columbus and Hocking Coal and Iron Company--like its labor force-- came out of the strike of 1884 seriously weakened and many of the iron furnaces never recovered. By the early years of the twentieth century, however, it had again become a major coal firm mostly through the leadership of Niles Kachelmacher. Born at Oslo in 1862, "the Norwegian Count" came to America in 1883 and to the presidency of Columbus and Hocking Coal and Iron Company in 1904. As president he did a great deal to restore the company's dwindling position in the highly competitive coal market. Also, in 1905, he reopened the Bessie Furnace through a lessee, thus extending the life of the Valley's iron industry for another 15 years. Perhaps his most spectacular success came with then Greendale Brick Company, which flourished for a quarter-century after 1904 in the twin company towns of Greendale and Kachelmacher. Little is known of "the Norwegian Count's" personality, philosophy, or labor relations, partly because he flourished at a time when th e Hocking Valley experienced minimal labor strife. However , as philanthropist, he ranks as number one locally, for when he died in 1917, he left his entire estate of two million dollars to the City of Logan. That city's park on the south shore of the Hocking River bears his name.

The last Hocking Valley coal baron is undoubtedly the most complex--William P. Rend of Chicago. Born about 1824 and of an Irish background, Rend played the role of a lone wolf among operators. He lived in Chicago and in 1844 headed that city's Irish Republican Club. He operated four mines in the region--two at Rendville, one at Jacksonville, and one at New Straitsville. During the strike of 1884, Rend kept his mine at the latter location open and paid his men their asking price of 70 cents per ton. The miners argued that this proved that operators could indeed afford this amount. The operators charged that Rend profited at their expense, since their mines were either closed or utilizing the less efficient labor of strikebreakers. Had the other mines been in operation, complained the remaining coal barons, Rend would not have paid the high wage. Whatever the economics of the situation, Rend enjoyed great favor among working miners and testified on their behalf at the legislative investigation hearings of 1885. The one person interviewed who recalled seeing Rend said that crowds of small children, including herself, followed him as he walked about the streets of Rendville on periodic visits. She also recollected that the long lines of his own railroad cars leaving town bearing his name "W. P. Rend" constituted a source of community pride. While it is difficult to judg e whether Rend really held more enlightened views on labor questions or that he merely followed clever business practices, there can be little doubt that he gained more popularity than any other coal operator among workingmen in his own lifetime.

In Jackson County coal fields Horace L. Chapman became one of the foremost coal operators. Born in 1837 in Allegheny County, New York, Chapman came to Portsmouth in 1854 and to Jackson in 1865. Two years later he organized the First National Bank of Jackson and subsequently helped to promote railway connections to the county's mineral regions. With the coming of these rail lines, Chapman became president of the Chapman Mining Company. By 1895, Chapman owned three large mines and employed some 300 miners. In addition to his business activities, Chapman took an interest in Democratic Party politics and in 1897 obtained the nomination for governor. He faced a tough fight against incumbent Republican, Asa Bushnell. The latter benefitted from recent aid and sympathy he extended to Ohio miners during a recent strike. Chapman, on the other hand, suffered from charges that he unfairly treated his employees. The accusation that he received $72.00 in annual rents form low quality company houses that cost only $38.00 to construct proved especially damaging. Although claims made against Chapman may not have all been true, his failure to successfully refute them certainly hurt his image. Nonetheless, Chapman attracted a larger vote in mining areas than his predecessors albeit more at the expense of Populists than Republicans.

Another Jackson County mine owner, T. J. Morgan, retains fame largely on the basis of his splendid mansion completed in 1905. Stipulations put into the building's deed by his daughter state that neither dancing be held in the third floor ballroom nor any type of alcoholic drinks served or kept in the building. These restrictions suggest more than a strain of puritanism in the Morgan philosophy. Since 1940, the one- time home has served as the Wellston city hall.

One characteristic seemed almost universal about those who attained success in the coal business. Their accomplishment produced a sense of community pride. Thus a New Straitsville historian in 1907 could call Edwin S. Martin "Our Foremost Citizen" and the 1895 industrial edition of the Wellston Telegram typified Horace Chapman as "a monument of strength in Jackson." Another local historian could boast that Clinton L. Poston "is probably the largest individual holder of coal lands in the valley. . .and. . .holds an acknowledged leadership." Even absentee owners could be a source of community pride as is illustrated by the anonymous author of History of Hocking Valley who wrote of "Mr. W. B. Brooks though a resident of Columbus, has done much to assist the growth of Nelsonville and secure the development of its natural wealth." The same writer could describe the virtues of the unpopular and union hating Thaddeus Longstreth who "by supporting public enterprises, and by the extent of his individual business interests has done much for the welfare and growth of Nelsonville." The so-called "captains of industry" tended to be widely admired people in the Gilded Age even though in some instances their personal behavior did not always merit such emulation. Those in the Hocking Valley-- although hardly in a class with Carnegie or Rockefeller-- achieved their share of esteem and served as symbols of pride on the local level.

With the exception of Niles Kachelmacher whose greatest successes came in the opening years of the twentieth century, most of the Hocking Valley's coal barons achieved their fame and fortune in the formative years of the industry's growth. As the number of shareholders in mining corporations increased, symbols of pride began to shift away from individuals and instead concentrated on the industrial monuments created by various companies in their pursuit of profits. Such tokens might take the form of a model company town, an elaborate coal tipple, or a mine of either immense productivity or one that contained an engineering marvel.

One of the first large company towns to attract widespread attention--Congo--received press acclaim for both its housing and mine. With its 250 well-built houses, public water supply, amusement hall, and reasonable rent policy, and Ohio State Journal reporter wrote, "this community might well serve as an example of a model mining town, except for the fact that the company had complete custody of the property rights." The same journalist reported most of the miner residents as "omnivorous newspaper readers" who gathered at the depot each evening to await the papers, the contents of which they "eagerly read and fully discussed." Although the reporter found the miners "gloomy" while on the job, on the whole he had a pleasant surprise. he contended that on his arrival he fully expected "to extend a hand of sympathy to the downtrodden serfs who labored there--the slaves of a mighty monopoly." This opinion soon changed, for he wrote, "after I looked about for a while, I concluded to omit the hand- shaking. I couldn't find any serfs."

The Congo Mine also symbolized the pride that typified the coal industry in its era of prosperity. In March 1894, Columbus, Sandusky and Hocking Railroad officials took a group of newsmen on an exploration of "the wonderful Congo Mine." The reporters and editors stood erect during the entire tour in the eight-foot high mine tunnels. They watched the use of the newest mining equipment such as the Jeffrey electric chain drill or machine pick, the type of mechanized tool that eventually displaced large numbers of miners. One observer who made the tour concluded that "the Congo is the completest [sic] of all coal mines, and is without a peer in [the] bituminous fields. Its contents are estimated at 4,000,000 tons which will take thirty-nine years to work to exhaust." Even the black United Mine Worker militant leader, Richard L Davis, finally called Congo the best place to live and work in the entire valley.

While the mine and company town condition at Congo furnished a source for one type of pride in the coal industry, the size and production statistics at the Jobs mine supplied another. The company town of Jobs, while one of the valley's larger corporate communities, had no particularly distinguishing characteristics although by 1888 the town ranked second to Nelsonville as a coal depot on the Hocking Valley Railroad. The Morris Coal Company miners at Jobs made their greatest claim to fame on May 13, 1892, when they set a daily world record for coal production--4,888 tons in 243 railroad cars. A month earlier, the miners at New Pittsburgh, another company town of similar size about a mile up the hollow had loaded a record 3,333 tons in 168 cars. The Jobs miners did not want their New Pittsburgh rivals to gain the upper hand, even in work efficiency. Both mine crews had worked eleven hour days in setting their records, although the Jobs miners actually surpassed the New Pittsburgh total in less than eight hours. The Jobs and New Pittsburgh miners also displayed a sense of community pride during the depression years later in the decade. The proportion of home owners in those two coal camps ranked among the lowest in the entire Hocking Valley, yet an above average number of distressed families raised gardens. In both prosperous and hard times, the miners and their families in Jobs and New Pittsburgh displayed a sense of pride and community that company town dwellers are sometimes said to possess.

In his influential interpretation of the laboring classes in the gilded age America entitled "The Workers Search for Power," the late historian Herbert G. Gutman discussed the sense of community which prevailed in many of the smaller and medium sized industrial towns. Gutman cited the Hocking Valley mining region as one of the areas that exemplified his thesis, although he examined only one episode in the area's long history. (17) Nonetheless, in looking at a broader aspect of Hocking Valley life during the period, one can see much additional evidence to support Gutman. One can examine the wide range of social activities that helped enrich the quality of life in these coal camps where econ omic hardship often proved to be all too common and still see much that served to strengthen pride in community. Even those dark symbols of economic exploitation, the coal baron and the company town, had a brighter side, too, for they simultaneously served as sources of community pride.

Used with permission of the author Dr Ivan M. Tribe. Was first published in Buckeye Hill Country:
 A Journal of Regional History is published by the University of Rio Grande at Rio Grande, Ohio