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Every time I drive past the freeway exit for Coal Hill near Clarksville my mind is consumed with images from the Coal Hill Horrors of the 1880s. Horrific indeed.

State prison inmates, who were legally leased to coal mine owners, were being subjected to brutal conditions. While nature blessed Arkansas with substantial coal deposits, taking advantage of them has been sporadic, with mining generating more than its share of violence, greed, and labor unrest.

The Arkansas coal reserves are concentrated in a narrow band along the Arkansas River Valley from Russellville west into Oklahoma, with much mining centered in Franklin, Johnson, and Sebastian counties. Geologists estimate that Arkansas has coal deposits of about 2.2 billion tons, about half of which is considered recoverable. It is mostly bituminous, usually found in veins about two feet thick.

Coal mining began in Arkansas about 1840, with a mine at Spadra worked intermittently to produce coal for blacksmithing needs. The state hired David Dale Owen, a prominent geologist and the son of Harmony, Ind., utopian reformer Robert Dale Owen, to conduct a geologic survey, which identified many mineral resources, including coal deposits.

Later in the century Herbert Hoover, as an engineering student, helped chart the coal reserves of the state. As was the case with most mining ventures in 19th-century Arkansas, poor transportation meant that large-scale coal mining had to await the arrival of the railroads after the Civil War.

The construction of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad during the 1870s opened the Arkansas River Valley to extensive commercial coal mining. By 1892, officials estimated that 2,000 miners worked in Sebastian, Johnson, and Pope counties. Two years later Sebastian County was home to 25 mines with 1,135 workers. The mine at Jenny Lind near Fort Smith alone employed 425 miners.

Coal mining in Arkansas has been tainted by scandals and labor problems. For years after the Civil War mine owners made use of leased convicts to work the mines. Rumors circulated about the abuse, overwork, and outright murder of convict miners at Coal Hill in Johnson County. Finally, in 1888 the state board of penitentiary commissioners inspected the mine at Coal Hill, with the findings reported in the Arkansas Gazette under the headline "A Hell in Arkansas."

Investigators learned incredible facts, including that at least three mine wardens had beaten prisoners to death, including one who received 400 lashes before dying. The 140 prisoners were housed in a single bunkhouse, sleeping in their work clothes on corn-shuck mattresses that had not been changed in 15 months. Investigators commented on the "sickening stench" which "offended even the hardened nostrils of the 19th century," as one historian has written. A nearby graveyard contained 60 to 70 bodies over which inquests had not been conducted as required by state law.

The death of convict leasing did not end labor disputes, which grew as laborers throughout America in the late 1800s joined the burgeoning unions. Miners in Greenwood in 1893, as members of the Knights of Labor, closed the Diamond Coal Co. mine by use of a blacklist.

In 1894 over 1,400 Arkansas miners engaged in a general strike called by the United Mine Workers. While the strike was ultimately unsuccessful, it demonstrated that Arkansas miners were becoming more militant.

The growing use of immigrant labor aided the growth of unions. Hartford in south Sebastian County had its own Little Italy neighborhood. Black Arkansans were allowed to work the mines. By 1903 Arkansas miners won recognition for their union, and regional collective bargaining was the order of the day.

Immigrants were not always welcomed with open arms. A general brawl involving Polish immigrant miners and local residents erupted at a Christmas party in 1913 at the Wheelbarrow Coal Mine in Johnson County. Two of the immigrants were beaten to death in a fight which the Johnson County sheriff described as involving "rocks, knives, and clubs." Several men on both sides were seriously injured.

In 1914 the Mammoth Vein Coal Mining Co. announced it would no longer recognize the United Mine Workers contract at Prairie Creek Mine No. 4 in south Sebastian County. This action resulted in violent confrontations, jailings, the loss of property, and the use of regular U.S. Army troops to quell the violence. Over the next 12 years legal actions took this case before the U.S. Supreme Court twice, with such prominent jurists as Charles Evans Hughes arguing for the miners.

Today, when unions are in a long period of decline, it is difficult to imagine the extent of organized labor in the Sebastian County mines in 1914. Many local businessmen supported the miners. When the mine owners hired the W. J. Burns Detective Agency to confront the miners, over 1,000 local citizens, including a few bankers, marched on the mine in support of the miners. One of the speakers was Freda Hogan, the daughter of a local socialist newspaper editor from Huntington. The Hogan family would go on to support organized labor for years to come.

Later the miners overpowered the company guards and occupied the mine, hoisting an American flag and a banner atop the mine building that read "This is Union Man's Country." Still later, two men were killed when strikers attacked and burned the mine buildings.

By 1927, when coal production in Arkansas was in decline, the unions had lost control and many mines began hiring non-union labor. Although various efforts have been made to mine coal in Arkansas during the past half-century, none have amounted to much.

In 2014 Arkansas coal mines produced a mere 1,000 tons of coal, compared to almost 395 million tons in Wyoming, America's major coal producing state.

Memorials to coal miners can be found in both Greenwood in southern Sebastian County and Paris in Logan County.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at An earlier version of this column was published April 11, 2004.

Editorial on 03/10/2019

Print Headline: Convicts as coal miners


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