My grandfather, Michael Donovan, was in the middle of a confrontation that became a mass shooting. Sixty years after it happened, an uncle told me this family secret. I was dumbfounded. My image of Mike, shaped by things my mom said, was of a combination Santa Claus/St. Patrick. Could he have ordered men to shoot?
Mike died before I was born. He was the mine superintendent at Gates, an isolated coal patch in southern Fayette County. On Sept. 14, 1933, Mike was at the Gates railroad crossing, in front of a mine entrance guarded by 12 deputies with shotguns.
A crowd of 100 to 200 picketing miners had gathered along the railroad tracks. It was "an ugly situation," according to Muriel Earley Sheppard's book, "Cloud by Day."
One witness told authorities that about 6 a.m., when the day shift usually went in, "the air was full of flying stones" thrown by strikers. The Connellsville Daily Courier reported "a barrage of tear gas" from deputies.
After Mike talked to the strikers, the Courier said, confusion reigned with gas filling the air and men pushing back and forth. "Then came a blast of gunfire from shotguns."
In its account, the Uniontown Morning Herald said "four miners crossed the tracks with Mike Donovan ... . A committee of union men stopped the miners ... . Strikers say they were jostled out of the way by deputies who opened a hole in the picket line to put their men through."
Miner Louis Kromer told the paper that deputies, blinded by the gas, started shooting. Sixteen were wounded, including Louis and his brother, Joe.
"The men retreated," the Herald said. "At this point, a freight train approached and threatened to add additional havoc by running down a half-dozen injured men lying prostrate on the tracks. The engineer stopped his train a few feet from the first victim."
The screaming train whistle, the yells, the shots ... the families in the Gates patch on the hill heard the commotion at the mine in the woods below. Ten men were hospitalized, two in critical condition.
I eventually learned Mike's version of events from Mike himself. It was a miracle to find two typewritten pages in one of many un-indexed boxes in one of many historical society and university archives.
In the document, titled "Statement, September 14th," Mike described several calm crossings of the picket line. He said he talked with the strikers, but his statement didn't reveal what was said.
When he and another group of miners went through the line, "the police started backing up, while the picketers were throwing stones and coming forward. I looked back, and I saw Louis Kromer strike a policeman, and the policeman hit him with his night stick. Kromer picked up a tear gas bomb and threw it back. When I had retreated to about 100 feet from the crossing, shooting began."
Mike said he didn't know how many shots were fired or which deputy fired first. "There were no orders given by me or anyone else. ... I called to get ambulances and helped render first aid."
Would a member of the All Saints Parish Council lie?
Those were his neighbors bleeding! Mom could reel off the names of the Gates' families to me house by house, all 92 of them. She loved her tomboy childhood in Gates. Louis Kromer was a friend of Mike's son, Pat. Louis' leg was shattered, the most common injury in the "Gates Mine Riot."
I took time to learn about that summer of violence and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, which put employment and wages ahead of profits. Capitalists had to take one for the team. Each industry, including coal, had to work with a union to create a "code" that would meet FDR's goals.
By August 1933, most players in the industry, including the United Mine Workers, had agreed to a code. Because the Frick Co. held out, so did its miners. Fayette County miners, distancing themselves from the national UMW, ignored the union's no-strike stance.
In all, Frick had 16 mines and a notorious record of anti-strike ruthlessness. That summer, deputies often were accused of attacking picketers. In July, four picketers had been shot at a Frick mine. One died. The National Guard had occupied the county for two weeks. In addition to the Gates shootings Sept. 14, 11 miners were beaten at other Frick mines that day.
But the strikers were violent, too.
I gasped at the few details my mom and her siblings would share about being a "super's" family in 1933: Their windows were shot out. They checked the car for dynamite. A policeman walked them to school. Mike had a bodyguard. They tried to show no emotion.
"The car would be filled with us kids, and we'd approach a line of 100 miners," Mom told me. "They'd stop the car. Rock it back and forth. It was awful. Daddy said to sit still, keep quiet and look right at them."
The "deputies" were untrained temps, hired by the sheriff but paid by Frick. Some were just guys who needed a job, but others were thugs. Frick could get away with anything. Frick owned most of Fayette's land and jobs -- and probably its political officials. It profited from the unjust coal-patch system. A mine super could be Frick's pawn, scapegoat, fall guy or villain. A nice liberal like me could have had a grandfather on the wrong side.
On Sept. 18, four days after the riot, Mike was arrested on four charges of assault. Nine of the 12 deputies were charged, too. Consider this: One deputy charged was Patrolman Cutwright, 23, whose arm had been blown off in the shooting by another deputy. At the jail, said the Herald, a "crowd of strikers hooted and jeered." I felt for Mike.
Mike liked to swim the Monongahela River's polluted brown water.
He "went down the mine" at 14, like so many boys did. And, like most patch residents, he was Catholic. He was only the fourth Catholic to work his way up to super at a Frick mine.
In 1933, he was 50 years old, a slight man -- 5-foot-9 -- with a full head of white hair. He looked a little like Harry Truman and was quite a personality, off the job at least. A talker. Funny. He was known to break into song, off-key, and to have a drink at the patch speakeasy.
The mines had reopened that June. They'd been closed since 1930, probably because of the Depression, but Mike had not evicted anyone.
He ran a big operation, with 700 underground acres, a dozen buildings, enormous machines and 434 miners. He would be Gates super for 18 years. So Mike was smart and tough. He had orders: Get the mine open, and get 900 tons of coal barged upriver from the Gates dock to Clairton each day. No excuses.
He probably retaliated against strike-starters, as many supers did, by giving them harder jobs or by firing and blacklisting them. He expected Frick miners to appreciate that Frick had the best safety record, and paid the best, in the state.
As mine super, Mike also was patch super. He controlled everything, since Frick did, from the water company to the guard at the patch entrance. If I'd been in a miner's family, I'd have resented the patch. A miner's half of a duplex had two bedrooms, cold running water, a coal stove, enough wiring for a radio and an outhouse. The Donovans, renting the super's house, had six bedrooms, electrical appliances, a furnace and the patch's only telephone, plus, one of the patch's eight cars.
Just like his miners, Mike had a chicken coop and garden. He was on half-salary and had lost all his savings in the stock market crash. A neighbor told me Mike was a "personable" figure walking around Gates' seven blocks. "He ran a safe mine and a clean patch." That was the standard of quality.
Mike's first trial lasted two weeks and generated 500 pages of testimony, "due to its importance," the Herald said.
Intent -- to kill or to provoke a riot -- is difficult to prove. A miner who'd been nearby told the sheriff, "I saw picketers charging. While the deputies were retreating, their guns were pointing toward the crowd."
Who had been the biggest instigator? The hung jury couldn't decide.
In Mike's 1935 trial, the jury was sequestered. It deliberated for 10 hours, then acquitted on the second vote and stuck Frick with the court bill. Mike retired in 1954, two years after the patch was demolished.
I lean toward thinking the shooting was an accident. It happened in a moment of panic, not on orders.
I began this odd journey wanting to know if Mike was guilty. What I found was my granddad -- and complicated stories of mine wars, the New Deal, my family, a hometown and the Depression. I went to find whatever was left of Gates. One block. The last house is the super's; below it is a river that now shines blue.
Sheila Garred, a retired teacher from Delmont, began researching the Gates Mine Riot in 2000 (firstname.lastname@example.org). First Published September 8, 2013 4:15 AM