“Things happen in the bootleg coal region that are almost unbelievable for anyone not familiar with the whole story. Without their background they sound utterly preposterous. They’ve probably never happened anywhere before. They couldn’t happen except in such a region and in such a set of circumstances.“
-New York Times, 1935
“We don’t know and we don’t care who’s supposed to own the land. God put that coal there—not the Philadelphia and Reading Coal Company.”
-Mike McCloskey, bootleg miner
Schuylkill County, 1935
In the early 1930s, the hard coal industry collapsed seemingly overnight, and some Pennsylvania towns were left with over 50% unemployment. With the Depression on and nowhere else to go, the unemployed illegally sunk their own primitive mines on company-owned grounds—by the thousands. Together they made their own solutions, seized the mountains, and stood their ground for a decade against the power of the police, coal companies, courts, and even JP Morgan. They also organized—as the unemployed, as citizens, as union members, and ultimately, as a bootleg coal miners union.
The Bootleg Coal Rebellion is the long-forgotten story of the Depression-era bootleg coal miners. Using his background in community and labor organizing, author Mitch Troutman provides an explosive and accessible profile of this phenomenal chapter in American History by retold through the bootleggers’ own eyes. Beyond illegal mining, it is also the story of convergence of the Equalization movement, the miners’ union democracy movement, and the Communist-led Unemployed Councils of the anthracite region. This history is full of important lessons about community, organic mobilization, unity and power that organizers and activists today will find both informative and inspiring.
“Troutman is a gifted storyteller. Combining rich imagery and down-to-earth writing with prudent historical research, he shows us what working class people are capable of when companies push them to the brink of starvation. What the bootleggers endured and accomplished is extraordinary. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better tale of democratic rebellion anywhere, particularly one with so many lessons for today. Modern-day coal barons beware: this book will turn readers into renegades.”
author of Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania and co-founder of Anthracite Unite.
“… Troutman’s wide-ranging research enables him to tell the story with great immediacy, at times almost person by person. We learn how dangerous this improvised mining could be when we are told in detail how often inexperienced young men (and a few women) went forth to scrape what was left off old shafts or seek to open up new veins of coal without being able properly to support the roof under which they dug. We watch as every member of the family of unemployed miners has a task capable of performance at his or her age in the improvised production process.
“We admire not only the exhaustive work Troutman has done but also his fresh style in narrating and reflecting on what was going on. In the book as a whole, the truth emerges from the internal experience of the people.”
Staughton and Alice Lynd
historians, activists & lawyers.
“Using local newspapers and oral history interviews, gifted historian Mitch Troutman tells the story of the miners as the women, children, storekeepers, truckers, and priests who participated in the bootleg coal rebellion. Great read!”
Karol Kovalovich Weaver
Author of Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880-2000.
“The most detailed account we have of coal bootlegging in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania in the Depression decade. It shows how unemployed miners took over unused mines, asserting and defending a right to mine and market the coal to support their families. Local government, the courts, and whole communities supported their efforts, writing a remarkable chapter in American labor history. We are in debt to Mitch Troutman for telling this remarkable story.”
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Binghamton, and author of The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century.