The Riot of Cliftonville

Saledka Mine of Cliftonville after the Battle. A&M 2139, Lee Collection, courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries.
Saledka Mine of Cliftonville after the Battle. A&M 2139, Lee Collection, courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries.

The area that was once the small mining village of Cliftonville, W.Va., sits about four miles from Avella, Pa., just across the state’s western border. Today, if you could reach the site, you might not find much. You certainly wouldn’t know that nearly a century ago, it was a fully functioning mining town of about 200 adult inhabitants, complete with a U.S. Post Office, a company store, a small train station, and, of course, a mine. There was nothing particularly special about Cliftonville until dawn on July 17, 1922, when the first shots were fired by a group of as many as 500 union miners marching on the mine in an attempt to stop nonunion miners from producing coal. When the firing subsided, at least 13 men, including Brooke County Sheriff H.H. Duval, lay dead, and many more were left wounded.

The riot at Cliftonville occurred almost four months into a strike by the United Mine Workers of America. The strike began on April 1, 1922, affecting 100% of anthracite coal production and 60% of bituminous coal production nationwide. Coincidentally, this was the same day the Richland Coal Company purchased the Saledka Mine at Cliftonville. Under the new ownership, union miners were fired and evicted from their homes in town.

Entrance to the Stateline Tunnel, known at the time as Wabash Tunnel, that straddles the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border. Albert Miller Papers and Photographs, MSS 1095, Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village.
Entrance to the Stateline Tunnel, known at the time as Wabash Tunnel, that straddles the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border. Albert Miller Papers and Photographs, MSS 1095, Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village.

Displaced and angry, these miners and others from the area met in Avella on the night of July 16 and planned a march on the mine. Later that night, they began their march along the tracks of the Wabash Railroad, stopping at the Penowa baseball field on the Pennsylvania side of the Wabash Tunnel, where they waited for the right moment to advance. That moment came around 5 a.m., when the miners charged down the hill to capture and set fire to the mine’s tipple, used to load coal into train cars, beginning a battle that would last for almost an hour and a half.

While a general outline of what happened exists, pinning down the facts of the day is no easy task. Most information comes from personal, often conflicting, accounts, particularly those printed in local newspapers in the days following the attack. For example, Louise Bennett, who ran a Cliftonville boarding house, estimated the miners’ numbers at 500, while Thomas Duval, the sheriff’s son, believed the group was between 300 and 400 strong.[1] Even the number of fatalities is an estimate. Newspapers reporting on the riot list numbers of dead ranging from four to 13.

The personal accounts, of course, come largely from the side of the sheriff and his deputies, as miners who talked would have risked arrest during a period when almost all local police forces were on a manhunt for participants in the riot. Therefore, it is hard to get a miner’s perspective on the day. Most of their accounts come in the form of courtroom testimonies from their respective trials, where each miner likely tried to downplay his involvement in the event. Most miners claimed they were forced to join the march under threat of violence, and most men accused of being leaders in the riot denied those allegations. None would say, if they knew, who killed Sheriff Duval, and none of the 78 men indicted for his murder were found guilty of the crime.

With each passing year, Cliftonville fades further into the surrounding landscape, leaving only legend and a few scarce records behind. Some aspects of the Cliftonville Mine Riot may remain forever mysteries, enticing and evading researchers and curious minds for years to come.

Join Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village for a special program on Saturday, July 13 at noon as we shed some light on the story of Cliftonville.

[1] “Woman Eyewitness Tells of Cliftonville Battle.” The Wheeling Intelligencer, July 18, 1922.; “Slain Sheriff’s Son Tells Story of Mine Battle.” The West Virginian, July 17, 1922.

Maria Villotti is an Interpreter/Tour Guide at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village.

3 thoughts on “The Riot of Cliftonville

  1. The Brooke County Museum is hosting a program from 2-4 pm on July 17 to commemorate the event. There will be several speakers; the featured presenter is Joe Bogo, author of Holes in the Hills.

  2. Just finished reading Mr. Bogo’s book. Really enjoyed it. It brought back memories.

    My Dad and his father worked along side my Mom’s father in the Commodore
    PA. CBC coal mine. My Mom’s father, “the Waterboss”, was brought to the US as a Child and so was fluent in English and Slovak and was the translator for the miners. He told stories of going into the mine after a cave in
    , through water up to his neck, to bring hay for the trapped mules. He also told of a day the bosses asked him tell the miners it was safe to go back into the mine after another cave in. He related that “I said to them in Russian that “this guy wants you to go back in and break your necks. I think we should let him go in first”. I never spoke a word of English to my Dads father and mother. His favorite saying was “God Bless John L. Lewis”. When I went to the bars (Slovak Club and VFW) in Clymer, we never had to pay for the beer.

    My dad’s father died of Black Lung, and remember him lying in an Iron Lung. My Dad always suffered from Asthma.

    My Mom’s parents helped raise me, so I spent a lot of time running around the hills of Commodore and at the old mine. I remember getting groceries at the Company Store, ice cream next door at the old Bank, which was then a bar run by one of my uncles. He didn’t have any fingers on one of his hands. I still remember men, in what looked like black face, leaning out the window of the Tipple. I remember walking into the “wash house” after the mine closed and seeing the baskets hanging over the shower and the miners brass number tags hanging on the wall. My mother still tells the story of running up the hollow to catch a peak of Mother Jones giving a speech

    I was raised Russian Orthodox and went with our families to the church they helped build in Clymer PA. The priest refused to have my grandfathers body in the church for the funeral, because he was not a dues paying member.I have memories of standing outside the church hearing the rasped gasping breathing from the “mens side” of the church. I was afraid to have to sit on the mens side because of all of the missing body parts and mutilated bodies. One of my uncles died in German at the very end of WW II. He was 19. We are still trying to repatriate his remains. Maybe if we do, we can bury him next to his mother and father. There is a headstone at the Indiana Cemetery with his name and a US Silver Cross emblem on it. I think his spirit is there.

    Some things never change though. One of my uncles and his son still live in the company house that my Dad’s parents lived in.

    God Bless John L. Lewis and the UMW.

    If possible please forward this message to Mr. Bogo, and there is anyway to listen to or get information on the July 17 event, let me know.

    Mike Gaydosh. Denver CO, 303 264-8588

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