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  • Paint Creek:Mother Jones's Return to West Virginia
  • Lon K. Savage and Ginny Savage Ayers

She peered through her grimy window as the train pulled in. Despite the sun's early rays that slanted across the glass, she could see across the station platform to the broad Kanawha River and the city on the other side. A new office building—constructed since she was last here—rose twelve stories at the river's edge, all brown brick and windows, and behind it a jumble of hotels, stores, and office buildings, and behind all that, the backdrop of the mountains. Charleston was prospering. Even the train station, rising three stories by the bridge, was new.1

She rose from her seat, white haired and grandmotherly, gathered her belongings in a black shawl, and moved down the aisle. It had been a long trip. She was in Butte, Montana, when she read about the problems in the local newspaper—"Miners Strike, Fight in West Virginia" was the headline—and it was enough to change her plans. "I will go into the fight," she said to herself with characteristic drama, "and make it cost that company something before I get through." She cut short her work for the Southern Pacific machinists, canceled her speeches in San Francisco, and took the train east. She got off once, in Girard, Kansas, to see her old friend, millionaire Socialist editor Julian Wayland, but he wasn't home. So she got back on the train and came the rest of the way, watching the country flash by her window, arriving on June 9. It was on one such train trip that a minister sat down opposite her and mistook her for, as he said later, "a meek and mild old woman from New England who had come out to visit her lawyer or doctor son in the Middle West." He paid her treacly compliments, helped fix her window, and said something nice about the scenery they were passing. Her answer was so foul mouthed that he collapsed in surprise into the seat opposite her. "A man of my profession can't repeat what Mother Jones said to me," he said.2

She descended from the train, looking quite like the meek and mild old woman the minister had mistaken her for: in black silk dress that reached [End Page 31] the floor, white fichu at her throat, small bonnet on her head, lined face crowned by ringlets of white curly hair, blue-gray eyes behind rimless glasses. Most women had abandoned such Victorian modesty in favor of the latest European fashions: all the better for this woman who understood so well the importance of her image. She moved confidently, even swiftly. If she had been born May 1, 1830, as she had often told people, she was eighty-two in that summer of 1912; in fact, research into her baptismal records has established 1837 as her birth year. But Ronnie Gilbert, the distinguished folk singer and one of Mother Jones's admirers, accepts the ambiguity with understanding: "An old gray-haired woman might just as well be eighty-two as seventy-five and be seven years more impressive."3

Taxi drivers approached her, and she shooed them away. She would walk. It was only across the bridge and a few blocks into the city—a mile or two at the most. She walked far greater distances routinely.4

A steel stairway led upward two floors through the building and put her out on the bridge. She set out across it, a big bridge for the day, two laned, the wood surface hard and thick, forty feet above the water. From the west side of the bridge, she could see the business district and the cobblestoned levee that sloped steeply from Kanawha Street to the water's edge. She remembered it from her last visit, where stern-wheeled steamboats disgorged passengers and freight. Beyond the top of the levee she could see Capitol Street threading its way back through the buildings to the Victorian state capitol four blocks away. Big black automobiles chugged noisily among the horses and trolleys, another sign of change since her last visit...


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