Sunday, April 26, 2015


What states do you associate with coal mining? Until I lived in Parker County, Texas, I had believed coal mines were in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Imagine my surprise to learn my home state of Texas had/has a large number of coal mines. Because my work in progress features an 1885 rancher who goes undercover in a lignite coal mine, I needed to do further research on coal mining in this time period.

My family love to take short trips around our area of North Central Texas. One of the places we’ve visited is Thurber, Texas. Today, only the smokestack of the brick plant remains. However, the coal company store had been restored and is now a restaurant. We enjoyed eating there and looking at all the photos of the mine period.

Now there’s a museum across the Interstate 20, but we never make it by on a day when the museum is open. The museum has recently been adopted by Texas A&M University at Stephenville. We are definitely planning a trip to visit during their open hours.

W. C. Gordon Museum of Industrial Arts

Although my story, O’NEILL’S TEXAS BRIDE, takes place in Central Texas, I am focusing today on the town of Thurber. Though it is a ghost town today, Thurber once had a population of perhaps as many as 8,000 to 10,000. At that time (1918–20 and after the setting of my novel) it was the principal bituminous-coal-mining town in Texas. The site of the town is seventy-five miles west of Fort Worth in the northwest corner of Erath County.

Thurber miners in early 1900s

The coal deposits were discovered in the mid-1880s by William Whipple Johnson, then an engineer for the Texas and Pacific Railway. He began mining operations there in December 1886 with Harvey Johnson. Isolation forced the operators to recruit miners from other states and from overseas; large numbers of workers came from Italy, Poland, the United States, Britain, and Ireland, with smaller numbers from Mexico, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, and Russia. Black miners from Indiana worked in the mines during the labor troubles of the 1880s.

Typical Miner's house

The force of predominantly foreign workers, many of whom spoke little or no English, enabled the company to maintain a repressive environment for many years. Following inability to meet a payroll and a resulting strike by miners, the Johnsons sold out in the fall of 1888 to founders of the Texas and Pacific Coal Company, including Robert Dickey Hunter, who became president of the new company, and H. K. Thurber of New York, for whom the town was named.

Colonel Hunter chose to deal with the dissident miners, who were affiliated with the Knights of Labor, with an iron hand. The new company fenced a portion of its property and within the enclosure constructed a complete town and mining complex, including schools, churches, saloons, stores, houses, an opera house seating over 650, a 200-room hotel, an ice and electric plant, and the only library in the county. Eventually the strike ended, and the miners and their families moved into the new town. In addition to the mines, the company operated commissary stores.

Thurber restaurant in former company store

 As in the typical company town, low pay, drawn once a month, forced employees to utilize a check system between pay periods, whereby the customer drew scrip, reportedly discounted at 20 percent, for use at the company's commissary stores. In 1897 a second industry came to the town, a large brick plant; Hunter was also a partner in this operation, which, although it was separate from the mining company's holdings, used clay found on company property. A stockade, armed guards, and a barbed wire fence, which restricted labor organizers, peddlers, and other unauthorized personnel, regulated access to the town.

Despite the retirement of Colonel Hunter in 1899, Thurber remained a company-dominated community. William Knox Gordon, the new manager of the Thurber properties, at first continued the established policy of suppression and anti-unionism. Continuation of such activities resulted in a concentrated effort by the United Mine Workers to unionize the Thurber miners. Following the induction in September 1903 of more than 1,600 members into the Thurber local of the UMW and the organization of locals of carpenters, brick makers, clerks, meat cutters, and bartenders, the company opened negotiations with the workers and, on September 27, 1903, reached an agreement resulting in harmonious labor-management relations.

Catholic Church at Thurber

Thurber gained recognition as the only 100 percent closed-shop city in the nation. The victory at Thurber indicated what unions might accomplish with effective leadership and more congenial opponents than employers like Colonel Hunter, even when confronted with problems as difficult as organizing diverse ethnic groups. Despite occasional strikes, basic labor-management harmony prevailed, and Thurber remained a union stronghold until the demise of mining operations in the 1920s, after railroad locomotives began to burn oil rather than coal.

Thurber Cemetery

Gordon's discovery of the nearby Ranger oilfield in 1917 stimulated this conversion, and the change of the company name to Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company in April 1918 signified shifting company interest toward oil production, which yielded large profits from 1917 to 1920. The conversion to oil-burning locomotives led to Thurber's demise; declining use of coal and a resulting wage cut led to labor unrest lasting through much of the 1920s and to a strike in 1926 and 1927. Many miners accepted UMW assistance and moved to mining areas in other states. Numerous Italians returned to Italy rather than work in nonunion mines, and in 1926 the union chartered two railroad cars to return to their homeland 162 Mexicans, who likewise refused to scab. By the end of 1927 no union miners remained in the state. The company maintained operation of the brick plant until 1930, a general office until 1933, and commissary stores until 1935. By the late 1930s Thurber had become a virtual ghost town. The population was listed as eight in 2000.

Caroline Clemmons writes Texas-set western historical and contemporary romances. Her latest release is WINTER BRIDE, in the Stone Mountain Texas series. In May, she will release O’NEILL’S TEXAS BRIDE, book two of the McClintock series. Check her website at for a listing of her books or visit her Amazon Author Page. To be notified of her upcoming releases and contests, sign up for her newsletter.

Sources: Handbook of Texas Online 


  1. Life is precarious, and nothing makes it more so than towns built on speculation of profits from any kind of mining, whether it's gold, coal, copper, or something else. The coal mines of Pennsylvania made towns just like Thurber thrive for a time. They were run by companies that weren't always that ethical, and when the mines played out, so did the towns. Unless the townspeople have a fall-back plan, their town will surely die. It's unfortunate that the devastating aftermath of mining can lead to horrible tragedies, like the collapse of earth, some as deep as 300 feet and toxic fumes or water.
    But even industrial towns can die in changing economical times or the loss of basic supplies. The great Cannon Mills in Concord and Kannapolis, North Carolina went under when cotton crops decreased in the south and began to be imported from overseas.
    I guess it just says nothing lasts forever. Have a backup plan.
    Great article, Caroline. I loved the pictures.

  2. Thurber is the town I used as a pattern for the fictional coal mining town in Wish for the Moon. That was fun, researching this town, and it gave me places for my characters to work--company laundry for Annie and as a painter for Clifford.
    In this real town, it shut down because oil had replaced coal in locomotives. As I understand it, Erath County in N. Texas had more than one coal mining town. Maybe you ran across that in your research.
    I'm glad old photos were saved of the town.

  3. I thought that was the town you used, Celia, in WISH FOR THE MOON, but wasn't certain. I still intend to visit the museum there.

  4. There are so many wonderful stories about towns that once prospered and are now ghost towns. Those are the places I like to put in my westerns too. Great info, Caroline.


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