City at a Crossroads Part I: The blood(less) Black Diamond Civil War of 1921
By TJ MARTINELL
Covington Reporter Reporter
October 12, 2012 · Updated 1:50 PM
In 1921, Black Diamond resembled a war zone.
The coal mines had ceased operation. A fence surrounded the perimeter, while armed guards stood on watchtowers, platforms and eventually would escort miners to work to protect them from attacks by union members.
After months attempting to reach an agreement with the United Mine Workers of America District 10 (UMW) over workmen’s wages, which had been cut, the Pacific Coast Coal Co. instituted a lockout on March 15, 1921.
The mines would remain closed for fourth months until new, nonunion workers arrived to take over. In the meantime, hundreds of striking miners and their families were forced to sell their homes and live in hastily assembled shacks.
For more than a year, Black Diamond would be locked in a political quagmire between the Pacific Coast Company, the parent company of Pacific Coast Coal, and the UMW District 10, splitting the town between the striking miners and “scabs,” or replacement miners.
Due to outside political and economical influences, the lockout proved to be a stalemate for both the company and the union, and ultimately the issue was never officially settled. In the end, the company suffered financial losses due to the lockout, the town became open shop, and UMW District 10 lost all its political significance.
For Black Diamond, it led to the creation of a new section of town, affecting the generation who grew up there. Within the context of Washington’s coal mining heritage, the lockout also symbolized Black Diamond’s inevitable decline as a once-booming coal mining town and became a defining moment in its history.
Black Diamond coal miners first unionized in the early 20th century with the formation of the United Mine Workers Local 6481, according to “Mining the Memories.” Due to company rules, they were forbidden to meet on company land, so the miners congregated near the Black Diamond cemetery, which bordered Pacific Coast Coal’s property and belonged to a man named Tim Morgan.
Much like the conch from Lord of the Flies, the miners used a stump as a means of indicating who would speak. The stump was later covered in cement and still stands today outside the cemetery.
Later, the union would organize into UMW District 10.
During World War I, due to the destruction or closure of mines in Europe, as well as America’s entry into the conflict in 1917, the price of coal increased substantially. As a result, the company saw a large increase in revenue, almost $1 million in net profits in 1918.
According to a 1921 report to the stockholders of the parent company obtained from Palmer Coking Coal Company, workers saw their wages rise multiple times as a way of creating incentives for them to stay, rather than enlist, as well as to help them keep up with the rising costs of living.
An underground day scale man, for example, earned $3.80 wages in 1914. By 1919, when the war ended, the same worker earned $6.71, which increased to $8.25 in 1920.
Once the war ended, however, the price of coal dropped back down to normal levels, and consequently the parent’s profits leveled off as well.
On top of that, as Jonathan Dembo wrote in an article about the coal mine labor troubles in “Divided They Fell,” Pacific Coast Coal in Washington faced additional complications.
The cost of mining coal in Washington was 80 percent above the national average, and regions in the Rockies and Canada had access to cleaner, more efficient coal. If the company couldn’t lower the cost of mining coal, it would be impossible to compete.
In response to deflated coal prices, in 1921 the parent company ordered a reduction in wages which more or less matched the 1917 wage scale.
This decision was not well received by the miners, who resented having their wages cut. Additionally, according to Dembo, by then UMW District 10 had cultivated significant power in Washington state, with more than 5,200 members. With determined leaders at the helm ready to flex their political muscle, they decided to fight back. For months, the negotiations went nowhere, despite even state intervention. The company refused to raise workers wages, as the union demanded, and the union would not agree to lower wages.
Finally, in March 1921, Pacific Coast Coal closed the mines and surrounded the property with a fence. Due to the lockout 95 percent of mines in Washington state were closed.
Although the incident has been described as a miners strike, which is what occurred in 1919, technically the 1921 dispute was a company lockout. A strike is when miners initiate by refusing to work until their demands are met. A lockout, which is what happened in Black Diamond, is when the company refuses to let the miners work until they agree to the contract. In response, the miners “went on strike” rather than agree to their terms.
But the company’s decision to initiate a lockout would affect the outcome and the ambiguity surrounding it.
THE CREATION OF MORGANVILLE
In order to reopen the mines, Pacific Coast Coal had to find new miners willing to work at the new wage scale. According to Keith Watson, president of the Black Diamond Historical Society, the company began hiring quite literally right outside their Seattle headquarters in the Smith-Corona building. Any interested men were encouraged to hop on a train to Black Diamond, not knowing what kind of work it was or the circumstances. At the same time, the company also hired out of work miners from Montana who were more than willing to take work at the lower wages. Soon, the town swarmed with replacement miners, which the union referred to as “scabs.”
A problem soon arose when replacement miners arrived. Even after they filled up the hotel and temporary housing, the company still had to find a way to house the new miners.
While the striking miners owned their houses in town, the property belonged to the company. Therefore, the company presented the strikers with two options: Either relocate the home or sell to the company.
With relocation practically impossible, the miners were forced to sell their homes, after an appraiser determined the price, and had to move off company property. At first, many attempted to fight to stay in their homes. In all, the parent company filed more than 500 unlawful detainer suits nationwide and spent $118,038 — equivalent to $1.4 million today — purchasing homes in Black Diamond alone.
Previously, unions resorted to tent camps as a means of housing their members during a strike. Instead, Tim Morgan, who owned 80 acres west of the town, including the land the union stump sat on, offered to sell it after turning down an offer from Pacific Coast Coal.
Within weeks, roughly two hundred houses were assembled for the miners, though they were rudimentary at best. Don Malgarini, a member of the Historical Society, grew up in one of the original Morganville homes in the 1930’s and 1940’s after his father was forced to sell his home on 3rd Avenue.
Although they were considered houses, Malgarini described them as hovels at best.
“I’m not kidding you,” Malgarini said. “They were plain shacks. They were pretty shoddy. Cracks in the window, you could almost throw a cap through knotholes in the floor.”
Not all miners, however, were forced off their land. Gomer Evans, a former Black Diamond mayor who grew up in the main part town, stated his father, a Welsh immigrant who worked as a fireboss in the mines, was able to remain on their property, though it is not clear why. A possible reason, as Edith Moroni Davies stated in “Mining the Memories” is if any family member worked in town outside the mines they weren’t forced to sell.
Thus, the town of “Morganville” was born. The split in the town, with a union and company section, would create an environment similar to that of Derry, Northern Ireland in the 1970’s during the Irish Troubles.
BLOOD(LESS) CIVIL WAR
With clear lines drawn between the company men, strife and even violence was inevitable. Carl Steirt, who grew up in Black Diamond, recounted in the book “Mining the Memories” the outage expressed by the union miners, who felt their homes and jobs had been taken from them. Trains which were once received welcomingly as they pulled into the railway station were now greeted with heckling, jeers, and threats. The company erected towers and platforms for armed guards to protect both company property from sabotage, as well as their own nonunion miners from retaliation.
The resentment on both sides ran deep. Students from union families stopped attending the high school, and new teachers had to be brought in when others refused to work. Even the town doctor moved out in Morganville in support of the miners.
Every day, as the “scabs” went to work, accompanied by armed guards, union miners would follow them to the mines, taunting them. If a strikebreaker was unfortunate to be found alone, he risked getting attacked. Union miners, like Malgarini’s uncle, would also set up vehicle barricades on the road leading to Auburn, which passed directly through Morganville, to prevent strikebreakers from getting through. Though they were armed with clubs and shotguns, Malagrini said nobody was shot or killed.
Throughout the South King County region, similar feuds occurred at coal mining towns such as Newcastle. One month after the mines reopened with replacement workers, Pacific Coast Coal filed a restraining order and complaint against UMW District 10, claiming union workers used intimidation tactics against strikebreakers and were attempting to prevent the company from operating its businesses.
Based on the evidence presented and testimony provided, the judge concluded that “several persons were so harassed and annoyed by these committeemen, or pickets…that they left the employ of appellant.” Others, the judge stated, were victims of assault and battery.
In response, Pacific Coast Coal created a massive “blaclist” records on union members. While some of the information pertained to whether or not they were an “agitator” and should be rehired when the lockout ended, the company is also believed to have collected personal information that was either unflattering or the individual would not want to be made public.
Watson stated the Historical Society has such company records in the archives, but the information, even almost a century later, has still managed to remain secret.
Initially, the strikers received tremendous support from the UMW, which shipped in food supply on wagons to feed their families. With many of its members on strike, the union’s coffers began to deplete. Yet, according to Dembo, in spite of the hardships they endured, less than half a percent of union members broke ranks and returned to work under company terms.
LOCKOUT TO END ALL LOCKOUTS
Unlike prior strikes, however, the 1921 lockout in Black Diamond had no “official” end, for various reasons. One was the financial situation with the parent company. The reports to the stockholders over the years, which are now in the possession of Palmer Coking Coal Company, reveal the company’s concerns about its coal mining interests were legitimate. In just three years, from 1917 to 1920, the company’s profits dropped by 30 percent, much of it due to the deflation of coal prices.
According to Washington state records, coal production in the Pacific Coast Coal mines also dropped due to the decline in demand. To the company, therefore, the drop in wages was seen as a necessity to keep the mines cost-productive.
“Under wages fixed and working conditions dictated by the Miner’s Union,” the report stated, “the coal properties would have been of little or no value.”
The other reason was division within UMW District 10 itself, partially due to a state coal commission recommendation to actually cut wages further by 25 cents. According to Dembo, hardliners in the union fought against a referendum within the organization to accept the commission’s recommendations, which was eventually cancelled before a vote could be taken. In response, the parent company refused to negotiate any further and, according to Dembo, public opinion turned against the strikers. In December 1922, the state Supreme Court upheld the company’s right to enjoin union pickets.
If an official date could be given, however, it would probably be June 1, 1923, when UMW District 10 voted at a special convention in Buckley to permit its members to return to work under whatever terms they could find.
The lockout sapped both the union and company of money as well as resources. Ironically, in an effort to restore the profit margin, the parent company reported a mere $143,234 profit in 1921, and Pacific Coast Coal went from a $73,973 net profit in June 1921 to significant losses during the same time in 1922. Coal production in Black Diamond in 1921 also fell to its lowest level since 1888.
The UMW District 10 suffered a fatal blow, having spent $1.1 million in District 10 alone on supporting the members. When the members finally returned to the Black Diamond mines in 1923, they worked alongside the “scabs,” strikebreakers who were not required to join the union.
“Nobody won, nobody lost,” Malgarini said. “Things just sorted out.”
Some miners, however, were “blackballed” by the company, that is, forbidden to return due to their perceived role in the lockout. Unable to find work in town, they were forced to go to cities such as Renton to find work, but even there word sometimes got around and they weren’t hired.
In retrospect, however, the animosity between the union workers and the replacements in Black Diamond proved to be short lived. Having grown up decades after the lockout, Malgarini said the lockout was rarely, if ever spoken of. Much like the town of Franklin, which had experienced a similar lockout, the town had a remarkable ability to mend fences, so to speak, and a division between the residents of Morganville and the main part of town never emerged.
“We never talked about the strike in high school,” Malgarini said. “Nobody ever said a word about it.”
If the lockout had ended differently or not even occurred, it’s hard to say what might have happened to Black Diamond as a result.Some things are certain. Regardless of the lockout, coal mining as a major industry in the region was on an unstoppable decline. Petroleum reserves in Oklahoma and California would later replace coal as a source of energy.
By 1927, Mine 11 in Black Diamond would close, and coal production would more or less cease by 1928.
Additionally, Mine 11 wasn’t closed due to low coal prices, but because it became logistically impossible to continue mining at such depths, according to a 1926 company report to stockholders. Had the lockout not occurred, however, it would have impacted the development of Morganville, as well as the hundreds of families forced to relocate there, like Malgarini’s. The houses during the extreme parts of the year, he said, were less than pleasant to reside in.
“Living in the winter was terrible,” Malgarini said. “You put lots of blankets on the bed if you had them. Summer was miserable, especially when we slept upstairs. No insulation, just wall paper and paint.”
According to Watson, roughly 100 of the original homes still stand today, though they have been heavily modified, renovated, or added to.
Only one house in its original form and condition exists, at the end of Union Drive. The historical society has been in talks with the owner in the hopes of turning it into a historical site, much like the old railway station is, but currently it remains vacant. Had the lockout not happened, Morganville may have remained undeveloped for years, perhaps even until the Lake Sawyer neighborhood developed in 1997.
One incident that might have had major consequences had it turned out differently, however, was a decision Tim Morgan made nearly 40 years before the lockout took place. Morgan, along with his wife, Esther, were involved with a legal dispute with Northern Pacific Railroad over 80 acres of property.
The case eventually went to the state Supreme Court in 1908. The court documents state that in 1883, Morgan abandoned a homestead in Black Diamond proper and settled onto vacant land west of town owned by Northern Pacific.
In 1899, Northern Pacific learned he was on the property and told him to get off. He offered in return to buy the property, which was eventually sold to him at $5 per acre.
After deeding the property to his wife they filed a lawsuit, stating they had claimed adversely another 80 acres west of the land they had purchased.
In their conclusion, the Supreme Court justices decided the Morgans were “mere squatters upon it without any claim of right or color of title” and they had occupied the land without intending to claim it until after the purchase had been made.
Had Morgan and his wife not settled on the land, or had Northern Pacific refused to sell him the 80 acres they ultimately held onto, the property might have remained in the railroad’s hands. Had this occurred, it might have completely changed the situation for the union miners during the 1921 lockout.
In the days before the mass ownership of automobiles, the concept of commuting had not yet developed. Men still lived very close to where they worked.
A 1920’s township map obtained from Palmer Coking Coal showed the vast area surrounding the Black Diamond mines were owned either by Pacific Coast Coal or by Northern Pacific. Unless the miners could have found land close to Black Diamond where they could live, which was unlikely, they might have been forced to either move permanently to another community where they could find work or, less likely, break ranks with the union and go back to the mines under the company’s terms.
The former seems more probable, since this is an option many miners, according to Watson, actually chose rather than wait out a prolonged lockout without work, and District 10 had a paltry few members go back to work before the vote in Buckley.
Had they simply left, it would have led to a migration, leaving few in the town remaining who had lived there prior to the strike.
This would have left the town populated with strikebreakers. The interviews of Black Diamond residents in “Mining the Memories” might have given a very different perspective of the lockout, and few families would have had ties to the community before 1921.
Also, the historical society, brimming with personal belongings donated by long-time Black Diamond families and old records, might not have the heritage it has today.
Contact Covington Reporter Reporter TJ Martinell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-432-1209 ext. 5052.