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David Fisk (Lens of
Virden and the Coal Mine
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.
miners surround the train
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.
Armed with Winchester rifles, the security guards opened fire on the
strikers, many of whom were also armed. In an all-out gun battle, six
security guards and seven miners were killed. Another 35 were wounded.
After 20 minutes, the train finally pulled away, with its would-be strike
breakers still in their cars. Afterwards, the city was under martial law
for several days and the train refused to stop in Virden. Finally, a month
later, the company finally granted the wage increase.
Though "coal wars" throughout the state would continue until 1900, the
Battle of Virden was also credited with the winning of the 8-hour work
day. A large granite and bronze three-dimensional memorial in the town
square commemorates the battle.
By the turn of
the century, Virden sported four churches, a bank, two newspapers, flour
mills, brick and tile works, a machine shop, extensive coal mines, and
about 2,300 people.
During the 20th
Century, more mines were opened and operated until their coals seams were
diminished. Today, there is only one producer near Virden; however, Macoupin County remains one of the state’s
largest producers of coal. Today, this city of about 3,500 people is
economically based primarily on agriculture with corn and soybeans as the
Illinois about the time that the
Segment of Route 66 passed through the town.
There are a number of interesting buildings on Virden's downtown square as
well as a mural on the post office building and another that depicts the
events of Virden's history.
If traveling the
old stretch of
Route 66, continue your journey about
four miles on IL-4 to Girard.
City of Virden
W. Jackson Street
of America, October, 2010.
Virden's downtown square today, Kathy Weiser, October, 2010.
Virden historical mural, Kathy Weiser, October, 2010.
From Legends' General Store
66 Postcards -
Legends of America and
Legends' General Store has collected numerous
for our Route
66 enthusiasts. For many of these, we have only one available.
To see this varied collection, click