First Posted: 1/20/2013
Tuesday is the 54th anniversary of the infamous Knox Mine Disaster. Many local residents are well-versed in the events January 22, 1959.
They might know that 12 men – Samuel Altieri, John Baloga, Benjamin Boyar, Francis Burns, Charles Featherman, Joseph Gizenski, Dominic Kaveliski, Frank Orlowski, Eugene Ostrowski, William Sinclair, Daniel Stefanides, and Herman Zelonis – were killed when the Susquehanna River broke through the roof the Knox Coal Company’s River Slope Mine in Port Griffith.
The might know that their bodies were never recovered.
They might know that 69 men escaped from the mine that day.
They might know that an estimated 10 billion gallons of river water poured into the mine and adjacent mines hastening the end of deep mining in the Greater Pittston area.
They might know that the operator, the Knox Coal Company, was a subcontractor for the Pennsylvania Coal Company.
They might know that the Knox operators were pressuring the men to excavate within six to nine feet of the river bottom.
They might know the operation was illegal.
They might know that nine company and union officials were indicted for manslaughter, conspiracy to violate the mining laws and income tax evasion.
What they likely don’t know is that the trail of events that led up to the disaster can, to a significant degree, be traced back to 14 sulfur mine towns in Sicily in the 1890s.
Bob Wolesnky and Bill Hastie detail that trail in their book The Anthracite Labor Wars which was released Saturday when Wolensky and Hastie appeared at a signing and discussion Barnes and Noble in Wilkes-Barre.
The book, published by the Pennsylvania National Canal Museum Press in Easton, is 450 pages and sells for $24.95.
We traced the causes of the Knox disaster backwards to the 1890s to examine the roots of how it could have happened, Wolensky said.
As Wolensky explained the trail, Sicily was the world’s largest producer of sulfur during the nineteenth century. Sulfur was deep-mined and many of the operations were run by men with organized crime affiliations who subcontracted the workings from land owners.
The Sicilian sulfur miners were considered radicals and activists because they agitated for better working conditions and wages. After several failed strikes the activists were eventually forced out. Many of them immigrated here. By the early 1900s, Italians made up one-third of the workforce at the Pennsylvania Coal Company and most of them were former Sicilian sulfur workers.
When the 1902 anthracite strike by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) famously ended with the assistance of President Theodore Roosevelt, the anthracite mine operators were not forced to recognize the union. Employees of the Pennsylvania Coal Company were very dissatisfied with the UMWA’s inability to address the problems they were facing so they called a series of wildcat strikes. Sicilians were among the leaders of the strikes. Though the Sicilians made up one-third of the work force, most of the other two-thirds went along with them. A major strike in 1910 ended only after the Italian Consul, Fortunato Tiscar, who was based in Scranton, intervened and negotiated a settlement.
The Pennsylvania Coal Company came to have the worst labor relations of the big five coal companies in the northern coal field around Wilkes-Barre/Pittston/Scranton. During the 1910s, the crux of problem was that the strikers didn’t want the company to lease mines to subcontractors who would often abuse, cheat, overwork, and fire miners.
In 1913, according to the book, Santo Volpe, the alleged founder of the region’s crime family, or mafia, took the first subcontract that the Pennsylvania Coal Company offered. The Sicilian workers, who had come here to get away from mob-run mines, didn’t want the pattern repeated here. They continued to organize wildcat strikes more for the justice of safer conditions than wages. The strikes often escalated into violence.
Knowing how dissatisfied the anthracite workers were with the UMWA, the International Workers of the World (IWW) union came into the area to organize. They were communists, socialists, anarchists, and other types of radical activists, Wolensky said. The IWW received its strongest backing at Pennsylvania Coal Company mines. One result was continued labor-management strife, culminating in a major strike in 1916 that the IWW lost.
But the workers were not deterred. The strikes at Pennsylvania collieries continued into the 1920s and the violence escalated. A major strike occurred in early 1928. In January and February of that year, there were half-a-dozen mine-related murders in Pittston. Labor leaders Alexander Campbell, of Pittston, and Peter Reilly, of Inkerman, were riddled with bullets and killed in an automobile on Railroad Street, in an assassination ordered by the mob.
In another incident, the local union leaders at the Pennsylvania’s No. 6 Colliery in Inkerman fought back and killed, Frank Agati, a United Mine Workers Union official with reputed mob connections.
The violence spread beyond the Pennsylvania Company in the early 1930s, when a new union, the United Anthracite Miners of Pennsylvania (UAMP) formed. It was a regional union led by Rinaldo Cappellini, originally from Plains, and Thomas Maloney of Wilkes-Barre. After five years of continuous labor-management turmoil, the labor wars culminated in the Good Friday Bombing of 1936 when Maloney opened cigar box and was killed by the bomb inside.
On the same day, the rectory of Father John J. Curran’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Wilkes-Barre was firebombed. Curran was Maloney’s friend and advisor, and had been a longstanding champion of the mineworkers.
Maloney’s death marked the end of the labor wars. It was like a 100 year war ended and the bad guys won, Wolensky said. There had been too much violence and with the Great Depression causing such hardship, the men had to get the work they could. All the major companies in the northern coal field then starting subcontracting. Only a minority of the subcontractors had organized crime affiliations, but virtually all of them engaged in illegal practices such as robbing barriers and pillars underground. The inspectors were not doing their jobs. It was a free-for-all. The logical conclusion was the Knox mine disaster, which occurred at a company partly owned by alleged mob boss John Sciandra and a corrupt union official, August J. Lippi.
Although the protests stopped in the mid-1930s, the illegal mining and harsh working conditions did not. The table was set for an event like the Knox disaster.
Wolensky is also the author of The Knox Mine Disaster: The Final Years of the Northern Anthracite Industry and the Effort to Rebuild a Regional Economy. It was published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in January, 1999 and is in paperback.
A wreath laying ceremony to mark the 54th anniversary of the Knox Mine Disaster will take place at 11:15 a.m. today, Jan. 20, at the Knox Memorial in front of Baloga Funeral Home, 1201 Main Street, Port Griffith.