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The American Experience
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Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV


Change is in the Air (30 minutes)

NARRATOR:
In the spring of 1900, William McKinley was in good spirits, a familiar sight leisurely strolling the streets of Washington.

Ida McKinley was feeling better although she sometimes refused to show her face to the new-fangled newsreel cameras. She was summoning all her strength as First Lady. Between bouts of crippling headaches, she'd been appearing at dinners for the cabinet and White House sing-alongs.

With his wife determined to support him, McKinley was looking forward to running for president one more time.

A man of old-fashioned principles, he was born in Niles, Ohio and shaped by the traditions and values of small-town America. As he looked out across the country, he saw little reason to worry--even as the way of life that had nurtured him was changing forever.

In 1900, Americans were still a rural people, much as they had been when the Republic was born. They were farmers and small town folk, whose lives still followed the familiar rhythms of the seasons. Work began at 4 AM and continued long after the sun went down. There was no running water or indoor plumbing, no electricity to light the night or ease the chores of the day. Women spent all morning bent over a tin basin scrubbing the laundry, or leaning over a wood-fired stove, cooking the mid-day meal.

MAX MORATH
This was a pretty tough bunch of people. They were up against a lot of things that the average American today doesn't even think about. Infant death, typhoid...

NARRATOR:
Home, family, and community provided comfort and security... but change was in the air.

Men and women who had never traveled more than a few miles beyond the sound of the church bells were leaving home for good. For decades, machines had been doing more and more of the work--replacing men, forcing them off the farm.

And the city beckoned from afar-- luring them with dreams of opportunity and success. They joined a wave of seven million, who, over the last 20 years, had said goodbye to families and friends they had known all their lives.

JOHN M. STAUDENMAIER, S.J. :
They're leaving home. Pretty brave people to leave behind a world they know for a world they don't know where they're gonna be a rube. So with your heart in your throat and your hand holding your wallet so no one gets it, the few dollars that are in it, you go to the city and you try to make your way.

NARRATOR:
Nothing prepared them for what they found--the crowds, the noise, the confusion.

DAVID NASAW :
The first thing that would confront them would be the smell, the absolutely horrid, horrid smell. The city was very much a primitive place. The sewage, the human waste, the horse waste, the horse carcasses - need I go further?

JOHN M. STAUDENMAIER, S.J.:
The vast numbers of people coming in from the country to make their way in the city... they know they're scared to death... They don't know how it works. They don't know who's a cheat. They don't know whether they're gonna make it through the night...And yet look how courageous they are to risk all this...They sense the possibility that they can become successes. It's hard to overestimate just how powerful an idea that is at this time in America.

NARRATOR:
New York was the country's largest city in 1900--and the second largest city in the world... with more than 3 million people. Trolleys sped along at 12 miles an hour, twice as fast as the horse. Elevated trains rushed above city streets, looking, one writer observed, "like luminous winged serpents skimming through the air." And that spring, the city of New York began to build what would become the largest subway system in the world.

DAVID NASAW:
There was a sense of excitement, of newness, of promise, of hope and expectation... that the plain folk, the plain people, were no longer beasts of burden, that life was not a life of toil and trouble and then you die, that there were elements of, of gaiety, of, ah, leisure that were part of daily life.

NARRATOR:
By 1900, New York was already the entertainment capital of America. And for a nickel or a dime, there was nothing more popular than vaudeville.

There were the 3 Keatons, with 5 year-old-Buster; Sandow, the strongman from Germany; and the juggler William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W.C. Fields.

New York had more theaters than any place else in the world, and that spring, a new play was appearing on Broadway that challenged the conventions of the day.

Sapho drew sell-out crowds--and provoked the guardians of public morality. The popular English actress Olga Nethersole directed and starred in a story adapted from a French novel about a seductive woman with any number of lovers. The play created a scandal.

DAVID NASAW:
The scandalous part of "Sapho" was that at the end of the piece Sapho was carried upstairs, clearly to a bedroom. And Sapho did not protest. She went willingly to have an illicit sexual relationship with a man and she wasn't punished for it. And because the character wasn't punished in the play, Olga had to be punished in real life.

NARRATOR:
Olga was arrested and charged with "violating public decency." She faced a stiff fine and a jail sentence.

DAVID NASAW:
"Sapho" hinted that women, too, were sexual creatures and any hint that women could experience pleasure in sex was, was scandalous, was dangerous... and guardians of public morality were working overtime to stop peep shows, dime novels, picture postcards. There was just too much of it and it was too cheap. It was too available.

NARRATOR:
In 1900, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice proudly reported seizing more than 19,000 obscene photographs, and 7,000 circulars, catalogues, songs, and poems.

Now they went after Olga Nethersole. Her trial raged on for weeks, followed closely by every newspaper in the country. Among the witnesses was a police inspector, who testified that, in the line of duty, he had seen the play 6 times and had not found Sapho offensive at all. Other witnesses called the play instructive. In just fifteen minutes, a sympathetic jury found Olga not guilty.

DAVID NASAW:
She was quickly let go.

NARRATOR:
The show reopened and the censors who had gotten it closed down succeeded only in expanding the audience far beyond what it would have been without the arrest. New Yorkers were now seeing things in public places, they'd never seen before. "The Kiss"--a sixteen-second film created a sensation all over the city. At the turn of the century, film was still new, and people were dazzled by any image that moved.

DAVID NASAW:
The movies in 1900 were not what we would imagine today. They were really moving snapshots called "views.".. And people watched in absolute amazement.

NARRATOR:
No one had ever imagined that pictures would ever get to move. And they could not believe that they were seeing pictures of people and places that they had read about, maybe dreamed about, but were now there before them.

New York was a city of dreamers--everyone hustling for the main chance. Americans from the countryside looking for a fresh start found themselves mixing with other newcomers, who were also searching for a better life.

In 1900, nearly 1/3 of New York's population was foreign-born.

Slavs, Italians, Jews, Poles--they too had been drawn by the dream of success in America, and instead, all too many found the same misery and hardship they thought they had left behind.

Manhattan's lower East Side was one of the most crowded spots on earth, men and women speaking languages of all kinds competing for a roof over their head and a job to put food on the table.

Many native-born Americans feared the immigrants, accused them of creating the poverty and squalor in which they had been forced to live.

Still, they came--one-half million in 1900, part of the largest wave of immigration in American history. But nearly one-third went back home. There was opportunity in America, but not for everyone.

JOHN M. STAUDENMAIER, S.J.:
When you read the letters that immigrants sent back to the old country...again and again you'll read something like, "I lost a finger and it's been hard while it's been healing. And it's a hard place, America. And don't send Joseph. He's not strong enough for America. But you can send the others. This is a great land and we can make a new start here."

NARRATOR:
From New York, millions of immigrants moved West. They had dreamed of finding streets paved with gold, but many became fodder for America's great industrial engine. In the Pennsylvania coal fields, the Chicago stockyards, the Pittsburgh steel mills. They worked 12 to 16 hour days, 6 days a week, often for as little as $1.35 a day. Prey to disaster of every kind, thousands a year were maimed by machines, burned by molten steel, buried by mine explosions.

JOHN M. STAUDENMAIER, S.J.:
They're worried about surviving. There's no safety net anywhere. There's no death benefits. There's no welfare. There's no nothin' like that. If the man of the family dies in the factory, as many thousands did, you're in trouble.

But I think if you probed people most days and said, "Are you optimistic about your own future," probably most people would say, "Yeah. This is America. Of course." Even though if you said, "But what happens if - well, yeah, it could be bad luck."

NARRATOR:
The immigrants spread out all over the country--even to the mountains of Utah. The hardscrabble town of Scofield was rich in coal, and there was plenty of work for those who wanted it.

In 1900, America ran on coal. Every train, every steamship, and almost every factory was powered by coal, and nearly every American home needed coal to make it through the winter. The nation depended on the tens of thousands of men from all across Europe who worked deep within the earth. TED HELSTEN:
The companies would send out representatives to different nationalities. First they'll go to the Greeks, then the Italians, then the Finns, and they would pay their way over here to work.

Abram Luoma had come to America to escape conscription in the armies of the Russia Tsar. In 1900, Abram and his five brothers were among the hundreds of Finns working in the Winter Quarters mine in the mountains above Scofield.

MAE LYONS:
My great-grandfather's sons, they were told, like many other immigrants, America was the place to go and have all the luxuries of life or something. It didn't prove to be that, though.

DONALD L. MILLER:
It's the most dangerous job in the world and it's been the most dangerous job in the world since the 12th century. They're working with the basic elements of the earth in these confined and exceedingly dangerous places.

There's rats all over the place. The wood that holds up the top of the mine is creaking constantly under the tremendous weight, a thousand feet of earth and rock and stone right above you. And every day you're dynamiting underneath, underneath that mountain of rock.

NARRATOR:
The Luoma brothers were quiet and industrious. Like many miners, they worked as a family team, side-by-side, day after day. The mines in Scofield were booming, there was money to be made, and the Luomas wrote their aging parents back in Finland.

MAE LYONS:
Come. We'll support you for the rest of your life. We'll take care of you. You'll have no need to ever go back to work. And so it was with that agreement that the parents came from Finland.

NARRATOR:
In February 1900, 70-year-old Abram Luoma, Senior, and his 65-year-old wife Kate had joined their six sons in Scofield. The next month, a state inspector arrived at the Winter Quarters mine.

TED HELSTEN:
The requirement was that they were to water the coal dust down all through the mine in those days. If you imagine in the mine all this coal dust layin' around there that's not wet and it's gets pluffed up in the air and you get an ignition source from an explosion, that dust will explode itself and it creates a flame front just like going down the barrel of a gun.

The mine inspector said they were doin' a good job. But a lotta witnesses said that they hadn't watered the coal dust down and so it was accumulatin' and it was dryin' out.

NARRATOR:
In 1900, there were no federal mine regulations, few state laws, and no unions in Utah. Along with the other men, Abram Luoma and his brothers had little choice. They would do their job--in spite of the dangers.

DONALD L. MILLER:
One spark, one lamp goes off and that whole mine can turn into a roaring tornado.

NARRATOR:
On the morning of May 1st, the miners were hard at work and had been since daybreak. The navy had just signed a new contract with the mine owners, calling for the delivery of 2000 tons of coal a day.

5 of the 6 Luoma brothers were deep underground in the number 4 mine.

MAE LYONS:
Just by fate one of them was not working. All the rest were working except one. He was the youngest son. Down in the valley 2 miles away, the women and children were celebrating. It was May 1st and they were having a May Day party of some kind for the children. And when they heard the noise they didn't get excited at all. They thought it was fireworks.

NARRATOR:
At 10:20 am, May 1, 1900, the most violent mine explosion America had ever known rocked the town of Scofield. Some men were blown out of the tunnels like cannonballs. More than two hundred others were trapped inside. Abram Luoma and his wife Kate joined hundreds of terrified women and children, hurrying toward the mine.

TED HELSTEN:
There was complete chaos. All they know is that there's been a big explosion and they don't know what the--the impact of that explosion. Is everybody dead? Is only a few people dead?

NARRATOR:
Once you have an explosion like that, you've used up all the oxygen in the air. So the company had to restore the air into that mine in order to go in and see what the damage is.

They did have some oxygen breathing devices. They weren't, they were pretty primitive, didn't allow 'em to go very far. The bodies they found close to the explosion were pretty well mangled, and so the men had to try to sort of put the bodies together. I was told that they carried out two heads, one of a young boy and a man that they just found the head.

Those who escaped the explosion remained trapped deep below ground in the poisonous air. One boy managed to crawl in the dark over a thousand feet. His uncle found him, near the main entrance, unconscious but alive. But most men were killed at once. Some were found with their tools still in their grasp; one man had his pipe in his hand.

TED HELSTEN:
By late afternoon they had already recovered 60 or 70 bodies. I was told they found groups of people in stacks. And you could tell by the way they were layin' and the way they were trying to find air space, that these people lived for a while, but the air was so bad and the lack of oxygen, they finally died.

MAE LYONS:
They brought in trainfuls of people to work and help to clear out the mine. And if you can imagine, they even brought one whole trainful of just caskets. And I think that there were 200 caskets on the first train that was brought in, but it wasn't nearly enough.

NARRATOR:
The Scofield mine disaster had been the worst in the history of the United States. Over 200 men had died that morning, leaving 107 widows and 268 children without fathers. Every family in town was grieving. Zeph Thomas buried two brothers and two nephews. The Miller family lost 3 brothers.

But none suffered more than Abram and Kate Luoma, who had come all the way to Scofield from Finland just 3 months before to be near those they loved: 5 of their sons, 3 grandsons, and one son-in-law had been killed.

MAE LYONS:
Oh, It was terrible for them. And I remember my grandmother explaining how he had told her that, "If I don't live any longer than a cat, I am not dying in America." And he and his wife went back to Finland.

NARRATOR:
The coal company had no trouble replacing those who had been killed. There were applications from men from all over the country. But in the spring of 1900, as the men returned to the mines, the explosion was carved in their memory. "Remember the Scofield Disaster" would become the rallying cry when 8 months later miners attempted to organize a union for their protection.

Relief for the widows and orphans came in from Nevada, North Dakota, New York City. Farmers sent crates of eggs and butter, women held bazaars, but there was no help from either the state or federal government.

Members of the US House of Representatives rejected a plea for aid because, they said, there was no precedent for such action.

The tragedy in Scofield also lived on in a ballad written that spring.

"Oh mothers and wives of the miners Strew flowers while life is still fair. Send your men off to danger with loving embrace. Bid them goodbye with a prayer."

NARRATOR:
In 1900, the fourth of July was an especially joyous, noisy affair. Everyone who could kept his carriage home that day. Fireworks were known to unnerve the horses. That summer, Americans were counting themselves: the 1900 census totaled 76 million of them. There were now more telephones than bathtubs, but still more blacksmiths than doctors, only 8000 cars and in all the country less than 10 miles of concrete roads. On July 4, as tradition demanded, Americans proudly read from the Declaration of Independence, but that summer, old fashioned patriotism mingled with old fashioned politics. 1900 was an election year. The great question... who would lead the nation into the 20th Century?
continue to Part III



Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

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