Coal and Iron Police

The police force was constituted as a local unit of the Coal and Iron Police. These were mounted policemen. The first chief of police in Colver was Charles Holtzer, but he was murdered in the line of duty. (more later). John Milhalic was then the chief of police. However for the most part, when we speak with the old time residents, the policemen they remember over the years consistently was John (Big John) Szfranski and Paul Papel. (Also called Big Paul).

As the name implied, the Coal and Steel operators as their own specialized law enforcement agency used the Coal and Iron Police. Prior to 1905, law enforcement in Pennsylvania rested with the counties and the elected sheriff was the primary law enforcement officer. The case was made by the coal and iron operators for additional protection of their property and in 1865 the Pennsylvania State Legislature authorized the establishment of the Coal and Iron Police. Beginning in 1866 their use became common. This police force was supposedly to protect property, however in practice the companies used them as strikebreakers. The coal miners called them "Cossacks" and "Yellow Dogs."   According to Margaret Mulrooney, Colver residents called them "Pussyfoots" and "Gestapo." As much as anything they were used as the eyes and ears of the coal company. They apparently had regular patrols in the community. Many of the older residents pointed out that one item watched for more than 3 miners meeting together, that the police would break up that gathering.

For how the coal and iron police were used to control a town, it is suggested that the reader check out Elizabeth Ricketts of the IUP 'The Struggle for Civil Liberties and Unionization in the Coal Fields: The Free Speech Case of Vintondale, Pennsylvania, 1922' that was published in THE PENNSYLVANIA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY in 1998.

The proper channel for the establishment of the Coal and Iron Police was that the Governor of Pennsylvania authorized the creation of a local agency and they were directly administered from the office of the Governor. These local forces derived their law enforcement powers through the office of the county Sheriff. The operators then created their own local force using the governor's commission and paid them directly. During periods of labor unrest these local Coal and Iron police would be augmented by the hiring of additional policemen, usually from outside the area. In a July 25, 1922 article dealing with Colver, The Johnstown Tribune noted that additional Coal and Iron Police were hired during the strike. In Colver these additional police were furnished by a private security agency (we don't know the agency), but B. Dawson Coleman indicated so. It appears that there was some dissention on the part of the local Coal and Iron police over pay and Coleman was questioned over this. According to the paper his response was that the police came through a private agency and the Coal Company paid the agency and what the agency paid the police was of no concern of his.

In 1905, the lack of state wide law enforcement was remedied by the creation of the Pennsylvania State Police. The stated purpose was to act as fire, forest, game and fish wardens, and to protect the farmers, but some observers felt that it really was to serve the interests of the Coal and Iron operators. The same legislation created a "trespassing offense" that wherever a warning sign was displayed; a person could be arrested and fined ten dollars. This was seen as a direct assault on picketing.

In 1931, the then Governor Pichot revoked all outstanding commissions for private police forces and refused to issue new ones which effectively ended the industrial police system in Pennsylvania. We can only surmise the reason for the revocation, but it could have been as a direct result of the excesses of these police forces. Another explanation is that Governor Pichot was a three-time governor, but his terms were not consecutive. He was defeated in his 1926 campaign by a candidate from Indiana County who had the strong support of the coal and steel operators and the resulting revocation may have some elements of a political payback. A third reason could have been that given the ascendancy of the labor movement in the 1930's it was a political gesture to the labor movement.

In Colver the coal and iron police were a fixture from the beginning. T. R. Johns noted in his daily journal that the first policeman Chas Holtzer, was sworn in April 28, 1913, at noon as Chief of Police. On March 28, 1915 there was a drunken brawl at about 8:00 in the evening in the shoemaker shop where a bunch of men gathered to drink beer. One man was stabbed and Charles Holtzer was called. Holtzer was stabbed, but he managed to shoot his assailant. Holtzer died several days later.

However from what we can gather, neither "Big Paul" nor "Big John" were ostracized by the community. They were not liked because they were seen as the eyes and ears of the coal company. On the other hand antecedents abound where the teen-age boys would slip up and smack their horses or ring the bell on the fire department tower on Halloween.

Another bit of lore is that the police would come by a miner's home if he was absent from work due to a hangover, throw a sandwich in the miner's bucket and then drag him off to work.