By David McDevitt, Harding Project Archivist
When the northeastern United States experienced record-breaking cold weather this month, it reminded us of similar conditions from a century ago. In February 1923, as temperatures in Lowell, Massachusetts bottomed out at -18°F, the nation was still recovering from a coal miners’ strike; coal supplies were low and Americans in colder climates suffered greatly. Held by the Ohio History Connection, the archival collections of Ohio-born President Warren G. Harding document the strike and subsequent coal shortage in both words and photographs.
On April 1, 1922, the United Mine Workers union called a general strike, asking for better hours and no reduction in wage rates, among other things. The Harding administration had tried to mediate between the coal miners and operators in the preceding weeks, but was unable to bring the two sides to an agreement. Production of bituminous coal, a relatively low-grade and dirty coal typically used in industrial settings, immediately plummeted from 1.9 million tons to 700,000 tons per day. Production of anthracite, a denser and higher quality coal used for residential heating, stopped almost entirely. It took until August for the strikers and owners to come to any kind of agreement. Bituminous production returned to pre-strike levels by early September, but anthracite mining didn’t resume at all until mid-September. As early as July, President Harding had been informed that anthracite in storage was already so low that shortages would be inevitable in the coming winter. A simultaneous nationwide railroad strike exacerbated distribution issues, and coal scarcity over the next six months drove up prices significantly.
Boys in Lowell, Massachusetts stand out in the cold while waiting to receive coal to heat their families’ homes. [P 146/63/13]
As temperatures dropped, the coal shortage became more of an acute issue. Although it affected the entire country, unusually frigid temperatures in the northeastern United States made shortages particularly felt in that region. Temperatures in February 1923 were among the coldest that winter; the average daily minimum temperature in Lowell was an icy 5.1°F. On February 24, the Lowell Chamber of Commerce sent a desperate telegraph to their Congressman, John Jacob Rogers, himself a born-and-raised Lowellian. Their message read:
“Hundreds of Lowell families without coal in dire need and suffering. Dealers report supplies lowest of winter and anxious about deliveries. Board of Health reports serious need and is issuing when possible orders for coal on doctors’ prescriptions. City charity department has no coal to give to sufferers. Other homes in danger of freezing. Coal enroute [sic] from Mechanicsville only like drop in the bucket. Chamber of Commerce and Fuel Administrator Milliken here doing what they can in tracing, etc., but need assistance.”
The Lowell Chamber of Commerce’s plea for help. [MSS 345/576/3]
The people of Lowell were in trouble. One local sales manager, Edward J. Cooney, also wrote to Congressman Rogers. But Cooney didn’t just describe their frozen conditions, he showed it; he sent several photographs of Lowell, mostly of local children waiting in line for coal, in the hope that Rogers could share them with President Harding and impart the seriousness of the situation. In Cooley’s own words, “Pictures will bring home more clearly to him the mistake which he made in his statement of the New England situation”.
Mr. Cooney’s letter that accompanied the Lowell photographs. “Picture #2” referenced here can be seen at the top of the page with this blog’s title. [MSS 345/576/3]
Lowell boys try to keep warm at 5:30am while waiting for coal on February 24, 1923. The reverse notes that the temperature was -10°F. (Picture #3 from the Cooney letter). [P 146/63/13]
Cooney is referring to reports that President Harding called the coal crisis a “psychological” problem, a suggestion that infuriated millions of freezing people across in the Northeast, regardless of political affiliation. Harding addressed this gaffe in a letter to Congressman Rogers, explaining that a newspaper man had taken his words out of context, he was simply relaying what Interstate Commerce Commission agents had told him, and that he fully understood the difficulty of the situation. But however much Harding tried to mitigate the damage his comments did, it seems that he really did believe that the coal crisis was, at least in part, a product of group hysteria and panic fueled by misinformation.
Lowell, Massachusetts line at 5:30am on February 24, 1923, waiting for coal. The reverse notes that the temperature was -10°F. (Picture #1 from the Cooney letter). [P 146/63/13]
In a separate letter to a Pittsburgh coal company owner, the President stated “There has been so much said and published concerning the fuel situation that I have long since learned that some of it is hysterical and…without dependability.” One frequent complaint against the administration was that the United States continued to export anthracite coal to Canada throughout the winter of 1922-1923, despite the urgent domestic need. The Interstate Commerce Commission advised against any embargo, as it would violate previous agreements with Canada. In addition, foreign anthracite exports were minor enough that redistributing them would not make a significant enough difference to warrant doing. But these details did little to prevent shivering New Englanders from resenting President Harding and his policies. Harding, in turn, seemed exasperated by constituents criticizing him for his handling of a crisis he both tried to prevent and worked strenuously to alleviate.
Lowell boys collect coal on their sleds with the help of a furry friend. [P 146/63/13]
Despite his decision to continue exporting coal to Canada, Harding assured his correspondents that the federal government was doing all it could to help alleviate the crisis. He received daily updates from the United States Geological Survey regarding new coal production, established an emergency Federal Fuel Distributor, and directed it and the Interstate Commerce Commission to ensure adequate supply and equitable distribution of coal to the communities in need. In a response to a letter from the vocally dissatisfied Mayor of Boston, Harding stressed that “…everything possible to do within the law is being done to afford the greatest possible relief, not alone to your section of New England, but to all others which are concerned over the coal fuel supply.” Harding’s annoyance is palpable, and his message is laced with a reminder that Boston was merely one community among many suffering without coal reserves. He also expressed frustration with the American people, lamenting to Massachusetts Congressman Allen Treadway that “…there is an abundance of bituminous coal to relieve every threatening famine, but our people are so addicted to their habitual ways that it is very difficult to substitute bituminous coal among those who are accustomed to the use of anthracite.” In other words, Harding felt that the ostensibly freezing residents of New England were being entirely too selective about what they were burning to heat their homes. If conditions were truly so dire, why shouldn’t they be happy with any coal they could get their hands on? Were the people of New England and New York being picky, or perhaps they had been whipped into a panic by group hysteria and misinformation? Or was it that President Harding, warm and comfortable in the (presumably anthracite-heated) White House hundreds of miles south of Lowell, was cold-hearted and out of touch?
Lowellians wait in line for coal. [P 146/63/13]
In whatever case, Northeasterners did their best to survive with what they had. Conditions improved as winter turned to spring and American miners continued to produce as much coal as ever. President Harding would die in office less than six months later of cardiac arrest, and his papers passed into possession of the Harding Memorial Association for the next forty years. In the 1960s they were donated to the Ohio History Connection, then known as the Ohio Historical Society. A recent grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) has allowed us to rehouse and catalog these nearly 1000 boxes of materials from Warren G. Harding’s life and presidency. The letter and photographs from Cooney were separated at some point in the last century, but our grant project produced an opportunity to reunite them and tell this story from the Harding years. There are hundreds of other stories to tell from this collection’s rich materials, and we encourage you to check it out! Other Ohio history blogs can be found online, and here’s a list of blogs we’ve written utilizing the Warren G. Harding papers!
This post was created with grant support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
 Confidential Coal Statements from the United States Geological Survey to President Warren G. Harding (July-September, 1923), MSS 345, box 577, folders 1-5, Warren G. Harding papers, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.
 National Weather Service, “Climate – NOWData – NOAA Online Weather Data”, accessed February 8, 2023, https://www.weather.gov/wrh/climate?wfo=box.
 Telegraph from the Lowell Chamber of Commerce to John Jacob Rogers, Massachusetts Representative (24 February, 1923), MSS 345, box 576, folder 3, Warren G. Harding papers, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.
 Letter from Edward J. Cooney to John Jacob Rogers, Massachusetts Representative (28 February, 1923), MSS 345, box 576, folder 3, Warren G. Harding papers, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.
 Letter from President Warren G. Harding to John Jacob Rogers, Massachusetts Representative (28 February, 1923), MSS 345, box 576, folder 3, Warren G. Harding papers, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.
 Letter from President Warren G. Harding to John H. Jones, President of the Bertha Coal Company, Pittsburg (20 February 1923), MSS 345, box 576, folder 2, Warren G. Harding papers, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.
 Letter from President Warren G. Harding to James Curley, Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts (20 February, 1923), MSS 345, box 576, folder 3, Warren G. Harding papers, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.
 Letter from President Warren G. Harding to Allen T. Treadway, Massachusetts Representative (28 February, 1923), MSS 345, box 576, folder 2, Warren G. Harding papers, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, Ohio.