In elementary school, we learned about the Boston Tea Party: revolutionaries, disguised as native Americans, boarded British ships in Boston Harbor and destroyed an entire shipment of tea by throwing the cargo into the waters of the harbor.
Fast forward to Olyphant in 1922.
The Olyphant School District purchased coal to heat the schools, as well as the local synagogue and churches, from the Temple Coal Co. Yes, the school board paid to heat the synagogue and the churches of the borough.
But that year Temple had reduced production, and would no longer sell coal to the Olyphant School District. They continued to sell coal to other school districts, but not Olyphant. Their justification was that they did not have any mining operations in Olyphant. Most of the mining operations in Olyphant were owned by the Hudson Coal Co., though the Pennsylvania Coal Co. owned and operated the Underwood Colliery.
The Olyphant School District tried to buy coal from Hudson, but they also refused to sell. They said that the school district should work out arrangements with their former supplier. It was October and it was getting cold. The coal supply in all of the schools had been depleted. The schools could no longer be heated. The school district was not able to buy coal from any supplier. They closed the schools while they tried to make arrangements to buy coal.
There were approximately 60,000 municipalities throughout the United States and Canada that used anthracite to heat their schools. Even though thousands of tons of anthracite were produced in Olyphant on a daily basis, Olyphant was unable to purchase anthracite coal. Hudson refused to heat the schools that were attended by the children of their miners and laborers, as well as the children whose fathers and brothers were killed or maimed in mining accidents.
The school district sent telegrams to the Governor of Pennsylvania, William Cameron Sproul, and the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding. Sproul’s secretary, James F. McCoy, referred the matter to the Pennsylvania Fuel Commission. On the evening of Saturday, Nov. 4, there was a meeting that included the Burgess (mayor) of Olyphant, P. B. Dempsey, members of the borough council, the school superintendent, Prof. Michael W. Cummings, and members of the school board. They decided that they had no choice, and they had to execute a plan to take coal by force.
That Sunday morning, the fire gongs sounded. That was the signal for the men of the borough to go to the borough building with shovels. From there they walked to a railroad siding near North Valley Avenue, where loaded coal cars that were destined for delivery elsewhere were above an incline.
The Olyphant Police and the volunteer fire companies were in on the plan. The police stood guard to prevent anyone from stopping the men from taking the coal. The volunteer firemen from Excelsior Hose Co. No. 1 and Grassy Island Hose Co. No. 3 stood ready with their hoses to ward off anyone who would interfere. Olyphant Hose Co. No. 2, Eureka Hose Co. No. 4 and Crystal Hose Co. No. 5 remained ready if there was a fire in the borough.
The men opened three coal cars from the side to allow the coal to fall down the incline and onto the street. They then loaded the coal into trucks and wagons for delivery to the schools, churches and the synagogue. Father Murphy of Saint Patrick’s Church showed up and said, “You did all in your power to avoid this, but when the health of your loved ones is menaced, you must act in their defense.”
Members of the Hudson Co.’s private police force arrived on the scene. They observed what was going on, turned around and left. Burgess Dempsey estimated that approximately 200 tons had been taken, and he intended to pay Hudson for all of it.
On Nov. 21, there was an article on page 7 of the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Sproul Answers Hudson Coal Co.” According to the article, W. H. Williams, vice president of Hudson, was furious about what had happened in Olyphant. He asked Gov. Sproul to have the Pennsylvania State Police assist Hudson police in any future incidents such as this.
Sproul responded that while the action taken by the residents of Olyphant cannot be justified, under the circumstances it was expected. He added that it is the responsibility of the local coal company to sell coal to the local school districts. The amount of coal used by the Olyphant School District was comparatively inconsequential in comparison to the amount of coal mined in the borough.
The residents of Olyphant compared this event to the Boston Tea Party, and referred to it as the Olyphant Coal Party. The differences were that for the Boston Tea Party, the tea was destroyed in response to the policy of the constitutional monarchy; the Olyphant Coal Party was in response to corporate greed, and the coal was that seized was not wasted.
This article was adapted from an account in “The Old School: The Mid-Valley Elementary School in Olyphant, Pennsylvania,” by Joseph Peter Klapatch. “Back in the Day” is an occasional feature taking a look back to the Advantage area’s past. If you have a photo and story you would like to share, email it to Advantage@timesshamrock.com.