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Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911


Robert Watchorn — The Man Who Climbed Out

The Life-Story of a Boy Immigrant who has become Commission of Immigration

by J. Herbert Welch



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Robert Watchorn

     "These people are not the scum of Europe, as has been so often said. I know, for instance, that in many of the coal mines of Pennsylvania are thousands upon thousands of people who came here as aliens, but are as true citizens as any we have. They are frugal, industrious, and intelligent. They cherish their homes and do what they can to educate their children. Among them is a great wealth of patriotic feeling for the land of their adoption. It is the same in the West, — in all sections where immigrants have settled. They constitute a bulwark of American institutions, and here at the gateway we endeavor to protect them."

     "In accordance with your resolve when you were an immigrant yourself?" I suggested.

     "I suppose so," he replied, smiling. After a slight pause he added:– "It is curious how things come around, if you work for them and are patient. You need patience. With me, for instance, it has been a journey of twenty-five years from the immigrants' floor upstairs to this office."

     Spurred on by questions, he resumed the narrative of his progress in the United States.

     In Battery Park, after he had been misused by the pie merchant and the policeman, he saw a sign which read: "Immigrants' Employment Bureau."

     "I want work," he informed the man in charge.

     "What can you do?" inquired the latter.

     "In England I was a coal miner."

     "Do you want to be one here?"

     "Well, I want to go to work."

     The result of this talk was that the young man was provided with a ticket to Steubenville, Ohio, and, a few days later, was engaged in pushing coal cars in and out of a mine which had a roof so low that, mules not being able to enter, boys were employed instead. On Saturday night the new helper went to the foreman to get his pay. The latter laughed at him.

     "Why," he said, "the coal from this mine is supplied to farmers, who pay for it in grain and vegetables. That's the only kind of pay you'll get, and we don't happen to have any on hand this evening."

     "After working in the mine all day, must I turn merchant and sell the stuff to get any money?"

     "That's about the size of it."

     "I think I'll quit this job," said young Watchorn. He drifted into Pennsylvania, and, in the vicinity of Pittsburg, found work in a mine for real money. Meager as was his pay, he divided it into three parts. One part he devoted to his living expenses, another he saved, and the third he sent to his mother in England. One day the president of the bank to which he went each week stopped and shook his hand.

     "My son," he said, "I have been told about you. A young man who saves his money and helps the old folks at home as regularly as you do is worth knowing. I want you to consider me your friend. I will help you all I can."

     Eighteen months after Robert Watchorn had landed he had sent for his father and mother and younger brothers and sisters. The family was established on American soil. For its pioneer in the new country this meant increased responsibility and even harder work, but in addition to his struggle for a livelihood for them and himself, he was struggling for an education. Five evenings in the week he went to school.


     It was there that he began fully to appreciate the value of technical training, and, having saved some money, and his family being comfortably situated, he decided to accept, as a loan, the means which Mr. Bone had offered to provide for a course in an English school of mining.

     His steamer had just arrived at Liverpool, and he was on the dock in high spirits, looking forward eagerly to revisiting his old home and meeting old friends, when a cablegram was handed to him. In a mine catastrophe, near Pittsburg, his father had been killed.

     The young man engaged passage on the next steamer for New York, and, without having been outside of Liverpool, started back to take up again the burden of the support of his mother and the children by labor in the mines.

     But his interests were by no means wholly centered in his family and himself. He thought a good deal about labor conditions, and did not hesitate to express his views. He joined a lodge of the Knights of Labor, and, in 1884, was made its president.

     As he was quitting his work, one evening in 1887, he received a telegram offering him the presidency of the organization for the district of Pittsburg. This would mean new and important duties, — a distinct turn in his career. He consulted his mother, as was his custom in all matters of importance, and accepted.

     Thus began for Robert Watchorn seven years of great and fruitful activity in the cause of labor. "I had numerous controversies with capitalists," he remarked, "and enjoyed them, because I never sought out these men unless certain that my cause was just. There's nothing like a just cause for boldness."

     A convention was called in Columbus, Ohio, in 1888, for the purpose of uniting in one body the various miners' organizations. The plan failed. Robert Watchorn and some others were called upon to outline another. This resulted in the forming of the United Mine Workers of America, one of the largest and most powerful labor organizations in the world. The young labor leader was made secretary and treasurer, and became a prime mover in varied activities beneficial to miners. Wages were raised many per cent. State legislatures were induced to pass laws providing safer timbering for mines, a very large increase of the fresh air supply for each man in a mine, and other requirements which reduced the mortality among mine workers from a death for each hundred thousand tons of coal brought out to a death for every four hundred and eighteen thousand tons.

     In his solicitude for the lives of other men the secretary of the United Mine Workers was careless of his own life. Here is an extract from the story of an adventure of his at a mine catastrophe, in 1891, told in "The Black Diamond," of Chicago:–


     "The telegraph has given to the world a part of the recent awful disaster in the Hill Farm Mine, in the Connellsville region. It has related how, after an explosion which came because of an incident of the sort to be guarded against only by a system absolutely perfect, not only were lives of miners lost to a certainty, hut the fate of twenty-nine men in ten recesses of the mine was left undetermined. It has told of a desperate struggle to reach the place where these men were at work, by digging a way to them from an adjacent mine, and how fifteen and one half days were consumed in this unintermittent, almost hopeless work. It has told how, at length, the mine was reached and found to be, in the distance, a flaming hell. It has failed to tell, in detail, of how the three brave men sought, as the case might be, the living or the dead."

     ""When the burned mine was finally broken into, a band of intrepid explorers stood at the opening, deep beneath the surface. The group ventured together into the place of death; but, at a certain point, just three men separated from the rest and went forward to solve the problem of whether or not there were any men yet living in the dismal passages. These three men — their names are worthy of remembrance, — were F. C. Keighley, state mine inspector, Robert Watchorn, secretary of the United Mine Workers, and Hugh Doran, mine boss."

     In 1893, Mr. Watchorn married Miss Alma J. Simpson, principal of the State Normal School of Ohio. "I owe to my wife," he told me, "more than I can say."

     The governor of Pennsylvania, Robert E. Pattison, appointed Secretary Watchorn chief factory inspector for the state. There were many thousands of little children toiling for long hours daily in the factories. The new inspector, remembering his own childhood, went to work to rescue them from this unnatural thraldom. He drew up a bill that would give him authority to do this. Manufacturers and others formed a powerful opposition. They employed the ablest lawyers, and, when the bill was brought up in a committee of the legislature, one of Pennsylvania's most experienced and brilliant public speakers opposed it. He riddled it with sarcasm and incisive oratory, as an impracticable and foolishly Utopian measure. When he sat down the bill seemed lost. But then the ex-miner, who had no education except what he had picked up at evening school, rose slowly to reply. He had carefully prepared himself for this occasion, but in a moment he had cast aside his notes and documents and was talking from his heart. The sincerity and simple eloquence of his plea for childhood caused a wave of feeling to sweep the house, and the bill was made a law. Inspector Watchorn took from the factories and mines thousands of children under twelve.

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