The Film & More|
Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
Change is in the Air (30 minutes)
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.
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...
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.
Nothing prepared them for what they found--the crowds, the noise, the
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Olga was arrested and charged with "violating public decency."
She faced a stiff fine and a jail sentence.
"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.
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
She was quickly let go.
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.
The movies in 1900 were not what we would imagine today. They were really
moving snapshots called "views.".. And people watched in absolute amazement.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?