History feature — When strikes and Uniontown came to Newcastle

September 6, 2015

By Rich Crispo

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NEW — 6 a.m. Sept. 6, 2015

Early Newcastle was a coal town. That meant that everything — land and buildings — was owned by the coal company and the only jobs were associated with mining, separating, washing and delivering the black diamonds.

Conditions were hard and dangerous. As one account from that time noted, “There was a man killed in the mine last night. Mr. Oakley (a director) sent the coal car, with others in it, whizzing down into the mine. He fell out and it ran over him.”

As a result of these conditions, unions arrived and strikes became fairly frequent.

BackTrackingThe Knights of Labor representing 50 of the 250 workers was on the scene. It operated from 1881 until 1891 and was noted for being anti-black and anti-Chinese. 

There were some short strikes during the first five years, but in 1886, a major protest began over an employee reassigned to work with better pay. The Knights, however, did not feel he was entitled to such a move.

The 200 nonmembers were OK with the move and the company ignored the complaint.  The Knights recruited 200 protesters from Issaquah and closed the mine and threatened to blow up buildings.

The company responded by bringing in an additional 24 deputies from Portland. The ensuing skirmish (the sheriff and deputy were conveniently absent) left one dead and many wounded. The mine reopened after three weeks.

In 1891, another strike led to the company bringing in 650 workers as strikebreakers at wages 15 percent to 20 percent less than the whites. This eventually caused the end of the Knights.

Throughout most of the mining period, there was no such thing as paid retirement or Social Security. When a man could no longer handle a strenuous job, he was assigned to the screen tables. This is where the one-legged, one-eyed, one-lunged and elderly survivors found work. Sorting rock from coal was a miserable job.

Mine strikes occurred on and off for the next 20 years, but those were generally good times. The workers were then covered under the United Mine Workers union.

In 1919, a very serious protest took place. The company had worked hard on cost controls in order to compete with coal from Montana and Wyoming. The miners had enough and went on strike. In response, the workers were forced out of their company-owned homes and miners from Montana were brought in. The lease agreements allowed the company to reclaim the rented houses if there was a work stoppage.

The displaced miners set up camp at “Uniontown.” This was county property near the present day corner of Coal Creek Parkway and Southeast 89th Place. The strike lasted the better part of two years and the miners built some homes (two of which still exist with major modifications) and a few stores, and many found jobs in Renton.

The strike ended in 1922 and many of the workers returned to the coal mines. The company did not want another strike, so it resolved complaints and established a much-improved atmosphere with worker involvement in major decisions.

This collegial atmosphere lasted until 1927, when the Pacific Coast Coal Co. decided to close the mines and began the process of tearing down the buildings and removing all the railroad track. Most of the miners not involved in the teardown found work in other mining towns such as Issaquah, Black Diamond and Roslyn.

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