Follow the Fire in the
Hole script and accompanying images to examine the violence
that flared as troops are called out when Idaho labor relations exploded in
In 1890 the federal government
formally declared the frontier of the American West closed. Rugged landscapes
like the northern panhandle of Idaho were dotted with silver mines, and the
Coeur d'Alene region was giving birth to thriving boomtowns. Each day thousands
of men trooped underground to blast free the silver ore, and shovel it into
"It was incredibly difficult,
dangerous work. You never know when there might be a cave in or some other
kind of accident. . .You are also mining in places where you may hit powder
and explode yourself."
The pay books from the
era show how earnings were eroded by the miners' relationship to the company.
Each miner was docked one dollar for medical care every month . . . lost or
broken equipment was deducted. . . as was room and board. A miner could work
250 hours in a month, and end up with the equivalent of ten cents an hour
in his pocket. Underground workers banded together in a rough form of union
and won a fifty cent-per-day raise in 1891. . .but several events tumbled
together to make the Coeur d'Alene region explode in 1892. First, the miners
became convinced their medical care dollars were disappearing into the company's
"And the hospital was
incredibly important to miners because there are lots of accidents, and miners
were convinced the company was taking that dollar and not spending it all
on getting them the best hospital care that was available."
Then the mine owners
shutdown the mines in a battle with railroads over the cost of shipping ore.
"The longer the mines
are closed, the more desperate the miners become and they also begin to suspect
that its more than just the railroad rate increase that is at play here."
Mine Owners Protective
"Believing most earnestly
that the advance of wages which was forced upon the mine owners during the
past year was unreasonable and unjust, the association begs leave to announce
the following scale of wages: for carmen and shovelers, $3.00 per day of ten
working hours..." --
The Mine Owners Protective Association
The fifty-cent cut was
a loss of almost twenty percent. Most of the miners refused to return to work.
"Mine owners attempt
to deal with that as traditionally companies try to deal with it in a lot
of instances. They attempt to hire scabs or strike breakers, depending upon
your perspective. And simply, if you were a scab or strike breaker coming
into the Coeur d'Alene and you started to get off the train and you looked
down on the platform and here were a group of miners, perhaps holding picks
or sticks or shovels, you might rethink your situation about whether or not
you were really willing to get off the train and work through that group of
miners and go into the mine."
Many of the strikebreakers
were job-seeking immigrants. . .confused to find themselves in the middle
of an escalating battle. The suspicion was fanned when mine owners hired the
Pinkerton detective agency to slip undercover spies among the striking miners.
One of the best was Charles Siringo.
"Charles Siringo is a
very famous Pinkerton detective. He was one of their best operatives. When
they sent him, they knew they were sending somebody that had the requisite
skills to do the job. . .He was able to do the labor that miners did and so
they trusted him so much they elected him an officer in their local."
In his position as secretary
of the miners union, Siringo filed a steady stream of reports to the mine
owners. But, eventually his reputation caught up with him. . .and the miners
discovered that Siringo was a spy. On July 11th, 1892, the miners armed themselves
and went searching for siringo in the mining town of gem. Their rage grew
as Siringo crawled under the boardwalks to avoid capture, then slipped out
of town. Determined to strike back, the miners took to the hills and started
shooting at strikebreakers on the roads and working in the Helena-Frisco mill.
When the strikebreakers refused to surrender, the union miners lit the fuse
on an enormous load of dynamite, and lowered it into the mill.
The explosion leveled the four-story mill, killing a nonunion miner. The remaining
strikebreakers were marched off as temporary prisoners of the union. Mine
owners viewed the bombing as an act of war, and dashed off a series of telegrams
to idaho governor norman willey, telling him the Coeur d'Alene region was
under attack by a wild mob.
"Well Governor Willey
sides with mine owners which is fairly typical of state government at the
time. Mining was one of the key elements of Idaho's economy and the state
really could ill afford to make mine owners unhappy. . . He declares martial
Governor Willey immediately
telegraphed the white house for military force to back up his order.
"This morning riot and
bloodshed by the striking miners of the Coeur d'Alene commenced. I therefore
request that a sufficient force be detailed to act in concert with state authorities
to maintain public order."
The governor dispatched
a special investigator to the region. . .backed by the National Guard and
federal troops who turned the mining towns into armed camps. The order was
simple. . .don't let the law get in the way, restore order:
"You are hereby authorized
to arrest and hold until further orders such principal offenders as may be
pointed out to you. . . without process."
Using the information
gathered by spies like Charles Siringo. . .and authorized to seize virtually
anyone they deemed a troublemaker. . .the military arrested over six hundred
"Lets face it. When you
round up 500 or so people and you have no sanitary facilities really to accommodate
them. You have no way to feed them. There is little shelter when the weather
is inclement. . . its just a very unsavory and unpleasant place to be. So
you see the I think with animosity towards the people who you think are responsible
for putting you in that position."
Weeks would pass as state
and military authorities slowly whittled down the prisoner's list to two dozen
ring leaders. Eventually they would be taken to the penitentiary in Boise
to face trial, with Charles Siringo the key witness. But if martial law was
designed to stamp the life out of the union movement in the Coeur d'Alene,
the crackdown actually served as the genesis of an even more determined labor
movement. In the holding cells of the idaho prison, the Western Federation
of Miners was born.
"So, that in fact has
its origin as a direct result of the 1892 situation. And when they get out
of prison, they then take that idea to Butte and elsewhere and into the Coeur
d'Alene and it becomes very central to the union experience."
Rather than an end, the
explosion of violence in the Coeur d'Alene region of Idaho was only a beginning.
The Western Federation of Miners used the Idaho crackdown as a means of recruiting
new union members throughout the West for what they viewed as self-defense
against mine owners and their allies in government. Mine owners would view
the federation as a vicious attempt to uproot the natural order of business.
. .and would band together to unearth and destroy union organizers. The peace
won in Idaho through martial law in 1892 would not last long. The subsequent
battles would rage in the West for the next twenty-five years.