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The Coal Mines at Thurber

By Frank Chamberlain 

Coal mining was the purpose for which Thurber was created and the lifeblood that sustained the town throughout its nearly forty years of prosperity. Although Thurber was also home to a profitable brick-making plant, the coalmines were unquestionably responsible for the rise and subsequent decline of the town. Quite simply, without the coalmines, there would have been no Thurber as we now remember it. This is evidenced by the fact that the area became a ghost town within a few years of the closing of the T&P Coal Company.

William and Harvey Johnson founded the Thurber coalmines (and, for all intents and purposes, the town itself). The Johnsons were land speculators from Michigan that were ruined by the Panic of 1873. In order to escape the enormous debt that now faced them, the brothers moved west--to Strawn, Texas--in order to start anew and recoup their earlier losses. They initially became involved in the cedar cutting business, supplying wood for fencing and railroad crossties. However, they soon abandoned this enterprise when Will noticed that the land of the area was rich with coal deposits. (He arrived at this realization by accident while engaged in a conversation with a local farmer that was complaining about the black rocks that impeded the digging of a well.) Tantalized by the prospect of such a readily available and untapped source of energy (and profit), Johnson contacted the Texas & Pacific Railroad about the possibility of providing the company with a handy source of fuel for their main line that passed only two miles to the north. Before an arrangement could be reached, the Johnsons had to find suitable land for such a venture. He purchased a 2303-acre tract of land roughly eight miles southeast of Strawn and the Johnson Coal Company was officially born. Soon thereafter, in October 1886, the No. 1 mine was opened less than a mile southeast of the future town of Thurber. Soon thereafter, the brothers entered into an agreement with the railroad to sell the coal for the trains in exchange for a spur being laid with the purpose of running southward toward the mining area. The small community of Mingus, a.k.a. Thurber Junction sprang up this connection between the main railroad and the spur [Rhinehart 5-6; Woodard 5, 6, 8, 10].

By 1888, the Johnson Company had already begun to suffer financial difficulties. When Johnson was forced to scale back the wages of the miners, the workers went on strike, which further exacerbated the problems facing the company. The situation was even further worsened when Harvey Johnson died that year. He was the brother who dealt with the daily operations of the company. His passing left Will with the entire burden of running a faltering company at a time when he felt little inclination to carry on with the operations. Just as it seemed that his fortune could not worsen, the remaining Johnson brother soon encountered antagonism from the T&P Railroad. The railroad officials claimed that the Johnson Company had been overcharging for coal that was of inferior quality and had been failing to produce satisfactory amounts of the product. The dispute ended with the T&P ripping up the spur that once ran from the main railway to the mines. (It is very possible that the Johnson Company was guilty of all three because of the simple lack of money that could have been used to purchase machinery capable of producing and refining larger amounts of coal more rapidly. However, it is equally likely that the future owner of the Thurber coalmines, Col. R.D. Hunter, was using his close friends at T&P to add pressure on Johnson in order to coax him to sell his potentially highly lucrative business.) All of these problems culminated with Johnson selling his company to Col. Hunter who renamed the enterprise as the Texas and Pacific Coal Company. There was no corporate link between the similarly named railroad and coal companies, but the two did enjoy a very profitable symbiotic relationship [Rhinehart 6-8; Woodard 24-27]].

Under the dictatorial control of Col. Robert Dickey Hunter, the new President and General Manager of the T&P Coal Company, the new town of Thurber experienced a period of tremendous growth. (Hunter renamed the former mining camp of Johnsonville in honor of his friend and major T&P investor, Horace K. Thurber.) Hunter controlled absolutely every aspect of his employee’s lives, but nonetheless helped the town grow immensely. He began to increase the labor force in the town by hiring larger numbers of workers for such projects as building houses, clearing streets, and building water tanks. A particularly interesting project undertaken by this workforce (and an assignment that was very indicative of Hunter’s personality) was the construction of a large barbed-wire fence around the entire perimeter of the town. The purpose of this barrier was to keep union organizers, salesmen, and other individuals that were deemed undesirable by Hunter. Many of these new employees were hired to work in the coal-mining sector. Hunter sent agents to mining centers throughout the country in order to attract workers to Thurber. An additional segment of employees were needed to improve and guard the mineshafts. Procuring workers was initially somewhat difficult for the new boss. Upon assuming the presidency of the company, Hunter adamantly announced that unions or any type of organized labor would no longer be tolerated. In an early meeting with a committee of disgruntled workers seeking pay raises, Hunter announced, “Before I’m through with you, a dollar will look as big as a wagon wheel to you. I will run my business or run it to hell!” It seems that he blamed the failure of the Johnson Company on such elements and ordered all those workers who believed otherwise to be removed from town. These newly disenfranchised miners remained nearby and exerted pressure on the new workers who were beginning to arrive. The insurrection was punctuated by death threats against the new boss and incidents of violence within the camp. (In one such episode, gunshots were fired at a building where Hunter and other officials were meeting.) Hunter enlisted the help of the Texas Rangers and local law enforcement to both guard the new arrivals and evict troublemakers from the area. Eventually the labor proponents were either forced to leave or join the T&P Company under the autocratic rule of Col. Hunter. Thurber would be totally devoid of union influence until 1903 [Rhinehart 11, 74; Woodard 27, 32]].

The increased labor force was soon put to work on a tremendous building construction program. The main buildings such as the drugstore, general store, hardware store, and numerous other types of shops and offices were built in the period shortly after Hunter took control. In addition, the first schools, churches, and housing developments were added at this time. These stores were controlled by the company and provided the citizens with virtually every product and service required to live in Thurber. (See narratives entitled “Housing at Thurber,” and “The General Store and Other Businesses” for additional information about these subjects)[Hardman 89-90; Rhinehart 45-46; Woodard 33].

Perhaps the most important expansion of the Hunter years was the addition of eight additional coalmines from 1886 until his retirement in 1899. These additions represented almost half of the total number of mines in operation throughout the coalmining years of Thurber. When Hunter assumed control, there was only one mine in existence. In the 16 years following Hunter’s retirement, seven more mines would be established. After 1917, there were no more mines built in Thurber. Throughout the history of Thurber coalmining, there were 16 total shafts in operation. However, given the frequent closings and the establishment of new mines, there were never more than five mines operating at one time. These mines were named according to the number in which they were established. For example, the first mine to be dug was named “No. 1”, etc. The number 13 was considered unlucky, so after the twelfth mine was created in town, the next was named “New No. 1”, in lieu of christening a pit with such an accursed moniker [Hardman 63-64; Rhinehart 11; Woodard 100-101].

William Knox (W.K.) Gordon assumed the job of administering the daily operations in Thurber upon the retirement of Hunter. Although Edgar L. Marston, a son-in-law of Hunter, was technically the president of the company, the superintendent/general manager Gordon handled the day-to-day management responsibilities. While Marston remained in New York during his presidency, Gordon lived in Thurber and was the authority figure most identifiable to the workers. Gordon began working for the company shortly after Hunter founded T&P Coal. His became the chief mine engineer for the company and was responsible for ensuring worker safety in the mines and developing new means to increase production. He apparently performed quite well, because he was soon promoted to the position of superintendent and general manager of the company. Gordon gained the reputation of being a benevolent and fair boss who was known to be very assessable to his employees. Although his company would come into conflict with labor agitators, most sources from the era indicate that Gordon was at least highly respected by his employees. This was contrasted with the frequently despotic managerial style of his predecessor [Hardman 19-20; Rhinehart 71-72; Woodard 38-39, 71].

From 1888 until 1903, Thurber had operated outside of the influence of organized labor since the organizers had been faced down and then forcibly removed by then-president R.D. Hunter. There were frequent rumblings by union agitators during this decade, but the town remained firmly anti-union for the remainder of Hunter’s tenure. If company officials discovered an agitator, he was escorted out of town and frequently given a harsh beating. However, in 1903, the United Mine Workers or Anerica union returned to town. (The Knights of Labor had merged with this organization in 1890, boosting the influence of both groups.) The turn-of-the-century marked a resurgence of organized labor due mainly to the falling of wages, introduction of laborsaving devices, and rising unemployment in the coalmining camps. The discontent that had been concealed beneath the surface in Thurber emerged on Labor Day 1903. Following a rally at nearby Lyra, the still unorganized miners issued a set of demands concerning an increase in wages, decreased work hours, and a formal recognition of the UMWA, and other concessions. Gordon balked at these demands and the miners walked off the job, leaving less than ten workers who remained at work. In addition, most of the miners joined the UMWA and collectively walked out of Thurber—a tactic occasionally employed by striking workers. The town was almost deserted in the aftermath of this exodus and the coal industry was crippled for over two weeks. The scene must have somewhat surreal with all of the mines lying dormant and quiet, none of the miners present and milling about in the streets, and the Texas Rangers who were summoned to maintain order being forced to sit idle with no populace to patrol. It must be noted that none of the striking appear to have held any ill will towards Gordon personally (as opposed to the hatred many felt toward Col. Hunter during their earlier struggle.) In fact, it is reported that many miners stopped to exchange goodbyes with their boss as they were leaving town. The impasse lasted until President Marston arrived from New York to meet with the union. The historic meeting took place in Fort Worth on September 23-26, 1903 and an agreement was reached granting a pay raise, eight working hours per day, and official recognition of the worker’s union. This raise in salary was less than the union had originally demanded, but it represented a marked increase from the previous wages. In addition, the company guaranteed that the mines would be kept in safe working condition, complete with first aid supplies and ambulances available at each mine. For the first time, the company agreed to furnish death benefits for the families of any miners killed on the job. In a symbol of the newly won victory for the miners, the infamous barbed wire fence erected over a decade earlier was torn down and employees were allowed to live outside the town and trade with independently owned businesses. The United Mine Workers Union gained a huge amount of prestige following the settlement, becoming a force to be reckoned with in industrial centers throughout the Southwest. In the coming years, the state legislature began enacting many bills aimed at protecting industrial workers. Although the recognition of the miner’s demands ended the hegemony that the T&P Company held over its employees, the Company went on to enjoy over twenty years of virtually uninterrupted concord within its boundaries. The resulting peace allowed the Thurber mines to produce unprecedented amounts of coal and reach new level of prosperity that would last until the abandonment of the town by the end of the 1920s [Hardman 44-46, 50-51, 56-57; Rhinehart 85-91; Woodard 75-84].

The miners in Thurber were an extremely ethnically diverse group. At the turn of the century, 66% of the Thurber miners were of foreign birth. By 1910, an astounding 84 % were born outside the United States. The vast majority of these miners were not fluent in English. Of the eighteen different nationalities working in the mines, Italians composed the overwhelming majority, followed by the Polish and Mexicans. These groups tended to live near others of similar ethnicity and retained most daily customs of their homelands. These tendencies indicate that although Thurber was remarkably diverse from an ethnical standpoint, it could never be accurately described as a “melting pot.” (For a description of this inclination to live in separate ethnic sections, see the narrative entitled “Housing at Thurber.” [Reinhart 12, 94].

Coal mining was a very difficult profession. Before the concessions of 1903, the working day lasted twelve hours, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and lasting until the final whistle would blow at 5:30 p.m. Each miner was paid according to the amount of usable coal that he mined. The coal veins that held the coal deposits in Thurber were rarely over thirty inches in height. In the coal industry, such geographic occurrences were referred to a “pencil streaks” and its nature caused a great deal of difficulty for the miners. Since the deposits were so thin, the miners were forced to lie down in order to remove the layer of clay that surrounded the coal using a small pick. After this, the worker would drill a hole into the face of the tunnel and insert a small firecracker-like device in order to dislodge the coal. The tools of the miners’ trade had to be purchased outright at the company stores or bought on credit, which was subtracted from their salaries. After the blast, the liberated product was then scooped into a waiting rail cart to be sent to the surface. Each cart was labeled with an identification number of each miner. This blasting process was an extremely important part of the miner’s trade, yet it was one of the most imprecise. If the worker used too much powder, he might accidentally reduce the coal to pieces that were too small to be usable. The size of the coal samples was of utmost importance because the miner was only paid for those samples that were large enough not to be filtered out by the tipple that was used to measure the size of each piece of coal. The samples had to be 1 ¼ inches in order to be considered usable. This screening process, which eliminated “pea” coal (around 1/8 of each load), caused a great deal of discontent among the miners who frequently had their daily intakes drastically reduced. Furthermore, the worker was docked in pay if his loads contained too much debris (such as rock.) Therefore, the each miner had to conscientiously comb through his coal before sending his load to the surface. Because the miners were paid according to the amount of usable coal that each mined, the workers usually wasted as little time as possible. This meant bringing their lunch pails with them down into the shaft and eating the meal as quickly as possible. If anything unforeseen occurred such as a water leak, or collapse of a section of wall, the workers were expected to fix the problem without being compensated for the lost mining time. Likewise, the miners were dependent upon an assortment of other mine employees who manned the numerous other non-mining positions in the shaft. For example, if the employee in charge of emptying and re-circulating the coal carts fell behind on his responsibilities, many miners would suffer from lost production time. There were many such contingencies and it was estimated that as much as 40% of the workweek was occupied by such unwanted delays [Hardman 70-71; Rhinehart 20-21, 23; Woodard 55-57].

As might be surmised, coalmining was a very dirty and occasionally hazardous way to earn a living. The miners emerged from their subterranean workplace covered in black coal dust and oil. They reeked of carbide (used to fuel the small lamps on their helmets), blasting powder, smoke, sweat, and other assorted substances. It must have been extremely difficult to completely clean oneself because the law did not require bathhouses to be added to company homes until after World War I. Prior to this, the miners bathed in a washtub and scrubbed with pumice in order to clean up. It is easy to assume that most of these miners were never completely cleaned up. The working conditions also took a toll on the physical condition of the miners. The veteran workers frequently developed a stooped back, strained necks, and large knee calluses caused by laboring in the low tunnels and cramped quarters. They also tended to be a very pale skinned group due to the long hours spent from 52 ft. (Mine #4) to 327 ft. (New Mine #2) beneath the surface of the earth. These conditions often had more severe effects on the workers. Many miners developed “miner’s nystagmus” which could be identified with eye twitches, impaired vision, illusions of seeing light flashes, and general lightheadedness. The condition known as “black lung” frequently led to premature death due to the lungs becoming coated with coal dust and other foreign substances associated with coal mining, Although the coal mines in Thurber may not have been a glamorous place to work, they had the reputation for being among the safest in the country. Accidents were an inherent part of the mining trade, and numerous accidents and deaths occurred throughout the years of operation in Thurber. With the lack of sunlight for illumination, pits to fall into, machinery capable of ripping off human appendages, rail carts with the potential to run over unsuspecting miners, and blasting caps whose explosive qualities might cause unpredictable results, there was simply many ways to hurt oneself in a mine regardless of the safety standards of the company. However, the only major disaster in the history of Thurber mining, was the 1897 fire that destroyed Mine #5. Incredibly no one was killed in this inferno (except for eleven mules) [Hardman 71-72,76; Rhinehart 21, 105; Woodard 57, 60].

On October 22, 1917, the T&P Coal Company was changed forever by the discovery of oil at the No. 1 J.H. McCleskey well in nearby Ranger, Texas. W.K. Gordon was instrumental in initiating the pursuit of this new product; as he was the first to suspect that the lands owned by the company could possible contain oil deposits as well as coal. Gordon believed in the presence of large oil deposits in the area because he had drilled a well nine miles northwest of Thurber in 1915 and had struck a small deposit. However, given the tiny amount of oil derived from this excavation, it was believed that the potential amount of fuel that might be drilled would not justify the costs of further exploration. Marston persisted in his belief that large deposits existed in the area despite disagreement from several prominent geologists and doubts from company president, Edgar L. Marston. Finally, Gordon traveled to the New York offices and delivered his case to Marston personally. He managed to convince his boss and was able to procure funding for his pet project. Gordon chose Ranger for the drilling site because a group of civic leaders from that then-drought stricken town approached him and offered a deal in order to boost the economy of the struggling community. The search progressed throughout the summer of 1917, with Gordon doggedly overseeing the search despite growing apprehension from President Marston. A legend states that whenever Gordon exceeded the company budget for the project, he continued to conduct his search by paying the drillers using the mine commissary fund. Finally, in October, one of the company wells, the No. 1 J.H. McCleskey, struck a gusher and began producing sixteen hundred barrels of crude oil and 3.5 million feet of gas per day. In a few months, officials changed the name of the company to Texas Pacific Coal & Oil Company and moved the offices from New York to Fort Worth [Woodard 101-109].

The new prosperity of the company marked the beginning of the end for the coal business in Thurber. The discovery of oil in Ranger led to a bona fide black gold rush into the region. Oil soon supplanted coal as the primary industrial fuel in the region and nation. Simply put, coal had been made obsolete by the discovery of this new fossil fuel. The effect was particularly noticeable in the railroad industry, which had long been the primary consumer for the coal produced in the mining camps. When these companies switched to the more economic oil for fuel, the coal industry was devastated. The advent of petroleum-based products also led to the closing of the brick plant in Thurber. The highways were now being composed of oil-based and less expensive asphalt rather than bricks. In short, the more that American industry came to rely on oil as fuel, the more expendable coal-producing communities such as Thurber became. Due to the increasing obsolescence of coal as a fuel, the company began to focus more and more on the oil-producing branch of the company until the coal industry was virtually forgotten and the mines were gradually closed. The coalminers felt the effect of the diminishing market for their product and struck for higher wages in 1921. However, they discovered the sad truth that their labor was no longer important due to the rapid decline in demand for their coal. Given these new circumstances and the newly acquired expendability of the miners, there could be no negotiations. During the 1920s, miners began a slow exodus from Thurber in search of work elsewhere. In 1926, the last load of coal was extracted from the Thurber mines. Throughout the 1930s, the town of Thurber was methodically dismantled. The company razed or sold nearly every single structure in town. By 1938, Thurber had become the ghost town that it is today [Rhinehart 110-111; Woodard 122, 124,136-137].

Hardman, Weldon B. Fire In A Hole, Gordon, TX: Thurber Historical Association, 1975.

Rhinehart, Marilyn D. A Way of Work and a Way of Life. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1992.

Woodard, Don. Back Gold! The Saga of Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company, Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1998.