The Fairgrieves: Three Centuries of Coal

Picture of the Fairgrieve Brothers

Over the past two hundred years, the Fairgrieve family has carried it’s coal mining heritage far and wide: from their ancestral home in Scotland, to the coal fields of western Allegany County, Maryland, to the mountains of Montana. Fairgrieve became one of the most common surnames in the Georges Creek Region of Western Maryland.

William Fairgrieve was born in 1826 in East Lothian, Scotland (called Haddingtonshire until 1921.) In 1857, William married Elizabeth Peacock in Gladsmuir Parish, East Lothian, Scotland. The couple had two children: Martha, born in 1859, and James, born in 1860. Elizabeth died on June 3rd,1860, just ten days after the birth of her son. The death of his wife left William Fairgrieve with two infant children.

William married Christina Russell in August of 1861, in the Parish of Tranent in East Lothian. Their son, Alexander, was born in 1863. The couple and their three children boarded the SS Britannia in Glasgow, Scotland in 1865, and arrived in New York on May 26th. William had come to America to ply his trade as a coal miner. William and Christina’s last child, William, was born in Allegany County in 1867. By 1880, Christina was listed in the census survey as being a widow. Diligent research has  provided no clue as to the fate of William Fairgrieve, Sr. Children who were born in the early 1800’s frequently began working the coal mines by the time they were ten years old, and prolonged exposure to the coal dust commonly ended their lives before age 55.

Fifteen year-old Martha left for Boone County, Iowa in 1874 to live with her aunt and uncle, Margaret and John Peacock. Martha wrote regularly to her family in Western Maryland, but after about a year, the letters suddenly stopped. Worried that she had suffered some terrible fate, her brother James wrote a letter to the small town where Martha had been living. He was told that she had gone away, whither no one knew. James kept up a diligent search for his sister for fifteen years, long after the rest of the family had given up hope. Eventually, James also abandoned his quest  and the family began to mourn Martha as dead.

In August of 1907, Barton Postmaster Matthew Longridge received a letter from a Mrs. Martha Anderson from Omaha, Nebraska, asking for information on any members of the Fairgrieve family. Mr. Longridge responded. He told Martha that James Fairgrieve still lived there, and that a letter addressed to the Barton Post Office would reach him. And so a message came, as it were, from the dead. Mrs. Martha Anderson was none other than little Martha Fairgrieve who had disappeared so mysteriously thirty-three years prior. The siblings resumed regular correspondence, and Martha was finally persuaded to make the long journey from Nebraska to Maryland. According to the Cumberland Evening Times:  “A morning or two ago, arrayed in a new suit specially bought for the occasion, Mr. James Fairgrieve came to Cumberland, and here he experienced the joy and comfort of bidding his long-lost sister an affectionate welcome home.”  Mrs. Anderson was accompanied by her only child, Bertha, who was 14 years of age. “Mrs. Anderson and her daughter will be the guests of Mr. and Mrs. James Fairgrieve for several weeks at the expiration of which they will return to their far western home. Correspondence will never grow lax between this brother and sister again. At the Barton home of Mr. and Mrs. Fairgrieve all is joy and happiness over the return of the missing sister.”

Shortly after Martha Fairgrieve moved to Iowa in 1874, her teen-aged brother Alexander left for a coal boom in Montana. He began work as a trapper boy. In 1890, he was elected as President of the Montana Federation of Labor. He was also elected three times as a Republican to the Montana State Legislature. Alex Fairgrieve was successful in promoting legislation that improved mine safety, provided a retirement pension for miners, and unemployment compensation for those who were incapacitated due to accident or sickness.  The first of its kind in this country, the law was enacted, but was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Montana. Upon his death it was said: “Fairgrieve was a fearless leader, giving freely of his time to support strikers who he felt were in the right, and in effecting humane legislation for workers.”  Perhaps Alex Fairgrieve’s commitment to coal miners arose from the
recollections of his father’s experiences in the underground coal mines of Western Maryland.

The three Fairgrieve brothers each had a son who fought in World War 1. James’ son, John Ray Fairgrieve, worked for the Caledonia Coal Company in Barton. William Jr.’s son, James “Bud” Fairgrieve, and Alexander’s son, John Rae Fairgrieve, were employed by the Sullivan Brothers Coal Company in Carlos. The two cousins named John Fairgrieve died less than six weeks apart from wounds they suffered during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War 1.

The descendants of William Fairgrieve, Sr. carry on the family’s coal mining heritage to this day. Fairgrieve Trucking in Lonaconing perpetuates a legacy that has spanned two continents and three centuries.

How can you help?

The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of the state Route 36 and the national Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor our Georges Creek Valley miners and name those who perished while mining. Tax-deductible donantions can be mailed to the Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF, P.O. Box 765, Frostburg, MD 21532.

Please email: Polla Horn or Bucky Schriver to share your thoughts and stories.

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