What’s in a name?
Mine bosses remembered on street signs
When I first decided to write this column I tried to put a handle on what might interest readers and New Waterford street names came to mind.
Recently I found information on James Henry Plummer who had the main street in New Waterford named after him. He took over from James Ross as president of the Dominion Coal Company during the strike of 1909.
Ross Avenue was named after James Ross and Duggan Avenue was called after G.H. Duggan, who was the company general manager.
All this information I discovered in “The Company Store,” written by John Mellor, about the life of J.B. McLachlan and the Cape Breton coal miners.
I soon discovered what an unsavoury bunch these people were when it came to surpressing the labour movement in Cape Breton. They ran a coal company obsessed with profit at any cost with a labour force trying to escape the bonds of outright slavery.
In 1909, there were 4,500 miners employed by the Dominion Coal Company. They were represented by the Provincial Workmen’s Association, commonly called the PWA, which was formed in Springhill and was considered a company union due to its ineffectual representation.
In the spring of 1909, 2,600 Cape Breton miners signed up with the United Mine Workers of America. Dan MacDougall was chosen as the first District 26 president and J.B. McLachlan filled the post of secretary-treasurer.
The coal company feared the emergence of an American union might mean parity with their American brothers and opposed the UMWA with a vengeance.
The 1909 strike was one of the most bitter and prolonged strikes in the history of Canadian labour. It was a battle to force the coal company to recognize the United Mine Workers of America as the official bargaining agent for the miners.
On July 6, 1909, the strike began.
G.H. Duggan, riding on horseback, provoked violence when he struck a woman by slashing her across the face with a rawhide whip. Cries of outrage were followed by an attempt to drag him from his horse. This led to troops being called in complete with machine guns.
The Dominion Coal Company began a wholesale eviction of UMWA members from company-owned houses. Illegal evictions were made legal using company appointed magistrates.
On July 31, 1909, more than 3,000 striking miners marched from Glace Bay for a great meeting at Dominion Beach. They got as far as Immaculate Conception Church where a machine gun was mounted on the steps of the church. An army officer stood with his arms raised waiting to give the order to fire. The strike leaders were sensible men and called off the march.
Ross and Duggan resigned in November of 1909 after being forced to appear in a Halifax court to answer charges. They sold their stock in the Dominion Coal Company to J.H. Plummer of Toronto for $5 million.
Upon Duggan’s resignation he was presented with a gift from the PWA whose members continued to work during the strike.
At the end of February 1910, everyone knew the strike was lost. Plummer appealed to striking miners to return to work now that Duggan and Ross had left the scene. By the end of April, hundreds of men returned to work. For 10 long months they had held out but it was hunger and sickness that had beaten them.
With the end of the strike, UMWA men found themselves blacklisted. Trainloads of Cape Breton miners left the island never to return.
J.B. McLachlan, with nine children to feed, was forced to start delivering milk to miners’ families.
The UMWA eventually gained better wages and working conditions in a long fight for the eight-hour day and human dignity.
In retrospect it doesn’t make a fellow from New Waterford very proud to have our main street named after a rogue like J.H. Plummer, likewise Ross and Duggan. They made themselves rich on the backs of those who lived with a take-home pay far below the poverty level.
Until next time we’ll “Go with the Flow.”