Metro-East News

Wally Spiers: Plaque to commemorate mine workers

Wally Spiers
Wally Spiers

A forgotten piece of Belleville history, well, West Belleville history, will get a historical marker soon as the city posts a plaque from the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission commemorating the formation of a union that some call the beginning of the national labor movement.

The marker will be placed in the 900 block of West Main Street to remember the American Miners’ Association which began in West Belleville in 1861 and swelled to more than 20,000 members before fading away due to national economic weakness, mine owners’ opposition and division within the union.

Jack Le Chien has written an article for an upcoming issue of the St. Clair County Historical Society Journal detailing the union and its effects of the coal mining industry.

He said he began working on the article when he ran across information on the AMA as he was researching West Belleville at the Belleville Public Library. The town was separate from Belleville until the two merged in 1882.

The union was formed in 1861 by Englishman Daniel Weaver, secretary, and Welshman Thomas Lloyd, president; immigrants in 1860 formed the Miners’ Association in West Belleville. The union later became the American Miners’ Association.

Miners were striking in Belleville in January 1861 over a second quarter-cent per bushel reduction in pay for miners. They had accepted the first reduction but balked at the second, which would have reduced their wages to two cents a bushel.

“From that strike in 1861 in Illinois grew the American Miners’ Association which may justly claim to have initiated the modern labor movement in the United States,” Edward Wieck wrote.

Wieck was from Staunton and a coal miner for nine years. He became a researcher and wrote a book about the AMA in 1940 while working in the Department of Industrial Studies of the Russell Sage Foundation.

From that strike in 1861 in Illinois grew the American Miners’ Association which may justly claim to have initiated the modern labor movement in the United States.

Edward Wieck wrote

“That’s a large claim, but the book makes a case for it,” Le Chien said. He added that he was unable to find much information online where someone refuted what Wieck claimed about the union.

In fact, the United Mine Workers of America, founded in 1890, recognize the AMA as its granddaddy, Le Chien said and as a “pioneer national labor union.”

When the strike was settled in February 1861, Weaver said in a letter to the Belleville Democrat that owners conceded to the union’s demands.

The settlement helped spur development as the union reached across the Mississippi River to St. Louis miners. In a March letter to the paper, Weaver said the union had grown rapidly to more than 500.

He said mine owners were fighting back by firing union workers and replacing them with new German immigrant miners, but those miners also were joining the union by “30s and 40s.” The union also benefited from the Civil War which was gobbling up available manpower making labor more scarce and valuable.

Jack Le Chien said mine owners were fighting back by firing union workers and replacing them with new German immigrant miners, but those miners also were joining the union by “30s and 40s.” The union also benefited from the Civil War which was gobbling up available manpower making labor more scarce and valuable.

The Miners’ Association called for better pay and better working conditions which often were horrible. Death and injuries were commonplace.

The plaque will go on the block, now a parking lot, where Lewis Huff’s Dance Hall and Beer Garden, 918 W. Main St., once was a popular gathering place for miners. It also was known as West Belleville Beer Garden.

Within a year, even as the union grew, changes were in the works. Weaver took part ownership in a mine, and John Hinchcliff, a Mascoutah resident and social and labor activist, became president in 1862. By 1863, he also was the editor of “The Weekly Miner,” a newspaper that became the public voice of the union.

With the name changed to the American Miners’ Association, Hinchcliff toured mines in eastern states as the union spread to Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania adding more than 20,000 members.

The AMA had national conventions in Cincinnati in 1864 and Cleveland in 1865. But at the 1865 meeting, Hinchcliffe was forced out of office although he continued to fight for labor. He became a lawyer and was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1871 where he pushed mine safety and fairness measures.

His departure caused dissension as some union chapters supported Hinchcliff and refused to support the newspaper.

“The demise of the American Miners’ Association coincided with the end of the Civil War and pent-up economic conditions that affected a strike at Blossburg, Pennsylvania resulting in the elimination of the American Miners’ Association in that area,” Le Chien wrote.

The union gamely hung on until the Panic of 1873 which also shook most of America. Internal dissension and the rotten economy led to its end.

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