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The Lesson of the Molly Maguires : ST. CLAIR: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town's Experience With a Disaster-Prone Industry by Anthony F.C. Wallace (Alfred A. Knopf Inc: $30; 576 pp., illustrated)

November 01, 1987|Lee Dembart | Lee Dembart is a Times editorial writer and book reviewer.

The historian's task always seems impossible, the barrier of time impassible. We can never feel how it felt to live in an earlier time, just as no future people will be able to feel what it feels like now.

But Anthony F. C. Wallace, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, comes close in "St. Clair," a monumental study of the anthracite coal-mining industry and its effect on one southern Pennsylvania town in the 19th Century.

Perhaps that doesn't sound like much of a subject, but Wallace's story of technology, labor, greed and, ultimately, collapse comes to life in his hands. To read this book is to be transported to another time and place.

I think it was John McPhee's book "Oranges" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1966) that first alerted me to the possibility of reading an entire book about something I didn't know I was interested in. Wallace's book on the history of anthracite coal mining is much longer than McPhee's on oranges, but it is no less enthralling. It does, however, demand a good deal of time and attention.

The first chapter, which describes in detail the technology of coal mining in the 19th Century, sets the book's tone and style. Wallace writes in a spare, precise prose that is all the more powerful for its understatement. His stock in trade is detail, and one can only marvel at the extraordinary amount of research and scholarship that was required to amass so much of it. (There is a densely packed 17-page bibliography at the end of the book.)

In that first chapter, Wallace explains the organization of the coal mines and the surface machinery that served them, then describes various technical, social and economic problems that had to be confronted. The concluding paragraph of that chapter foreshadows the story that follows:

"The colliery operators of Schuylkill County permitted extremely inefficient and unsafe working practices underground while maintaining relatively advanced engines and breakers on the surface. Failure to insist on the use of safety lamps, failure to replace furnaces with powerful surface fans and to sink double shafts, failure to leave adequate pillars, failure to set and maintain sufficient props and brattices and failure to ventilate or remove the gob (waste and debris)--all these failings were regressions from well-known principles of best practice in European, and particularly British, coal mines of earlier years. The price the operators paid was business failure; the miners paid with their lives."

What follows is the story of entrepreneurs with grandiose plans and the labor unions that inevitably arose to do battle with them. Wallace's book is social history and labor history as well as the history of technology.

A mine-safety law in Pennsylvania did not put an end to coal-mine disasters. St. Clair was the site of the tragic Avondale disaster in 1869, after which the first miners' union was organized there. A few years later the town became home to the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish organization of miners who were charged with murdering nine foremen and superintendents.

The star witness against the Mollies was a Pinkerton detective, James McParlan, who had infiltrated the organization. Though his testimony was suspect and attacked by the defense, public hysteria against labor organizations was feverish, and the jury deliberated only 20 minutes before convicting the accused workers. As a result, 20 men were hanged, starting with 10 in one day on June 21, 1877. The last man to be hanged, John Kehoe, was pardoned by the governor of Pennsylvania nearly a hundred years later.

Wallace's description of the unjust trial is clear and convincing. Far from being blind, justice favored management against labor. "If the courts of Schuylkill County in 1876 showed their readiness to bring accused Irish murderers to trial and execution," he writes, "in 1877 they revealed a marked unreadiness to prosecute and convict colliery officials for negligence directly responsible for fatal accidents."

The immediate effect of the Molly Maguire executions was to break the labor unions, but in the end, unenlightened management was done in by its own folly. "Ignoring the warnings of scientists, disregarding the principles of best practice, deluded by a mythology they and their friends had created, the operators had ruined themselves and decimated the communities around them," Wallace concludes.

But that's not quite all he has to say. Having produced this monumental study of one industry in one town in 19th-Century America, he then tells us that the facts and forces he has described are not limited to that industry or to that place or time.

"It is difficult not to find similarities in other industries," he says, "the railroads, steamboats, iron and steel in particular. And I find the anthracite model useful in trying to explain the perennial difficulty of regulating safety and security in present-day industries--nuclear, chemical, transportation, manufacturing and others."

"St. Clair" is a microcosm of the Industrial Revolution in America, and it is well to note that many of the problems of the 19th Century have not quite gone away in the 20th.

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