Coal Mining in Illinois


By Sandy Vasko 2001
Reprinted from the Time Was Column
Free Press Advocate, Wilmington, Illinois
Quarterly publication
Will County Historical Society
Fall 2001

Braidwood in the 19th century was a wild and wooly town. The reason that Braidwood exists at all is coal. Those hardy people who came here to mine that coal were not exactly upper crust society.

Braidwood sprouted up, practically overnight, like a mushroom after the rain. In 1872 James Braidwood sunk his coal shaft, and one year later, in 1873 there were over 2,000 people in the town named after him. A good portion of the first inhabitants of the city were Irish, but the poor of almost every European nation found a home here.

With so many immigrants from around the world, it is not surprising that there were differences of politics and religion. But, unfortunately, this difference often erupted into violence. In April of 1876 closely contested elections were being held for town officers. The day started out peaceful enough, just before the polls closed a fight broke out. No one knows what started it, but as quick as it takes to write this, a general melee broke out.

Marshall Simms went into the crowd and arrested Pat Creeley, one of the ringleaders. Creeley made no resistance, but the crowd would not have it. They tried wrestling the Marshall to the ground, at which point he drew his revolver, meaning to use it as a club. The crowd grabbed for the gun and Marshal Simms withdrew without his prisoner, but with his life intact.

The rumpus then grew, and several innocent by-standers were attacked and beaten. The whole thing happened so quickly that the rioters had it their own way. Eventually things calmed down, but not for long. A spirit of riot and violence was abroad, and next showed itself in an attack on the polls themselves. The mob was victorious, stealing the whole record of the election.

The election judges were unharmed, but a Mr. LaHines who had been selected by the Republicans to be present at the counting of the votes was unmercifully beaten by the mob. It seems he tried to save the tally list of the ballot count that he himself had made. There were no arrests.

By 1877 things had gotten much worse. The entire country was in the throws of a depression. Jobs everywhere were scarce, and those with good paying jobs, found themselves taking cuts in pay to hold on to what they had. Trains were stopped, shops were closed, and machinery of all kinds stood idle. It was no different in the coalfields, demand for coal plummeted as factories, the largest user of coal, cut back production or went out of business entirely.

On April 1st, 1877 the coal companies asked the miners to take a cut. The winter rate went from 90 cents to 65 cents per ton of coal mined, and the summer rate dropped from 85 cents to 70 cents. The miners went on strike. The companies brought in strikebreakers from other localities, and after a month started bringing in "black legs," blacks from the impoverished South, hiring them by the day. Lockport papers reported them coming through that town by the train carloads.

In June of that year, the strike was still on. We read in the Braidwood Daily Phoenix, "Major Munn of Joliet, upon behalf of the companies met the miners for committee on Monday for the purpose of making a settlement. The companies persisting in their reduction of 25 cents and the men firmly resisting. The men are, without a doubt, willing to accede to any honorable compromise, but at the companies offer they think it is just as well to starve outside as to starve inside the mines working as slaves."

On Sunday in July, thinking that there is safety in numbers, the black miners from the Chicago, Wilmington, and Vermilion Mine walked a mile to the Eureka Mine to socialize. They walked in a line, surrounded on both sides with the striking white coal miners and their wives. The paper reports that there was no physical violence, but there was much offensive language used, mostly on the part of the women.

At the end of July, things came to a head. The striking miners started to form groups, whose intentions it was to kill or maim every strikebreaker in town, especially the "black legs." The mining companies and county officials promised to protect them, but they fled. Some went to Wilmington, some to Morris, some just camped out on the prairie waiting for everything to blow over. Local officials, sensing things had gotten out of control called on the governor for help.

Gov. Cullom sent 1,300 soldiers to the scene to restore order, 200 of which stayed in the city for several weeks. He visited Braidwood himself, counseling peace and guaranteeing protection for all. Things calmed down, and eventually the strike was broken. Some of the black miners left, but a good many stayed, working in their own shaft and raising their families there.

This lawless climate did not only affect the miners, but everyone in town had to be on guard. In the Braidwood section of the Wilmington Advocate we read, "A well known young man of Braidwood, under the influence of the oppressive heat, fell asleep upon the porch of a certain store, and upon awakening found himself minus two gold rings from his fingers, He is now hanging on to his eye teeth, fearing their departure next."

In the same edition we also read, "During a rumpus at Posta's saloon on Tuesday last, a beer glass thrown at someone, struck a young son of William Campbell, Sr. cutting fearful gashes in his head and knocking him senseless. A warrant for the guilty party was issued, and $10 settled the affair."

In September, 1878 in an article about a town meeting, the following, "Dan Layless or "Lawless" a thoroughbred vagabond and lowlife ruffian from Braidwood took especial pains to disgrace himself and his associates at the mass meeting on Tuesday. The lawless and cowardly villain assaulted not less than three unoffending citizens in blasphemous and obscene language that could only emanate from the blackguard or pimp of the most degraded character. Aside from this, everything passed off orderly as could be desired."

In November of the same year the Advocate reported an unfortunate accident to Miss Julia Sullican, 17 years old. It seems that two young men in their late teens from Braidwood were returning from duck hunting at Goose Lake. They had been "drinking somewhat," and fired at several houses along the road at an unlucky moment, and received a ball in the shoulder. It glanced down to the lung and remained lodged there, despite being probed several times by Dr. Willard to remove it.

On the following day, the boys were examined in a Braidwood court and dismissed as being not guilty of intent to do injury. Ed Conley, editor of the Advocate was outraged. He wrote, "To say the least of the matter, it looks like an act of fool hardy, criminal carelessness, known in lay as malicious mischief. If they were sober, then so much the worse for them. No one doubts that the young men were innocent of intent to shoot anybody, though it is difficult to couple their conduct with that idea."

Braidwood was also full of transients, tramps, and thieves mainly due to the influx of coal miners, who usually only stayed a few years, and the railroad. It was reported in the paper, that the Braidwood marshal would make regular sweeps of the empty railcars to find the many homeless who were sheltered there. The citizens of the town locked their doors at night, and were constantly fearful of being robbed.

Women went indoors when the sun went down, and doors were locked and bolted. If you were leaving town, you did not tell anyone, because chances were that you would return home to find your valuables missing. On Sunday, November 19, 1878 this atmosphere of fear lead to the accidental shooting of the town marshal.

The editor of the Wilmington Advocate was not one to repeat baseless rumor, and so when it was learned that Father McGuire, pastor of the Catholic Church at Braidwood had shot the town marshal, Patrick Muldowney, he tried to get just the facts. He found that the editors of the Braidwood papers were having a field day, printing every rumor they heard, including one that held there was a romantic triangle involving the priest, his housekeeper, and the marshal. Being above that, he printed an account of the article printed orginally in the Chicago Times. The following is that account.

"Father McGuire was quite ill and indisposed on Sunday last-so much so that no high mass was celebrated; that his sexton and usher, Muldowney, spent the day with him from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Muldowney then went away, presumably home, and Father McGuire went upstairs and retired. Between 8 and 9 p.m. Muldowney returned, unexpected by the priest, and Mr. Muldowney took it upon himself to lock the door leading to the housekeeper's apartment and put out the lights-a strange proceeding to say the least.

The noise made by Muldowney awakened the priest, who found himself in darkness and imagined the time to be near midnight. With his fears wrought up somewhat, he grasped a revolver and approaced his bedroom door, and in a distinct voice asked, 'Who is there?' No reply was given; yet approaching footsteps were heard on the dark stairway, when the affrightened priest said: 'If you are a friend of mine, give your name or I'll shoot you!' no reply coming, he fired.

At the instant of the first shot Muldowney had reached the top of the stairs; Muldowney then rushed to the bedroom door, 20 feet distant from the landing, and during the rush, three more shots were fired before Muldowney made himself known. 'Father, you've shot me-you've killed me,' he exclaimed.

"Oh my God, Pat, have I killed my best friend?" replied the priest.

The housekeeper came immediately after the shooting and was dispatched for Dr. LeCaron who lives but a block distant. The doctor arrived almost instantly, and found the priest embracing the wounded man and giving way to excessive grief, almost approaching a state of frenzy. Upon examination it was found that two bullets out of the four had taken effect- one in the shoulder and one in the abdomen- two or three inches to the right of the navel.

Father McGuire declared his intention of at once going to Chicago and laying the case before his bishop, when his filing of bonds was suggested. A warrant was accordingly issued at the instance of Dan Lawlor and a son of the wounded man. Bail was readily furnished in the sum of $50 and Father McGuire repaired to Chicago, saw his spiritual superior, and returned with an eminent surgeon to the bedside of the wounded man. Contrary to expectation, the surgeon expressed an opinion favorable to Muldowney's recovery, although the wound in the abdomen was of a very serious character."

After printing the above description of the event, the editor of the Wilmington paper came in for some heat himself. The two Braidwood newspapers rallied against him, saying he was taking up for the priest, and wanting to know why he didn't publish the testimony of two supposed witnesses. Editor Conley replied that the two witnesses were "Orangemen; and come to think of it, one other of them was a jackass!" The Joliet News accused Conley of "attempting to aid Father McGuire and like all persons who set up a defense before accusations are made, he does injury to the cause." But editor Conley, a Civil War veteran, just said that he knew precisely what he was writing and did it in a just cause.

Unfortunately, Patrick Muldowney did not survive the week. His funeral was one of the largest ever witnessed in this area. The service was held at the Catholic Church with Rev. Hennessy of Chicago celebrating the mass. He was buried in a cemetery just south of the city. The funeral procession was huge. First came the mayor, council, and municipal officers of Braidwood, followed by the officials of the township of Reed, all wearing crepe. Then came the hearse, with pallbearers in single file on either side, and next followed by some 93 carriages and other vehicles. Mr. Muldowney left a family of six children; the youngest was only one year old, and a heart broken wife.

Father McGuire was immediately put of trial for homicide. The housekeeper testified at the trial. She was described as being unpretending, unattractive, and about 25 years of age. She gave the same account as we have printed. The dead man's son testified that his father had told him, that if he were to die he did not blame the priest, for the Father had mistook him for a tramp. He said he had not replied to the priest calling out, because he thought that Father McGuire was joking with him.

Lastly Father McGuire took the stand. He testified that since the strike in Braidwood, that brought so many strange people to the town, burglaries became more frequent. And he became so apprehensive that he couldn't not sleep at night. It was by Muldowney's advice that he bought the revolver for protection. His nervous condition grew worse. Once or twice thieves tried his house and once they actually got in, but were frightened away by his watchdog. He then put it in his mind, that he would not allow them to reach the top of the stairway. When he heard the footsteps on the stair, he called out for the intruder to identify himself. When the footsteps got to the top of the stairs, he shot. He then recognized the voice of his best friend, and they rushed into each other's arms.

The case was given to a jury and after an hour they came back with a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Of course, prowlers and robbers were not the only threat that Braidwood residents feared. Another was fire. Because the town went up so quickly, almost all the buildings in town were wood frame, instead of the more permanent brick or stone. With the Chicago fire being the most well known example, most early 19th century towns experienced large fires.

On April 22 of 1879 it was Braidwood's turn to burn. Editor Conley of the Advocate described the situation so well that I will let him tell it. One note, the Eagle Hotel mentioned in the article was also the first hotel built in that city. And so we go on to the article entitles "The Great Fire."

"That excellent servant but terrible master, fire-in all his demonic fury swooped down upon our flourishing city as a wolf on the unprotected fold on Tuesday afternoon. In one short hour Braidwood was transformed from its usual quiet into a state of wild excitement and confusion that simply beggars description. In that short hour a dozen public and private buildings bowed submissively before the awful mandate of the fiery monster. Hope well nigh gave way to despair, and poor humanity stood aghast with the terror at the advancing strides of the fire fiend.

As to the origin of the fire, there are several theories. Some say 'twas burning rubbish near a stable yard at the old Eagle Hotel; others opine that 'twas started by careless children in the yard just in the rear of the Broadben house. Be that as it may, the fact remains. A brisk breeze was blowing from the southwest at the time, and the latter named hotel, was soon enveloped in flames; thence they leaped across the street to the extensive and well-filled corn cribs and also to the corner easterly, occupied by Messrs, Johnson, Walker, Downey, and others.

The grain elevator and railroad depot were next doomed to destruction, and everything being dry as tinder, building after building succumbed in spite of the Herculean efforts of heroic men to save. The flames had now reached and crossed the railroad track and threatened the coal chutes and post office block, and then-ye gods! The entire business portion of the city!

What marvel that many a stout heart qualied, that almost frantic women wrung their hands in despair; that men raved at the immediate prospect of being rendered homeless and penniless? But now despair yielded to determination; to save the coal chute was to save Braidwood, and the struggle became hand-to-hand.

A ravaging, merciless, conflagration, pitted against the almost superhuman efforts of a hundred men-excited, disorganized, and only provided with indomitable wills and some dozen common water pails. The chute and Burt house were mounted by resolute, determined men, who felt that the fate of Braidwood was in their hands.

Full buckets were passed up in rapid succession to the exposed heroes, whose blackened and singed faces attested to the fact that they held the key to the whole situation. Thank God, Valor won the fight! Though the first caught time and again on the coal chute and Burt house, it was as often battled, and finally having spent its force, it seemed to slink away into oblivion.

Meanwhile, anticipating the worst, the crowds came, and we regret to say, the thieves went after their plunder. These vandals, who came under the guise of friendship to help sufferers, but in reality to steal and plunder from the unfortunates, cannon be condemned in too strong a language.

The Joliet fire department was rallied on receipt of the news of the fire. A steamer was at once placed upon a flat car, and all was in rediness to leave for Braidwood, but owing to "red tape" formality on the part of the railroad officials, an order to start the train was not received until about 5 o'clock, at which hour the fire had done its worst. The train, with its impatient load, made the run at the rate of a mile a minute. On its arrival, a glance told that the fired company and its steamer could accomplish no good. Let us here say that the rumor stating that the Joliet fire department refused to work until assured of pay was a damaging falsehood.

Now as to losses, the total being $40,000. The safe, tickets, furniture, etc. was removed from the depot and other parties were able to remove some as well.

W.H. Odell is the heaviest loser, losing a warehouse and engine, a large amount of oats, a gristmill, 35,000 bushels of corn, cribs, and etc. totaling $20,000-insurance $5,700.

John Broadbent lost hotel, dwelling, and barn totaling $5,000-insurance $2,700

John Walker lost a saloon, dwelling, and feed stable worth $4,000-no insurance.

George Johnson lost his saloon worth $4,000-insurance $1,500

M. Hunter lost two tenements valued at $1,000-insurance unknown.

Mrs. Angell lost her home valued at $500-fully insured.

Jabez Downey, lost his blacksmith shop, wagon shop, dwelling, and barn valued at $2,500-no insurance.

Eagle Hotel owned by C & W Coal Company rented to John Moore, $500-insurance unknown

C & A dept, tracks, etc. $1,000

C.K. Charleston house and furniture, $2,000

John Moore house $1,000

Many heroic indicents are related in connection with the fire and putting it under subjection; but comparisons are odious, and where so many did equally well we will forbear the mention of especial names in the article. Let them be thanked heartily, and let God be thanked that the result, bad as it is, is no worse."

This information was put together from my Time Was column in the Wilmington Free Press Advocate. I would like to thank them for allowing me to republish it here for the benefit of the Will County Historical Society.