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[ Credits ][ Anthony F.C Wallace and Paul A. W. Wallace ]

Life in town

Miners' Journal Building, Pottsville
Miners' Journal building, Pottsville, PA
The first white settlers in the region of Saint Clair made their living through farming and lumber, however with the discovery of rich coal deposits there during the early 1820s, the economy rapidly changed. Aware of the economic potential of coal, Henry C. Carey, Isaac Lea, Edward L. Carey, and Abraham Hart purchased a tract of land from Arthur St. Clair Nichols and Frances B. Nichols and soon laid out the streets of a town they named St. Clair. Following the opening of Parvin's Colliery, coal mining would dominate the economy of Saint Clair for more than a century. Between 1824 and 1870, coal mining grew from a fledgling enterprise comprised of independent operators into a booming industry. Throughout the region, coal breakers rose from the ground and loomed over the surrounding patches and company towns, both literally and figuratively.

Unlike the patches, the town of St. Clair provided all of the amenities needed by its residents, boasting a main business district with a range of shops, services, and social opportunities. Its churches reflected the religious and ethnic diversity of its inhabitants: members of most ethnic groups attended a church serving only that group. While St. Bonifacius served German Catholics, for example, Saint Mary's served Irish Catholics, with the divisions continuing even after death: each church supported its own burial ground. Conversely, many ethnic groups were internally divided by religion. In Saint Clair, one could find Welsh Congregationalist, Welsh Baptist, and Welsh Calvinist churches, while the Methodists, mostly of English origin, were divided into the more conservative Episcopal Methodists and the Primitive Methodists, whom Wallace describes as "not only a working-class church but the coal miners' special denomination." The Primitive Methodist church was, in the eyes of its members, "Methodist as John Wesley had intended it to be," and it played a prominent role in nurturing radical unionism during the late 1860s.

Saint Bonifacius German Catholic Church, St. Clair, PA

Most of Saint Clair was comprised of craftsmen, merchants, and members of the professions, but miners and laborers also lived within its boundaries. In 1850, more than half of the population of Saint Clair was foreign-born, with most hailing from Ireland, England, Wales, and Germany. More than the other immigrant groups, the German population was concentrated in town, probably because the form of government and the town's institutions mirrored those of their homeland. The Welsh and English were nearly as concentrated in town and there recreated a network of community organizations similar to those they had left behind in Britain.

In contrast, most Irish immigrants had roots in a rural, essentially pre-industrial culture. They came not to create better versions of their lives, but because they were forced away from their land by famine or eviction. For the Irish, emigration was an occasion for mourning and for holding "American wakes," at which women keened as they would for a loved one's death. Romantically, the Irish are reported to have stood on the decks of immigrant ships, gazing at the shore of their homeland until it disappeared from view.

The differing experiences of Irish and other immigrant groups produced a fissure in the Saint Clair community that was hard to bridge. The Irish had difficulty relating to government, law enforcement, and the judicial system. Their experience in Ireland had led them to perceive the state as "an English governmental apparatus" working on behalf of the English and Anglo-Irish landlords. For the Irish, the police and courts were "instruments of oppression." Throughout the nineteenth century, the Irish residents of Saint Clair were poorly represented in local government. Only one town council member during the 1870s was Irish: Michael Hillan, a tavern keeper and friend of WBA leader John Siney. Almost all of the members of the town council owned property, were successful tradesmen or merchants, and nearly all had English, Welsh, or German names.

Unaccustomed to the rigidity of industrial life, many Irish chafed at the discipline and authoritarian structure of nineteenth century Saint Clair. Craft unions and benefit clubs -- familiar to the English, Welsh, and Germans -- were largely foreign to the Irish. To a greater extent than other ethnic groups, the Irish created lives for themselves in which work, finances, and social relations were structured around extended family networks, relying upon kin and imagined kin during times of trouble." While other ethnic groups relied upon the town, the government, the union or club, Wallace suggests the Irish were "clannish." "Their wakes and weddings were family, not community, events; to kinsmen they turned in case of accident, or illness, or financial need; and injuries to a kinsman were a matter for kinsmen to avenge."

The reliance upon extended family meant that for young, unmarried males with no family, the Pennsylvania coal region could be a isolated and threatening world. Out of this population came many of the Irishmen accused of affiliation with the Molly Maguires and the sensational crimes attributed to them. One of the few formal organizations in which the alienated, isolated Irishman might participate was the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a fraternal and beneficial association. The Schuylkill County chapter of the AOH, one of the first two in America, was founded in 1836, but through its association with the Molly Maguires became so defamed that later histories of the organization list the chapter's founding date as 1887. Through the AOH, unattached men may have sought some surrogate for the kin network to which they were accustomed.

Saint Clair gradually became less Irish from 1850 to 1870, perhaps because as the coal lands around St. Clair became less productive, companies shifted their operations to areas north of Pottsville and the Irish, largely dependent on mining for their livelihood, followed. Some former miners remained in Saint Clair and opened taverns; one of the few points of entry for the Irish into the local business community.

 Dormer's Tavern, 'a reputed hangout of the Molly Maguires'
Dormer's Tavern, "a reputed hangout
of the Molly Maguires"

According to an old saying, the number of churches in the coal region parallels the number of bars. For the Irish, the taverns and churches were "a strangely parallel set of institutions," according to Wallace, catering to spiritual and social needs alike. Wallace remarks that "it is perhaps not a coincidence that the terms 'tabernacle' and 'tavern' have the same Latin root." He acknowledges that to many of the churchgoing residents of St. Clair, such a comparison would be considered blasphemous, "yet the very zeal with which temperance men and women attacked these resorts of Satan suggests that the tavern was viewed as an institution of great power, a dangerous competitor." Temperance advocates sought to help the working classes eliminate the social, economic, and physical costs associated with drinking from their lives, however, it is equally true that many had business interests that led them to be wary of the tavern's potential as a meeting place for nascent union movements.