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Fueling the Gilded Age

Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in Pennsylvania Coal Country

Andrew Arnold

Publication Year: 2014

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 Age shows 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.   

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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About Lewis Hine’s Photographs

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pp. ix-x

Scattered throughout this volume are several photographs by Lewis Hine. Hine is probably most famous for his pictures of people at work, especially for children at work. His photographs have been made into posters, and they’re widely available via a simple online search...

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Introduction: Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in the Gilded Age, 1870–1900

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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. In The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley conveyed the idea of an era that...

Part I. Hubris

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1. Cultural: Coal Mining and Community, 1872

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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...

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2. Formal: The Right to Strike, 1875

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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...

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3. Secret: Regional Leadership Networks, 1875–1882

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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...

Part II. Humility

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4. Compromise: The Great Upheaval in Coal, 1886

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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...

Part III. Stalemate

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5. Origins: New Organizational Forms, 1886–1890

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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...

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6. Association: Organization and Industry, 1890–1894

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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...

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7. National Scale: A Living Wage for Capital and for Labor, 1895–1902

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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...

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Conclusion: Failures of Order in the Gilded Age

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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...


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pp. 233-240


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pp. 241-268


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pp. 269-276

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814724958
E-ISBN-10: 0814724957
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814764985
Print-ISBN-10: 0814764983

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 870951047
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Fueling the Gilded Age

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Subject Headings

  • Coal miners -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Trade unions -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Labor movement -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Coal mining -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Railroads -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Pennsylvania -- Social conditions.
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