Fueling the Gilded Age: Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in Pennsylvania Coal Country

Fueling the Gilded Age: Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in Pennsylvania Coal Country

Fueling the Gilded Age: Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in Pennsylvania Coal Country

Fueling the Gilded Age: Railroads, Miners, and Disorder in Pennsylvania Coal Country


If the railroads won the Gilded Age, the coal industry lost it. Railroads epitomized modern management, high technology, and vast economies of scale. By comparison, the coal industry was embarrassingly primitive. Miners and operators dug coal, bought it, and sold it in 1900 in the same ways that they had for generations. In the popular imagination, coal miners epitomized anti-modern forces as the so-called "Molly Maguire" terrorists.

Yet the sleekly modern railroads were utterly dependent upon the disorderly coal industry. Railroad managers demanded that coal operators and miners accept the purely subordinate role implied by their status. They refused.

Fueling the Gilded Age shows how disorder in the coal industry disrupted the strategic plans of the railroads. It does so by expertly intertwining the history of two industries-- railroads and coal mining-- that historians have generally examined from separate vantage points. It shows the surprising connections between railroad management and miner organizing; railroad freight rate structure and coal mine operations; railroad strategy and strictly local legal precedents. It combines social, economic, and institutional approaches to explain the Gilded Age from the perspective of the relative losers of history rather than the winners. It beckons readers to examine the still-unresolved nature of America's national conundrum: how to reconcile the competing demands of national corporations, local businesses, and employees.


To call the age “Gilded” was to joke that it offered promises of gold backed by realities of base metal. the Gilded Age took its name from the title of a satirical 1873 novel. To the book’s coauthors it was the false promise of effortless riches that seemed to best describe its time. in The Gilded Age: a Tale of Today, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley conveyed the idea of an era that truly appeared to be golden—but falsely. To gild was to merely coat with gold or with gold-colored paint. Gold was far too valuable, soft, and heavy to be part of actual construction. the exciting new world of steam power, railroads, electricity, and telegraphs was indeed shiny with promise, and it looked at times as if it must be gold, pure gold all the way through. This was an age, it seemed, in which the technological and financial limitations of the past were all falling away. Unimaginable riches and magical new technologies tantalized observers. Visitors to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, or (even more so) the Columbian Exposition of 1893 saw incredible new technologies on display. Visitors could hardly miss the promise of the world that would be made possible by new technology and a national-scale economy. They came to these fairs from smaller, or at least dimmer, towns and cities to a bright new world of speed and change. By 1893 the Columbian Exposition promised electric lights, unlimited steam power, and instantaneous communication.

But what of the unshiny underpinning of the Gilded Age? in Twain and Dudley’s metaphor, after all, it’s the base metal that gives the age its shape, though not its shine.

The second part of their title, A Tale of Today may feel a bit like a sly warning to future readers. Perhaps we too might consider if the technological and financial promises of our age are not more blindingly reflective of our desires than they are magical. in 1962, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

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