Historical Markers
Morewood Massacre Historical Marker
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Morewood Massacre

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Rte 119 overpass on Rte 981

Dedication Date:
September 29, 2000

Behind the Marker

Image of workers and coke ovens.
Coke workers at the Morewood Coke Works, Westmoreland County, PA, circa 1890.
"The workingmen, and especially the Hungarians, of the coke region are represented as an ignorant class of men. Certainly we are to a certain extent or we would not be toiling our lives out with work that former day slaves never dreamed of on a coke yard or in the mines. Ignorant as we are, we know that it is time to quit work and die of starvation rather than be trying to work and starving at the same time."
                                             -Matthew J. Welsh, Pittsburgh Times, 14 April 1894

A remarkable letter from Matthew J. Welsh, a worker from the Connellsville district, summed up frustrations that rarely found their way to print. Work in the region's markercoke ovens was notoriously dirty, dangerous, and ill paid. Pitched battles during the 1880s between workers and coke company owners, led by markerHenry Clay Frick set the stage for what became known as the "Morewood Massacre."

Already controlling 853 coke ovens, Frick in 1879 bought up several farms to form the Morewood property. There he planned an additional 500 ovens for his growing coke empire. That year Frick also brought the first immigrant workers to Morewood.
Several of the mine buildings, power house, tipple, coke yard and the Mt. Pleasant Supply Company store are shown in this early post card of Morewood.
Morewood Mine and Coke Works, Morewood, PA., circa 1905.

"Greedy, grasping, covetous, living next door to hunger that they may have a few more dollars to take back with them to Hungary, . . . they are a convenient lever to the operator's hand, wherewith he regulates the more demanding spirit of his other laborers," wrote a Pittsburgh Dispatch reporter after a visit. Their womenfolk, he wrote in astonishment, even helped fork coke into railcars. Described in lurid stereotypes as "hordes of Huns," the immigrants actually hailed from mining districts in Italy, Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland.

Expansion in the 1880s brought Frick's coke companies into the orbit of the country's two largest steel-producing districts. Chicago-area steel companies took a dominant share in the South West Coal and Coke Company that owned the Morewood property, and clamored for a flow of coke.markerAndrew Carnegie's steel company took a controlling share in the H.C. Frick Coke Company, and made identical demands.

During the hard-fought 1887 Pittsburgh-district coal strike, markerFrick heard from Chicago to conduct the strike "as Grant conducted his campaigns . . . pound them hard." But when the steel companies insisted on a nonstop supply of coke, Carnegie himself forced Frick to meet the coke workers' wage demands. This moment soured Frick against Carnegie.

Head and shoulders image of Henry Clay Frick, 1871.
Henry Clay Frick, 1871.
By 1891, a fog of suspicion, rumor, and ill will had descended over the Connellsville district. Both sides dug in. Carnegie now advised Frick, "Glad you are going to fix strike in coke. It is too bad but we must expect 3 years or so of trouble now."

The coke companies had let lapse the union-negotiated wage scale, and they now pressed the United Mine Workers of America for a wage cut. The union asked instead for an eight-hour day and a wage hike. By early February 10,000 men and 95 percent of the region's 16,000 coke ovens were idle. A month into the strike, the coke companies suggested a "sliding scale" that pegged wages to the market price of coke.

As Frick wrote to a Carnegie manager, "If we succeed in winning on the terms proposed, [union] organization in the Coke region is killed." The region remained tense but calm, despite a flare-up of violence at the non-union W. J. Rainey Company, still running with Pinkerton detectives guarding its coke workers - until the final week in March.

With a wage settlement apparently near, sixteen coke works reopened on March 26th. But when the Connellsville Courier crowed, "The great coke strike and lockout is broken," the strike leaders, believing they had been tricked, rejected the companies' offer. The situation turned violent.

A party of workers, 1,200 strong, marched on Morewood in the early morning hours of Monday, March 30th, overwhelmed the small force led by Sheriff Clawson, and damaged the unguarded works' coke ovens, buildings, and railroad tracks. Governor Robert E. Pattison quickly ordered in the local National Guard unit. On April 2nd, a second sortie of workers, again around 1,000 in number, moved on Morewood. There they were met by guardsmen led by Captain Loar, the local dentist. In English and Hungarian, Loar ordered the strikers to disband; the guardsmen opened fire (on whose orders it is not clear), killing seven strikers.

Image of workers and the coke ovens.
Coke ovens owned by the Henry Clay Frick Coke Company, Mount Pleasant, PA,...
When word of the deadly clash reached Harrisburg, the governor ordered an entire National Guard regiment to take control of the Morewood works. Frick instructed his man at Morewood: "Very important of you to make first sign of aggressive action by arresting all of last night's rioters that can be identified and got hold of. They are no doubt stunned and a blow just now will tell."

For their part, labor leaders sought an arrest warrant against Captain Lohr. A massive funeral, with about 10,000 in attendance, buried the fallen strikers two days after their deaths.

On January 30, 1891, the Connellsville Courier ran an article headlined "The Modern Moloch: Drenches His Altar in the Blood of Many Brave Men" describing the scene at the mass burial of 79 of the 118 victims in St. John's Cemetery near Mt. Pleasant.

During the service the vast concourse of people remained hushed and silent, but when the words ceased and the clods began to rattle on the coffins, the spell was broken, and sounds of bitter grief arose. Women rushed frantically forward sobbing and calling upon their dead ones, and no one in that vast concourse thought it unmanly to shed a tear. Then in one part of the throng was heard again in a thin treble voice the strains of the Slavic funeral dirge. It was taken up here and there until the accents of woe seem to fill the air and appeal to the very heavens. The strains died away as gradually as they arose, night draped her veil over the scene, and slowly and sadly the army of mourners filed out of the cemetery.

In the meantime, the coke companies began evicting strikers from company housing. A Pennsylvania state report noted, "The principal trouble about this time was caused by the strikers' wives resisting the deputy sheriffs, who were engaged in turning them out of the companies' houses. These women, mostly Huns and Poles, fought savagely against the evictions, and the deputies received very rough handling and in some cases were severely injured in the discharge of their disagreeable duty."

To keep the coke ovens burning, Frick imported more strikebreakers, sent in 100 hired men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and pressed his managers to stay firm.

The striking men, after enduring fourteen weeks of hardship and strain, drifted back to work the last week of May. "Coke victory complete," Frick cabled to Carnegie. A month later, Frick asked one of his lieutenants, "What have you done with all of the Winchester rifles, pistols, etc. purchased and sent you during the strike?" An ominous question, for just a year later, with the epic markerHomestead strike of 1892, Frick conducted another shootout against organized labor.
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