The Battle of Buena Vista
By Miles S. Richards
A persistent tradition within Allegheny County has been that during the 19th Century, the hamlet of Buena Vista, in Elizabeth Township, experienced bloody labor gun battle. The primary combatants were striking coal miners arrayed against a desperate assemblage of imported strikebreakers. Beyond those basic facts, however, little else about the "Battle of Buena Vista" is remembered by current commentators. This notable fight, which occurred along the Youghiogheny River on November 29, 1874, purportedly resulted in ten deaths. It was the climax to a series of ugly incidents which began when miners initiated a work stoppage against the Armstrong Coal Works.
Normally, the majority of those workers daily crossed theYoughiogheny into Westmoreland County to labor in Charles S. Armstrong's mine. Since August 1874, they had been demanding a wage increase of four cents per hour from Armstrong, but he consistently refused to negotiate. Consequently, the miners resolved to initiate a strike before their employer instituted threatened lockout. To many observers it must have seemed that the miners were commencing their walkout at a particularly inopportune moment. At that point, the United States was experiencing the second year of a severe economic downturn known as the "Long Depression." This business crisis had begun in September 1873 with the collapse of a major Philadelphia banking institution, Jay Cooke & Company. The ensuing "Long Depression" disrupted the national economy for seven years.
Despite this depression, the National Miner's Association(N.M.A), under President John Siney, embarked upon a concerted organizing effort within the Western Pennsylvania coalfields. Union officials placed strong priority upon recruiting miners employed by the numerous coal operations to be found along the Youghiogheny River. The National LaborTribune,edited in Pittsburgh by Thomas A. Armstrong, ran several articles about a successful recruiting campaign at the Osceola Coal Mine, a major enterprise situated across the Youghioghenyfrom the village of Greenock in Elizabeth Township.
The N.M.A.'s organizers paid scant attention to the Armstrong Works, until they heard reports that the miners employed there also wanted to join their union. Although Armstrong's company was not large, the firm employed much of the local work force. Furthermore, Armstrong was the primary coal supplier for the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad with tracks adjacent to the mine. Accordingly, once the work stoppage began on September 5, the Pittsburgh& Connellsville Railroad aided Armstrong by transporting, without charge, a party of strikebreakers to his works.
After the walkout occurred, Armstrong dispatched agents to New York City to recruit scabs. They enlisted approximately two hundred men--mostly unemployed recent European immigrants who were barely conversant in English. Under the designated crew leader, Frederico Gazette, the main party reached the mine on October 9. They were quartered within a cluster of cabins situated next to the mine, with armed sentries posted to protect them from any surprise attacks. When the scabs began working the following morning, they were subjected to fierce verbal denunciations from the strikers watching from across the river. Not surprisingly, the strikers enjoyed overwhelming support within from the Youghiogheny towns situated south of West Newton. Residents completely ostracized all of Armstrong's "temporary employees," and area merchants refused to conduct any business with them. Inevitably, the atmosphere of complete hostility on both sides led to violence.
About 9:00 P.M., on October 28, several scabs unwisely entered James Lloyd's tavern in Buena Vista. Some time later they were forcibly expelled from Lloyd's place following a brawl with strike sympathizers. Throughout the night armed snipers on both sides of the river traded gunfire. Although for the next month such shootings became a daily feature of life around Buena Vista, there were few casualties initially. Then on Saturday, November 28, around 7:00 P.M., five strikebreakers entered Buena Vista spoiling for a fight. Apparently they had been drinking heavily for many hours. In any case, they encountered several irate strikers in front of Gault's Drug Store. During the subsequent free-for-all one scab, Charles Moses, was stabbed in the abdomen, while a companion, Frank Mora received an ugly head wound. Upon learning of this violent episode, Guisetti and his men secured firearms from Armstrong's storeroom and for the next twelve hours fired sporadic volleys at random targets around Buena Vista. That night, as a precaution, the strikers posted armed sentries to spread the alarm if any raiders crossed the river.
Around 9:00 A.M. Guisetti and several companions men appeared in the village, apparently seeking a local physician, Dr. R. S. Stewart, to treat their wounded. Within the party was "The Turk"-- a tall, burly man who was especially detested by the strikers. As the scabs approached Stewart's house, some vigilantes ambushed them near the schoolhouse. Under intense gunfire, the scabs promptly retreated to their barge. Soon afterwards, more armed villagers reinforced the vigilantes. At this point unfounded rumors began to circulate that Guisetti's men were planning to burn down all of Buena Vista. The town's leading citizen, William A. Bell, later justified his neighbors' violent actions, telling a reporter from the National Labor Tribune," The villagers acted entirely on the defensive and would not have fired had they not been satisfied that the intruders meant harm." Once the shooting commenced the women and children of Buena Vista were dispatched to safe locations, away from town.
Meanwhile, the majority of capable male residents congregated at the gristmill where they selected Frank Patterson and Stewart Osborne as their "captains." While couriers on horseback set out in search of reinforcements and ammunition, other villagers pursued the strikebreakers back to their barge. Several snipers who had taken positions on the opposite bank to protect Guisetti's party seriously wounded at least two of their pursuers. Byte time Patterson and the main contingent of villagers reached the riverbank, the scabs were mid-stream. Nearly sixty guns were aimed at the barge occupants, with deadly results. Three of Guisetti's companions were killed instantly. The remainder-a number of whom were already badly wounded-- dove into the water. However, upon reaching shore they found their situation remained perilous, because the gunfire from Buena Vista remained intense. Although several of these refugees, including Guisetti, eventually reached the high ground, the remainder found cover within a deep drainage ditch next to the railroad tracks. Nobody appeared to notice that the barge, carrying three corpses, was drifting downstream aimlessly.
By noon, over 500 heavily armed men were in Buena Vista. Contingents from most of the neighboring Youghiogheny communities had reached the scene, while local farmers showed their support by supplying needed food provisions. William A. Bell, a prominent businessman, dispatched several of his transport wagons toward McKeesport to procure additional ammunition. At this point, Patterson deployed this imposing fighting force along the river. On the opposite bank their desperate adversaries, expecting no quarter, had erected barricades around the cabins to make a last stand. Most of the 150 scabs had assumed positions behind any object that afforded protection from the gunfire. However, the Buena Vista residents did not contemplate a direct frontal assault. Consequently, for several hours an uneasy stand-off existed, periodically highlighted by sniper fire. A great cheer went up from the Buena Vista side when reports circulated that "The Turk" was mortally wounded. In fact, the majority of serious casualties occurred during this interlude.
Around 4:00 P. M., approximately fifty horsemen, led by Humphrey Campbell, forded the Youghiogheny about a half-mile downstream. They ultimately assumed positions upon the hillside above the strikebreakers' cabins. With their adversaries now in a potential deadly crossfire, they demanded that Guisetti surrender. Accordingly, Guisetti's wife emerged from cabin waving a white sheet fastened to a rifle. Following a protracted debate the dejected scabs finally gave up their weaponry. They were marched at gunpoint toward Armstrong's largest warehouse. Guisetti and his men readily agreed to depart the area when the first available train passed through on Monday.
Since late morning, Armstrong and assorted local officials had been conveying frantic telegrams to law enforcement officials in Pittsburgh. Sheriff Walter Hare of Allegheny County, as well as a dozen special deputies eventually arrived in Buena Vista about two hours after the fighting was over. Sheriff Hare was shocked to discover that seven men were dead, along with thirty wounded. During the next several days three more participants died from their wounds. A significant amount of property damage had occurred as well, notably buildings riddled with bullet holes. Not surprisingly, a myriad of spent cartridges also littered the entire area. For the record, the drifting barge ultimately was intercepted down river near Dravo. The three bodies were loaded into a wagon, bound for final burial in McKeesport.
The sheriff assigned Chief Deputy Hugh M. Fife to supervise the scabs' orderly evacuation aboard a Pittsburgh & Connellsville freight train the next morning. Some days later word reached Buena Vista that many of these men had moved on to work at a mine in Trumbull County, Ohio. As the Pittsburgh Post commented, "It is hoped that wherever they may go, we shall have no more of the bloody scenes that were witnessed at Buena Vista." To his enemies' amusement Armstrong became embroiled in a noisy public quarrel with Guisetti. Apparently, the miner owner had failed to pay these former "temporary employees" about $700in back wages. Despite the convening of an Allegheny County Grand Jury no participants were prosecuted for their activities in the "Battle of Buena Vista." By February 1875, Armstrong had agreed that the wage dispute be placed before an arbitrator for final settlement. The umpire ultimately resolved that the strikers were entitled to a two-cent per hour pay raise. Following this ruling the striking miners promptly returned to work.
This bloody episode eventually was forgotten by most outsiders. The Armstrong Works operated until 1902 when a major mine fire finally forced its closing. Local residents later claimed that the fire continued throughout much of the 2Oth Century. Although local memories of the" Battle of Buena Vista" largely faded, a few elderly Elizabeth Township residents readily recalled the event as late as 1985 to this writer during various oral history interviews.
Joan Stefanko. Between Two Rivers ( Elizabeth, Pa. : Bicentennial Committee,1976).
Articles in the Pittsburgh Evening Telegraph, the Pittsburgh Post, and the National LaborTribune,1874.
Oral history interviews conducted by Miles Richards in Elizabeth Township, 1985.
Dr. Miles S. Richards is on the history faculty of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. He has contributed to various historical journals and historical encyclopedias. He is also author of the book OsceolaE. McKaine and the South Carolina Civil Rights Struggle, 1917-1950 (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).