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Coal Crisis


In 1919, coal operators came to an agreement with the Coal Miners of America. The agreement included pay increases and assurances that coal would be weighed accurately. The miners said they would never again dig three tons of coal for the price of two. But when the contract expired in 1922, operators were determined to roll back the gains made by the miners. When they refused to continue the terms of the 1919 agreement, union president John L. Lewis led 610,000 miners out on strike.

This was the first national coal strike. Immigrant miners from different ethnic groups banded together to support the strike. Immigrant fraternal societies supported strikers financially and expelled members who went to work as strikebreakers. When families were evicted from company-owned housing, miners who owned their homes took the homeless strikers in. Women and children joined the picket lines to prevent nonunion workers from entering the mines. In some places, governors called out their National Guard units to keep the peace.

On this date in 1922, the Hope Pioneer reported that the coal situation throughout the Northwest was dire. For example, Minnesota’s governor said that he could be sure of only half of the 400,000 tons of coal his state needed every day.

But North Dakota was in a much better position. The biggest mining employer was the Washburn Lignite Coal Company started by General William D. Washburn. Washburn built comfortable company towns at Wilton, Chapin, and Langhorn. He gave miners and their families a Christmas dinner each year, and all the children received presents. Employees could get ice from the company ice house. Washburn brought a doctor to Wilton. Employees paid $1 per week for his services. Washburn also provided smallpox vaccinations to miners and their families. Miners even had the use of hot showers and a changing room so they could clean up before going home.

Washburn miners were the highest paid miners in the state. By the 1920s many of them owned automobiles. All these measures were designed to discourage workers from joining unions. Other owners followed suit, and the 1922 strike did not catch on in North Dakota. The newspaper reported that the North Dakota Lignite Operators Association pledged to double the output of the state’s mines.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher.


Hope Pioneer. Page 4. 22 August, 1922.

Explore PA History. “Windber Strike of 1922.” "http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-2CF" http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-2CF Accessed 23 July, 2017.

Utah State Archives. “Coal Mining.” "https://archives.utah.gov/research/guides/mining-coal.htm" https://archives.utah.gov/research/guides/mining-coal.htm Accessed 23 July, 2017.

ND Studies. “The Washburn Coal Mine.” "https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-iii-waves-development-1861-1920/lesson-2-making-living/topic-9-industries-coal-and-brick/section-3-coal" https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-iii-waves-development-1861-1920/lesson-2-making-living/topic-9-industries-coal-and-brick/section-3-coal Accessed 23 July, 2017.