by Mark Hughes
This summer’s social unrest, which began last year with the outbreak of violence in Ferguson, comes nearly a century after another dark chapter of Missouri social strife: the Lead Belt mining riots of 1917.
Those riots began 99 years ago on Friday, July 13, 1917. Missouri’s Lead Belt at that time consisted largely of shafts, mills, chat dumps and company houses built near mines sank into the richest lead ore deposits ever discovered.
St. Francois County’s rough-and-tumble mining “towns” in 1917 were company towns in every way. Most lacked any municipal government. The mining company owned it and they ran it. Miners were charged $8 a month to live in the company houses. They were paid with company script that they spent at the company store.
Mining wasn’t the only business in the area but it was the biggest business. As World War I swept Europe, the demand for lead from those mines — essential to the manufacture of bullets and artillery shells — reached an all-time high.
Mining lead … miners called it “working underground” … was hard, dirty and dangerous. The 40-hour week would not become a federal standard until 1940. Miners, able to see only by carbide lamps attached to their hats, would drill into the stone walls of the cavernous mines, set dynamite charges and blast the ore-bearing rock. The rubble would then be shoveled by hand into small rail carts pulled by mules and dragged to the buckets that lifted the ore to the roller mills where it would be crushed and extracted.
Mine companies had difficulty attracting enough men to meet the demand for lead. They aggressively recruited men from Europe with the promise of jobs, better pay and safety from the war that had raged since 1914.
While these immigrant miners were from Russia, Hungary, Austria and other European countries, they were universally referred to as “Hunkies” in the Lead Belt. In 1917, Paul J. Clay was a 17-year-old office boy at the mine headquarters in what is today Park Hills. In a personal interview in 1985, he recounted that tensions were strong between the immigrants and American miners from the beginning.
On July 13, those tensions erupted into three days of riot and chaos. The American miners forcibly drove the immigrants from their company homes, loaded them onto coal boxcars at the Rivermines depot of the MR&BT Railroad, and shipped them north to St. Louis.
The rioting began on Friday night. Miners broke into a store and “borrowed” guns and ammo. They marched into the company housing towns searching for immigrant miners, many of whom fled with their families ahead of the mob.
On Saturday, Clay recounted that a mob of American miners brought immigrant miners to the Federal Lead Company office to be paid before they were loaded onto trains. He said the mob demanded the mine superintendent — a company man — who they intended to hang. Clay said he saw the rope. The superintendent hid and was smuggled out of the office later that day, rolled in a carpet and packed into a Model T to escape.
The arrival of federal troops put and end to the three days of rioting and mining operations eventually resumed — without the immigrant workers. Later that year, the company announced a policy that only American citizen would be hired by the mines. Some immigrants would eventually return. Many did not. The troops remained until March.
To this day, a tale continues attributing the spark that ignited the riots to a European miner allegedly telling an American miner “you go fight the Kaiser, we will stay here and take care of your women.”
Clay called the tale a lie. He attributed the riots to radical agitators of the International Workers of the World — the IWW or Wobblies– who inflamed the fears of miners and incited violence to achieve their goals.
Much can change in 99 years. And much can remain the same.