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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Timepiece: Rioting an Uprisings in Arkansas Coal Fields

Arkansas River Valley Business Directory

By Dr. Curtis Varnell

Coal miner’s memorials exist at Greenwood, Paris, Altus and other area towns; testimony to a period of time when extracting the fuel was a primary employer for the region.  Many look back fondly upon those days when the communities were thriving and thousands of men were gainfully employed at fairly well-paying jobs.  Area towns expanded and railroads were extended into isolated communities as business, generated by the mining industry, exploded in the river valley.  

The future may have looked much rosier to community leaders and mine owners than it did to the average worker toiling in the dark and dangerous mine shafts.  Seeking better working conditions, most of the men organized into local unions associated with the United Mine Workers.  By 1910, nearly every area miner and mine were a part of this national organization, with the subsequent conflict between mine owners and labor.  The problems reached a peak in 1914, resulting in rioting and bloodshed throughout the coalfields.  By that year, there were 100,000 affiliated members of UMW, many in District 21 which comprised Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.  

In April of 1914, the Bache-Denman Coal Company, which owned eight large coal mining firms in Western Arkansas, decided to withdraw from the union contract and to become an open shop.  Union workers rioted at Prairie Creek, near Hartford and shut down the mine. Bache-Denman recruited 15-20 armed guards from the Burns Detective Agency to protect their interest.  A shipment of 200 rifles, pistols, and ammunition was collected for use by a group known as the Union Guards.  This group was supplemented by another 200 or so armed workers and farmers who brought their assortment of weapons along for the fight.

On April 6, a crowd estimated at larger than 1,000 individuals, marched on the Prairie Creek mine and tried to persuade the owners and guards to disarm. A violent clash resulted between the groups with the “union” group eventually taking over the mine. Bache-Denman responded by hiring more guards. 

On July 12, 1914, the union miners camp at Frogtown, about a mile from the mine, was attacked and bullets ripped through the miner’s homes.  Stories abound concerning the back-and-forth resulting fight that went on for days.  Some area miners swear that dozens were killed in exchange of gunfire that went on for days.  A week after the initial attack, Frogtown miners were again fired on during the night. Miners poured into Hartford from surrounding towns and marched on the mines.  Many of the guards and non-union workers took flight but eight were captured, hands tied behind their back, and marched toward Hartford.  An unidentified person came up and shot two of them dead. 

The union workers completely destroyed the mines, flooding the shafts and burning the buildings. The owners tried to reopen the mine on Oct. 29, 1914 only to have over 3,000 bullets fired into the building. Federal troops were called in to quite the riot. In most instances, the federal Marshalls and troops took the side of the mine owner.

Years later, I interviewed some of the old miners and their descendants.  All had stories of this period of time with many describing atrocities and deaths far beyond those recorded officially.  Additional stories of unrest between labor and owners existed.  H.B. Stewart of Greenwood showed me the second story window where a machine gun was placed at a mine owners home, protection from possible labor riots.  At Paris, as late as the 1940’s, workers at the Jewell mine were meet by machine gun wielding guards who instructed the workers to “git to work or git out and stay out.”

History seldom provides clear right and wrong behavior; it does describe the results of anger, violence, and hate.

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