Morris, Abe (1879-1933): Coal Operator

  • By William Kombol
  • Posted 11/27/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8387

Abraham Morris, a Pierce County coal operator and eponym of the coal town Morristown, was born in Wales and moved to the United States with his family at the age of 2. The family arrived in Washigton state in 1890 and he began working in east Pierce County coal mines as a teenager. In 1916 he was elected to the Washington State Legislature, and served for two terms. This People's History consists of a 1917 newspaper article about Abe Morris, followed by his 1933 obituary. These materials and additional information on Abraham Morris at the end were contributed by William Kombol, manager of Palmer Coking Coal Company located in Black Diamond (King County), Washington.

Honorable Abe Morris: Mine Operator and Lawmaker 

(From The Wilkeson Record, Pierce County, Washington, Friday, December 21, 1917)  

Almost every one admires a man who has risen from the ranks to a prominent position in the world through sheer pluck, energy and ability. That’s probably why Hon. Abe Morris (just plain Abe Morris to those who know him best) is well liked and respected in the mining district, where he has been a resident most of his life.    

Mr. Morris, who is the son of Mr. and Mrs. George Morris of Wilkeson, has been identified with the coal mining industry for many years. In fact, he started in at the early age of twelve years and has been at it continuously. Starting at the bottom, he climbed the ladder, round by round, and is today reaping the reward of many years of toil. According to Frank Merritt, his associate in the South Willis Coal Co., Abe Morris got his first experience in coal mining with the Wilkeson Coal & Coke Co. Later he became superintendent of the Gale Creek Coal Mines Co. at Wilkeson, which position he held for three years. Then he returned to the Wilkeson Coal & Coke Co. as foreman, resigning eight years later, when he became associated with the Commonwealth Coal Co. at South Willis.

Next he became superintendent of the American Coal Co. at Spiketon.  From there he went to Bayne, was superintendent of the mines there for a year, after which he returned to the Wilkeson Coal & Coke Co. as superintendent. He held this position until 1911, when the American Coal Co., appreciating his ability as a successful coal mining man and his knowledge of the local field, leased their entire holdings to him. A year later Mr. Morris organized the South Willis Coal Co., consisting of himself, Jonas Morris and Frank Merritt. Since the mines at Morristown came in control of this company, they have been operated more successfully than ever before. It is anticipated by those who are in position to know that the South Willis Coal Co., when their new development work is completed, will become one of the largest producing mines in this district.

Last year (1916) the voters of Pierce County showed their confidence in Mr. Morris by electing him to the state legislature. He served his first term with honor to himself, and the stand he took on important legislation is unquestioned.  As author of the new state mining code, he put through the legislature more laws favorable to the miners than were ever put through before. While the mining code adopted last year may not be perfect, Mr. Morris did as much as any man could do, and his record as a lawmaker is a remarkable one, especially for a new man in the legislature, unfamiliar to the “ropes.”

Mr. Morris was signally honored by his colleagues in the legislature when that body changed the name of Spiketon to Morristown, in his honor. This was put through without Mr. Morris’ knowledge, he being absent from the session during the short time it took to change the town’s name.

Mr. Morris is a thirty-second degree Mason and a prominent Elk, and has a wide acquaintance and is popular in the county and state. He has the reputation for being a “square-shooter,” conscientious almost to a fault, and public-spirited.  These, together with the great energy he displays in business, are his best’s assets.    

Abraham Morris Obituary (1933)

(From The Enumclaw Courier-Herald, April 1933 )

In the recent death of Abe Morris on April 19, 1933, the Enumclaw community has not only lost an esteemed and valuable citizen, but the coal mining industry of the state at large has sorrowfully witnessed the passing of one of its staunchest friends.

Abraham Matthew Morris was born at Cwmtillery, Wales, October 13, 1879, immigrating to America with his parents when only two years of age.  After working their way across the country with stops in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Idaho, the Morris family arrived in Wilkeson around 1890.  There Abe Morris entered the mines while yet a boy in his teens. Applying himself industriously he quickly rose to a position of responsibility with the Wilkeson Coke and Coal Company, later holding similar positions of trust with the South Willis Coal Company and the Bayne Coal Company.  In 1916, while still a resident of Wilkeson, he was elected a representative in the state legislature.  His re-election in 1918 gave him the distinction of being the only office holder in the eastern end of his district ever to succeed himself since the advent of the Direct Primary Law.   

In 1920 he was appointed state mine inspector by Governor Louis F. Hart, from which position he voluntarily retired in order that he might resume mining operations.  During all the years he was a public official and an employer of men, labor held him in high regard as a tested and true friend. During the 1933 session of the legislature, while working for the passage of Senate Bill 126, which provides for the use of Washington fuels in state institutions, Mr. Morris was stricken with pneumonia while at Olympia, refusing however, to desert his post until ordered to do so by his physicians. 

In 1900 Mr. Morris was married to Mabel Webb, of Wilkeson, four daughters being born of the union, these being Miss Harriett Morris and Mrs. Robert Pierce, of Durham, Mrs. Bern Hayle of Bayne, and Mrs. William Purse of Tacoma.  At the time of his death Mr. Morris was also survived by his parents, Mr. And Mrs. George Morris of Enumclaw and five brothers and four sisters: Jonas, Edward, Jack and William Morris, of Occidental and Tom Morris of Enumclaw; Mrs. Frank Merritt, Mrs. Ben Nichols, Mrs. Thomas Hegre, and Mrs. Clarence Masters of Enumclaw.  Abe Morris and his wife Mabel (Webb) Morris are buried side by side at the Tacoma Cemetery.

Notes on Abe Morris by William Kombol

In the election of 1916, Abe Morris, Republican, received 4,173 votes in defeating H. J. Cothary, Democrat, who received 3,246 votes in the 35th Legislative district. In the election of 1918, Abe Morris, Republican, received 1,983 votes in defeating Frank Purse, Democrat, who received 1,455 votes in the 35th.

The following footnote to the life of Abe Morris is taken from James Merritt and Emily Merritt Porter’s family history book, Origins: Emily and Frank Merritt -- Their Story (April  1997):  

"In 1916 Abe Morris, was voted into the Washington State House of Representatives, where he served for two sessions both to the pride and advantage of the family. As an interesting sidelight:  Abe Morris’ opponent in the (1918) election was Frank Purse. In later years Abe’s daughter, Rheta Morris, married Frank Purse’s brother, Bill Purse.  When Frank Purse, a widower died, Rheta (Morris) and Bill Purse raised Frank’s six children along with their adopted daughter, Muriel.”

During that time period, Frank Purse was President of Local #2634 of the United Mine Worker’s union.

According to Marian (Merritt) Dahl, Abe Morris’s niece, while serving in the Legislature Abe earned the customary legislative salary of only $1 per day, far below his typical pay managing coal mines.  In order to make ends meet, the family supported Abe financially while he served in Olympia during his two legislative sessions.

Abe Morris was cited in a January 25, 2008, Proclamation by Ron Sims, King County Executive, that Floor 9 of the King County Chinook Building be named in honor of Abe Morris. Each floor of the building was named to recognize and celebrate the broad spectrum of King County's history with honorees including novelists, a coal miner, government officials, labor organizers, civil rights activists, and even a historic town.


Sources:

The Wilkeson Record, December 21, 1917; Enumclaw Courier-Herald, April 1933; Memorial funeral record of Abraham Mathew Morris; “From Wales to Washington: The Children & Heritage of George & Mary Ann (Williams) Morris” Compiled by William Kombol, January 2004; James E. Merritt, Origins: Emily and Frank Merritt – Their Story.; Peter T. Alter, "Coal Town: Immigrant Miners in Wilkeson, Washington"  M.A. Thesis, (Seattle: University of Washington, 1992).


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