by Polla Horn
for The Frostburg Express
Martin Thomas O’Rourke
The United States, during the first half of 1893, was in the midst of a financial crisis. Banks, businesses, factories, and railroads went “belly-up.” The Western Maryland coal region escaped much of the devastation. Miners continued to work; the coal company executives increased dividends and cut miners’ pay from 50 cents to 40 cents per ton. Talks and conferences were held in an effort to protect the miners, all to no avail; the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. In March of 1894, the United Mine Workers of America laid the ground work for a strike of all mines, calling for higher wages and improved conditions. By the end of April, 160,000 miners throughout the nation were on strike. The UMWA had little success in getting Maryland coal miners to strike. Many of the men had vivid memories of the strike of 1882, when no one worked for six months. No work meant no pay, no food, no medicine, and sometimes, no housing. Many of the very young and very old perished due to the lack of these necessities. Those employed by the Consolidated Coal Company were reluctant to strike again. The company was known as the best employer in the district; the superintendents were fair; there were no “pluck me” (company) stores; the mines were made to be “as safe” as mines could be. By May 11th, all miners in the area were on strike, with the exception of the men from Eckhart, Hoffman, and Allegany mines. Without their support, the strike could not succeed.
Things got nasty. The entire body of local strikers, aided by reinforcements from Elk Garden, WV, converged on Frostburg. The wives, daughters, and mothers of the Eckhart miners went to the mines with their men, threatening to go underground and dig the coal themselves. Their husbands, brothers, and sons threatened war if any of the women were touched. The march failed.
Expecting even more trouble in Eckhart, the sheriff increased his posse to 100. On May 17th, houses in Eckhart were stoned. Windows were broken, shots were fired, and innocent people were injured. It is in this setting that Martin Thomas O’Rourke began a journal in which he continued to write for the next 36 years.
Martin was born on September 29, 1871 in Squirrel Neck Run near Midland. His father, Hugh O’Rourke, was born on June 18, 1844 in County Wexford, Ireland. His mother, Mary Alice Atkinson, was born in June of 1834. Hugh and “Alice” married in Auckland, England on September 10, 1869, and immigrated to America the following year. Martin, the oldest of their five sons, was a 23 year-old coal miner when he was swept up into the turbulence of the 1894 strike.
Martin’s journal began on May 8, 1894, when work at Ocean Mine in Midland was suspended. He chronicled the meetings and marches held during the month of May: “On May 8th a group went to Coney to induce the men to suspend work.” On May 12th: “Barton, Coney and Midland men marched on Hoffman, Eckhart and New Shaft to induce these men to suspend work. They did not suspend.” On May 18th: “Midland and Barton men had a scrap with Hoffman men from Vale Summit.” On May 20th: “Another crowd marched from Midland in all the rain to induce the Vale Summit men to suspend work. They did not suspend. ”On May 23rd: “A great mass-meeting was held on the Firlie property in Midland to hear the report from the delegates who attended the Cleveland convention. Resolutions were read and adopted that miners demand 50 cents per ton, and abolition of the weighman and the “pluck me” store. The actions of Mine Inspector McMahon were condemned and the Coney and Times News reporters were ejected from the meeting.”
On June 15th, the Maryland governor sent two units of infantry soldiers to Allegany County. Indignant over the call for militia, Eckhart, Hoffman and Allegany mines joined the strike. Over 3,000 men were out of work. Be sure to read next week’s “Miner Recollections” to learn more about our mining heritage through the writings of Martin Thomas O’Rourke.
A Second Visit to O’Rourke’s Journal
Last week’s “Miner Recollections” highlighted the journaling of Martin O’Rourke, a 23 year-old unemployed coal miner, who was caught in the midst of the Nation’s 1894 coal strike. In addition to mining, Martin was an accomplished fiddler and an excellent dancer. Trying to find a means of support, he and his cousin, James O’Rourke, started a series of dancing schools in West Virginia. After seven months, James gave up and moved to parts unknown. Martin tried to keep the schools going, but eventually returned to mining. He found work in Fahey’s mine, but was laid off after loading six cars.
On November 15, 1895, Martin penned that he was leaving home for McKeesport, PA. He was in Pittsburgh, Braddock, and neighboring towns---without finding any work; he moved on to Connellsville and Fort Leisenring, with the same futile result. Martin eventually returned home, writing on April 29, 1896 that he “started work on the new steel bridge at Knapp’s Meadow.”
On June 24, 1896, Martin left the Georges Creek Valley and headed west. After traveling for five days, he arrived at Leadville, CO. His journal entry states: “On my arrival there, I was informed that a strike was in progress. My luck as usual.” On July 4th: “Still in Leadville. This is as quiet a Fourth of July as I ever spent. My pocket-book is opposed to all and every kind of sport.” August 14, 1896: “I started to work at Gallagher mine. After working 13 shifts, I was laid off.”
On November 29, 1896, Martin wrote that he was heading for Butte, MT. He arrived two days later. On December 27th, he started to work at Green Mountain mine for $3.50 per day; he continued working there until August of 1897. For the next several months he had many jobs, mostly mining silver, copper, and lead. By January 1898, he was back at the Gallagher mine in Leadville, where he worked nine days before being laid off. On January 31: “I would like to know what is the use in trying to get along and not being able to do so. Looking and looking for work and can’t find any.”
Martin’s luck did not improve. Over the next three years, he lived in nine different towns in Colorado. From there he ventured onward to Kansas, where he worked in eight different cities. He returned to Colorado, and finally landed in New Mexico.
It took true grit to get through those five years; thoroughly discouraged and homesick, Martin returned to Maryland in April 1901. He found work in Ocean #8 of the Consolidation Coal Company, and soon afterward he married Miss Margaret McVeigh.
According to his journal, Martin and Margaret began to build a house in April 1904. Their first son, Hugh Martin O’Rourke, was born the following month on May 14th. Over the next few years, the house was filled with the laughter and antics of five more sons: William, born in 1906, Patrick in 1908, Harry in 1909, John in 1911, and Francis in 1914.
Martin continued to write randomly in his journal, mostly noting the births and deaths of family and friends. In 1918, he wrote detailed notes of the Spanish Influenza “raging in epidemic proportions throughout the country.” “I’ve heard that around 200 people died in our own community. All theaters, churches and schools are closed. Doctors are unable to handle the situation and undertakers are so over-burdened it is impossible to get a decent funeral.” In October, the deadly flu invaded the O’Rourke home. Everyone was sick except for Martin’s father. “How Dad took care of all of us is a mystery.” Martin’s youngest son, four year-old Francis, was near death and delirious when he began calling out to his playmates and repeating, “I’m going home.” Martin was so ill in bed that he could not move when his father came to tell him that little Francis had died. He wrote later that he recalled the day Francis was buried: “I went to the window to see the horse and rig take him away. We were torn with grief.” The rest of the family recovered from the flu but continued to mourn the death of their youngest.
Martin O’Rourke’s writings began with the strike of 1894 and ended with the strike of April1, 1922. Martin recorded days of “idle mines and considerable violence.” The strike ended in November 1923, as did his employment in the mines. Martin recorded the day in which Patrick, the third son, went off to school in 1925; and proudly, on June 10, 1930, he recorded Patrick’s day of graduation from St. Charles College. The last entry in Martin O’Rourke’s journal was made on Thanksgiving Day, 1930: “Very cold, some snow, windy. All were here for dinner and supper except for Patrick and Francis, of course.” With Margaret by his side, Martin’s family had survived the ups and downs of life, as did most mining families of that time. Martin died five weeks later on New Year’s Day 1931. Margaret died on April 20, 1956; they are buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Westernport.
Although Martin could play the fiddle and dance, his real talent was journalism. He took the time to capture important moments, never pausing to think that…87 years later…it would be saved, highly valued, and printed via the Times-News.
Our committee would like to thank Mike O’Rourke of Frostburg for sharing his grandfather’s very special journal.
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of state Route 36 and the National Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor all of our Georges Creek miners and name those who perished while mining.
Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to
Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF
P.O. Box 765
Frostburg, MD 21532.
We welcome updated information and encourage your participation. Contact Polla Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bucky Schriver at email@example.com to share your thoughts and stories. Be on the lookout for future “Miner Recollections.”