THE EARLY LEAD: Imagining what the coal town of Angus was like in its heyday
By Brandon Hurley
“Oh, I believe in yesterday.”
Long gone are the 16 rowdy prohibition-era bar rooms that made up whisky row. No longer can the beautiful sounds of music be heard radiating from the upscale opera house.
The coal mines, banks and newspapers all vanished. Schools are non-existent, and so are the grocery stores.
What once was a booming community disappeared almost overnight. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact location of Angus today if you aren’t on the prowl for it specifically. But, the town of nearly 10,000 people was surely easy to spot some 140 years ago, and as I traveled out to the old coordinates this, it did take a little bit of patience.
As I slowly and curiously pulled up to the patch of land that once was Whisky Row in Angus, Iowa situated on the Greene and Boone County line, the song Yesterday by the Beatles blared through my car speakers.
Quite the coincidence, I must say. Just miles of pristine farmland remains. Shockingly quiet, only the far off sounds from diesel trucks coming and going at the nearby landfill pierce the Iowa air. Those surely weren’t typical sounds in the late 1800s.
Ah, what those nights and days would have looked like.
As I traversed Y Avenue a mile or so to the south, hoping to further take in the long-gone era headed for the Angus cemetery, Imagine by John Lennon, magically, was the next song to play. I was no doubt attempting to imagine all the people who spent their time enduring in the many vices of the day, even closing my eyes momentarily, hoping to witness what the residents once experienced on a daily basis.
The songs and the moment melded together into an eerie event.
Truly, it is rather difficult to imagine what Angus once was - the most populous and lively town in Greene County for a brief time during the late 1800s.
One of Iowa’s most infamous yet largely forgotten coal towns.
Angus sounds like it had a bit of the Old West in it, chock full of drunken shenanigans and gambling, a well-known saloon scene, long-lasting riots, law-breaking and arson.
Really, it feels like a movie script. I like to envision Angus as Iowa’s version of Las Vegas or an old, lawless Western town, the streets littered with noise, fights and illegal activities. A place perfect for John Wayne or Butch Cassidy. A location prime for the set of Tombstone.
Alas, all that remains today is a cemetery, a prominent and green Whisky Row sign deep in the ditch, a small, tattered “Angus” marker on the Y Avenue post as well as a commemorative plaque.
Not a single building left behind, no lost beer bottle, sprinkle of blood or stray bullet.
Merely cornfields, a long gravel road depicting the Greene and Boone County line as well as a couple spaced out houses blanketed by the shadows of nearby cornfields.
It’s pretty desolate, a far cry from the rowdy atmosphere of Angus.
The town has a violent and chaotic history, despite its short existence. It was a community that has captivated me for a couple of years since I stumbled upon its existence during another research endeavor.
I just had to know more about the arsonists who decimated a local methodist church as a threat to a pastor who bravely chose to uphold Iowa’s prohibition law, while a murderous riot during a coal mining strike also plagued the town.
This is the quick-hit story of the long-forgotten Angus, Iowa.
HOW ANGUS CAME TO BE
“The Angus story could well be considered one of the outstanding incidents of Iowa History,” Eugene Hastie said in “The History of Perry, Iowa.”
At its peak, Angus was home to more than 7,000 people – mostly coal miners – somewhere between the years of 1884 and 1886. The population passed Jefferson’s in 1883, and held that mark for four-to-five years.
Coal mining was the big booming business of that era, with several companies setting up shop around the county line, inspiring the birth of Angus. Coal was first discovered in 1866, but the town didn’t actually come to be until 1880. The bustling community was originally known as “Coaltown” during its inception in 1880. The name was changed to Angus in 1881.
Researchers estimate there were more than 10 mines in and around Angus, a boom which even spawned a suburb.
The roller coaster ride that was Angus is well-depicted in local history books. There’s almost a mythical presence to it for those who are aware of the old place.
“Possibly, there is not another instance of the rise and decay of such another town in Iowa,” E.B. Stillman said in “The past and present of Greene County.”
Angus was short-lived because of its attachment to the coal industry and its fluctuating population. Simply a place for coal miners to stay while working in the mines. Once all the coal was discovered and the rail lines were re-routed, the heart of the city went with it.
“The town with a purely scotch name was born to die,” read an excerpt from the Globe-Free Press and Rippey News. “It was a child of the coal industry.”
Despite those pitfalls, Angus grew quickly.
By 1885, Angus had become the largest coal mining town in Iowa with a population between 3,500 and 5,000 persons. Angus Published two separate newspapers during its heyday - The Black Diamond, with Robert Lowry as editor, as well as the Tenderfoot, with O.M. Brocket as editor. The town was also home to a pair of blacksmith shops, two lumber yards, two drug stores, two butcher shops, several hardware stores, two restaurants and two bakeries, according to Stanley Welchel’s research in “Angus, Iowa a compilation of information.”
The Angus coal miners were paid anywhere from 87 cents to $1.25 per ton of coal mined. They came from all over the world - Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, Sweden and Italy
These workers were often living on the road, going where the mines were, which meant they left their families at home, sending money back by mail.
Once the boys got off work for the day, it was usually time to let loose. Angus didn’t suffer for entertainment options, and the miners certainly took advantage.
THE ALLURE OF WHISKY ROW
Boot-leg alcohol fueled the long nights in Angus.
An incredible 16 saloons dotted one single street, famously known as Whisky row. The old stomping grounds are marked with a Whisky Row sign today, at the intersection of Y Avenue and 330th Street.
It was was the place to be during the 1880s, stationed squarely on the Greene and Boone County line, between Rippey and Perry. Though Iowa did have a prohibition law in tact in the 1880s, it was rarely enforced, allowing for a lively bar scene. Rumor has it the saloons were centered directly on that county line, and if any trouble were to arise and a sheriff showed up, the patrons could quickly maneuver to the opposing county by simply stepping a few feet over. This notion is remembered on the adjourning plaque along Y Avenue south of Rippey today.
The miners took their consumption seriously. They worked hard and partied harder.
“Liquor flowed freely, men from the old country mingled with older American stock; just about every other place up and down Snake Creek was some sort of saloon,” read one newspaper’s account of Whisky Row.
Let’s remember, this was during an era that had yet to be introduced to motor vehicles, only able to travel via train or horse. So, naturally, it was easy to get into some trouble if you were essentially restricted to a small town home to many drinking establishments, all located on the same street.
Prairie Flower was the town’s largest saloon owned by Tom Chambers. The scene was quite synonymous for the time, and drew plenty of attention.
“Whisky Row was always the scene of great excitement, fights, races and all sorts of sports.,” the late Stanley D. Whelchel wrote in his book “Angus, IA - A compilation of information.”
The Thomas Opera House was the finest in the area, able to comfortably seat 800 persons. Angus was also home to several hotels as well, likely a side-effect of the town’s rowdy bar scene. The hotel establishments included the Angus Hotel, Hotel De St. Nicholas and the European Hotel.
It wasn’t all fun and games in Angus. The miner’s knew their worth, and clamored for proper restitution, which set off one of the county’s most violent riots.
THE BIG STRIKE
Labor disagreements between coal companies and the Angus employees marred the tail-end of 1884. It was estimated roughly 1,500 coal miners participated in a strike, which eventually bled into the next year, culminating with a bloody riot.
The strike arose because the coal companies had decided to reduce the miner’s pay, admitting they could not afford to fork out that much money. Miners from Keystone No. 2 and the Standard Mine decided to halt production and go on strike, which later required the deployment of the national guard for three days after one miner threatened the local sheriff.
The strike picked back up again after the soldiers left, taking aim at Swedish miners at the Keystone mine. The Swedish miners were replacements for the strikers, known as “black legs.” The local miners reportedly didn’t take kindly to their replacements, hassling incoming trains filled with workers, later choosing to mob the living quarters of the Swedes, attempting to drive them out of town by throwing rocks (Chattanooga Daily Times, Jan. 9, 1985).
A Daily Journal and Republican report out of Freeport, Illinois on Jan. 9, 1885 said a mob of 100 striking miners surrounded a small group of replacement miners as they left work the day prior. The mob reportedly came at the black legs from all sides, “overpowering” the working miners with strong kicks before physically dragging them out of town. Women also participated in the mob, the newspaper said, helping to drive the “visitors” out of town.
The mob took the innocent workers two miles outside of Angus near Perry, abandoning them out in the country.
As the rioters attended to the workers out of town, an apparent gun shot within the Swedes boarding house incensed other rioters, inviting them to throw what the newspaper account says were “balls” inside the home.
I imagine these balls were either gun shots or bombs. Either way, a man by the name of Nels Munson was killed in the proceeding ruckus, getting struck straight through the chest. The death eventually led to a number of rioters being tried and convicted for manslaughter, serving time at the Ft. Madison prison.
The riots lasted nearly a full month, but they wouldn’t be the last case of trouble the Angus miners would cause. They’d get destructive a little more than a year later, which soon became a common theme.
PROHIBITION CAUSES A STIR
Rev. Bishop built a large Methodist church in Angus and strongly opposed the “whiskey business.” He was a strong proprietor of Iowa’s prohibition law, which made it illegal for saloon owners to sell alcohol, though the Angus business owners clearly turned a blind eye toward. Iowa had amended a prohibition law in 1882, making it illegal to manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages. Bishop’s staunch opposition of the miner’s main vice caused quite a stir.
The miners, fed up with the reverend’s mingling, decided to burn the church to the ground on May 10, 1986.
“We regret exceedingly to learn of the destruction by fire of the Methodist Church at Angus,” a newspaper article read at the time. “Had this result occurred accidentally, the fact would not have special significance. But when it is apparent that the torch of one of the incendiary destroyed this beautiful temple to which so many brought their offerings of praise to the Lord, it becomes a most lamentable affair.”
Robert Gibson and several others in the church were working tirelessly to enforce the prohibition law, the article continued.
“The measure or revenge has taken shape in the swinging, desolating fire brand,” the newspaper said.
The fire, ironically enough, was the start of Angus’ fall.
As the coal dried up, so did the town of Angus.
The liquor flowed slower as the miners left in droves. The major rail lines began bypassing Angus once the mines began to shutdown, driving the population out rather quickly. A small revival occurred in 1890, as written in an article in an 1896 edition of the Perry Bulletin, when more coal was found, but that was rather short-lived despite the inception of the Angus News.
By 1900, only 333 residents remained, a sad and sudden decline.
The last coal mine ceased operations in 1930, Welchel says in his Angus book. The author also said the final general store, operated by George Simpson, closed in 1961. The school closed a few years earlier in 1945, with Angus children attending either Perry or Rippey. As the calendar turned to 1976, not even 100 years after its inception, only 50 people lived in Angus. Today, there no longer remains an Angus, simply gravel roads and cornfields. The cemetery is still there, which was first established in 1850, but not much else.
For even more info on this interesting town, I suggest checking out Whelchel’s book at the Jefferson Library. It’s an absolute treasure trove of information.
The quick demise of Angus was a sad but harsh reality, a town that was once a bright beacon of power and money so quickly dissolved to dust. A captivating boom town that disappeared in a mere instant.