The Mining Strike of July 1933


Like many of our patrons, we received mail from some distant locales this holiday season. One package arrived from the Museum of South Texas History, whose curator sent us two pictures to add to our collection.

The images date back to 1933 and depict National Guard troops stationed in Brownsville during the coal strikes. Both were stamped for distribution through the Central Press Association and arrived with suggestion captions taped to the back.

Brownsville National Guard

“BROWNSVILLE, PA . . . Pennsylvania National Guard troops sent to prevent violence in the coal regions establish their camp three miles west of Brownsville.” July 31, 1933.

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Researching Your Coal Mining Ancestors


Fayette County has seen two particularly large waves of immigration — the pioneers and the industrial workers — that offer unique challenges for the genealogist.

In the era of the pioneers, the county did not keep vital records and the census only reported the heads of the households’ names. Many of the churches founded at that time have since folded or combined with other congregations. And some families just loved to repeat certain names, even within generations. (In the course of answering a research request, I have definitely muttered, “The number of William Martins in this family is too damn high.”)


A member of the Coal and Iron Police rides alongside a State Trooper.
Credit: Uniontown Public Library.

On the other hand, those who immigrated to work in the coal mines or coke yards often rented their homes instead of purchasing property, leaving no deed or mortgage records. Their names were confused and misspelled by just about every official they met. Many died without leaving a will or the money to fund the purchase of a permanent headstone, and unfortunately, wooden markers don’t last all that long in Pennsylvania weather.

There were many who came here, made the money they needed, and returned to their home country. Some came to America entirely alone, leaving future researchers bereft of the local family connections that can be so helpful in tracking down an ancestor.

I find researching our county’s coal and coke workers much more interesting than researching earlier immigrants, possibly because many of my own relatives came to work in the industry. So, I thought I’d share some of my favorite resources — not just for tracking down your coal mining ancestors, but for understanding how they lived.

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This Week in History: The Braznell Mine Disaster of 1899


This segment features a news item from Fayette County’s past. This week we examine a story from the January 6, 1900 edition of the Daily News Standard called “Coroner’s Jury Verdict.” 

An hour before sunrise on December 23, 1899, engineer Solomon Meese stood near the mouth of the Braznell Mine. As the operator of the cage that transported workers up and down the mine shaft, he’d already sent a few groups down that morning. Others had gone in before he’d arrived and were busy preparing for their shift more than a hundred feet below the surface.

When a signal came to raise the elevator, Meese laid his hand on the lever that controlled it. He then heard a strange sound come up out of the earth — a rumble, a groan — and suddenly the lever was jerked from his grasp. The door to the engine room slammed shut. Then a torrent of air carrying twisted chunks of metal, smoke, and human limbs shot up through the shaft and knocked Meese to the ground. The Daily News Standard described the moment vividly:

“There was a loud roar, like the bursting of a hundred cannon, a ripping sound of timber torn from the buildings, a pattering of debris as it settled back to the earth in a confused mass from its flight in the air; then silence . . . A gray vapor, pungent to the taste, began to pour out of the mouth of the pit, and the trained and experienced miner known what this meant.”

By the time the dust settled, blanketing the immediate area in blackness, the mine’s tipple was destroyed and the engine room’s roof was torn away. One of the cage elevators, large enough to carry eight men, had been propelled out of the shaft by the force of the explosion. Even the shed over the mine’s ventilation shaft had been blown off.

Braznell had been in operation for under a year and had no major accidents on its record. So, what had gone wrong?

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