Just two short miles south of Thayer,
the city of Virden, straddling Sangamon and Macoupin counties, is home to
about 3,500 people.
Established in 1852, the town was named for John Virden, who kept a
popular stage stand about two miles south of where Virden would be built.
He reportedly opened the stage stand about 1838 at the intersection of the
stage line and the
Springfield and Vandalia
stage line. It was known throughout the area as the Virden Stand.
completion of the Chicago & Alton Railroad spurred the establishment of
Virden, which was laid out by Heaton, DuBoise, Chesnut, Hickox and Keiting.
The first lots were sold in October, 1852 and John Virden, for whom the
town was named, built the first commercial building -- a hotel known as
the Junction House. The first house was built by Alexander Hord and the
first store was opened by Henry Fishback in November, 1852.
Early the next year a dry goods and grocery store were opened, which also
held the post office. In the spring of 1853, the first school was taught
in the home of Mrs. James Hall, and that summer a blacksmith shop and Mill
were established. Methodist Minister Edward Rutledge spoke the town's
first sermon in the hotel, but, later the congregation built a church.
Before long, there were several churches, more businesses, and a local
January, 1855, Virden and the entire area suffered one the most
destructive and severe snowstorms yet known in the region. Stock was
frozen to death, the passenger train was blocked in a cut just north of
the village limits and the train was stopped for several days. The storm
was so severe that passengers had to remain in the cars while provisions
were carried to them by residents of the town.
1869, the first coal shaft was sunk near Virden and the following year,
the people of the village voted $30,000 for the building of the
Jacksonville & Southeastern Railway. The whole length of the road was 31
miles and was finished by the end of 1871. Within no time, freight was
coming into town and car load after carload of coal was being shipped out
by the Virden Coal Company. Over the next several decades Virden
would support 21 different coal mines.
1890, the town boasted a tile factory that was turning out 20,000 feet of
tile per week, area mines were employing hundreds of men, two railroads
were running through the city, new businesses had come to the town,
which was then called home to about 1,600 people. Though Virden was
growing and prospering, many of its residents were not happy, as life for
miners and their families was difficult. Work in the mines was dangerous
and dirty, the miners breathed stale dusty air that often caused them
"Black Lung" disease; they were sometimes subject to noxious fumes; and
mine explosions causing deaths occurred far too often. However, their
biggest complaint was usually about pay and the monopoly of "company
towns," which generally "forced" them to purchase goods and supplies from
company stores and to rent their homes from the company. Making matters
worse, mine workers accused the coal companies of recruiting men
from Europe, who would work for less and create an oversupply of workers.
Their complaints led to organized unions and in 1890, the United Mine
Workers of America was formed. In addition to joining unions the miners
also elected sympathetic politicians who began to pass laws dealing with
safety, company stores, and fairness in pay. But, the most successful
tactic was the strike, several of which had occurred in
1868, 1874, and 1877. Strikes were often accompanied by violence, as
company property was destroyed, trains were derailed, and railroad bridges
burned to stop the coal from shipping. In retaliation, miners were
sometime fired upon by hired company thugs.
1898, a bitter coal strike broke out in Virden when the Chicago-Virden
Coal Company fought the unionization of its mines and refused to pay their
miners union-scale wages. Undaunted, the coal company then built a timber
stockade around the mine and brought in African-Americans from Alabama as
strike breakers. This infuriated the striking miners even more. On October
12, 1898, when a train loaded with strikebreaking miners pulled into
Virden, it was surrounded by strikers. However, the mine manager, had
previously hired security guards which were posted around the stockade and
on the train.