Bartlett Sinclair

Labor Troubles In The Coeur d’Alene District

Last Updated on June 27, 2013 by

The following account of the recent labor troubles in the Coeur d’Alene mining district is contributed by H. H. Smith, of the Cincinnati Post, who, as a reporter of the Scripps-McRae League, was present on the scene and made careful investigation of the matter:

The blowing up of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mill at Wardner on April 29, 1899. entailing a financial loss of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and the murder of two men was the culminating act of violence in the ten-years war between labor and capital that has waged in the Coeur d’Alenes. In the active prosecution of that warfare many lives have been sacrificed, hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property have been blown to pieces with dynamite, and the development of the richest and most extensive silver-lead mines in the United States has been retarded to a degree that leaves the country practically in its infancy, when under natural conditions it would now be employing thousands of men. More regrettable is the fact that as this is written things are still in a condition of disorder, and no one can foretell what the end will be.

Troubles between the mine managers and their employees commenced almost with the opening up of the new country, but it was not until 1891 that the first serious dispute arose. In that year the employees of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Company struck to enforce their demand that they be allowed to pay their hospital dues of one dollar a month to a hospital of their own selection, and they gained their point. The mine-owners then organized an association of their own with which to combat the miners’ unions of Gem, Wardner, Mullan and Burke, and their relations with their men became badly strained.

In 1892 all of the principal mines closed down, and in a short time the mine-owners commenced to import men and work them under the protection of hired detectives and special officers. Wages were not reduced, but the union men claimed that was to follow. The mine-owners bought rifles and ammunition for their new employees and the men who guarded them, and the union men also armed themselves for the approaching conflict. On Monday, July 11, a pitched battle ensued and six men were killed, in addition to the blowing up of the Frisco mill. It has always been a disputed point as to which side was the direct cause of the battle. The union men insist that all of the trouble was created by the imported Pinkerton Hill and Sullivan agency detectives and that they commenced the bloody struggle by firing on and killing a union man. On the other hand, the mine-owners allege that the unionists were responsible for the whole affair. At any rate, some one fired the first shot, and before a truce was patched up three men on each side were dead. The unionists lost Ed Cummins and two miners named Carlson and Hennessy. Their opponents’ death list was made up of Ivory Bean, John Stanlik and McDonald.

A penstock, which was afterward known as “the long gun of the Coeur d’Alenes” six hundred and forty feet long, through which water was fed to the turbines, ran down the side of the mountain to the ‘Frisco mill. The union men ran three or four hundred pounds of dynamite down the penstock and exploded it and the mill was blown to pieces. Mc-Donald, one of the guards, was killed. The Gem and Bunker Hill and Sullivan mills then surrendered, and it was agreed that all of the nonunion men should be sent out of the country and that the companies would employ union men at three dollars and a half a day for all underground labor.

Things then quieted down for a time, but trouble broke out at intervals. John Kneebone, who had deserted the union for the mine-owners, was murdered on July 3, 1894, and F. D. Whitney, a foreman at the ‘Frisco concentrator, was assassinated on December 23, 1897.

These crimes, with others, were laid at the door of the unions, but the unionists always protested their entire innocence, and passed resolutions denouncing some of the outrages. The agreement entered into after the trouble of 1892 was lived up to by all of the companies except the Bunker Hill & Sullivan, which soon reduced wages to three dollars a day for shovelers and car men and three dollars and a half for miners. In 1894 it had some more trouble with its men and again reduced wages to two dollars and a half and three dollars a day. The Bunker Hill & Sullivan is the only dry mine in the Coeur d’Alenes and the company claimed it was paying as good wages as the others, everything considered. Its management was very antagonistic to the unions, and the dislike was mutual. The unions declared it a “scab” mine and let it go at that, attempting no violence.

Early in 1899 however, an attempt was made to unionize the mine, and the old fire broke out again. On May 26th the company raised wages to three dollars for shovelers and three dollars and a half for miners, but refused to recognize the union. Three days later its mill was blown up. The rioters seized a Northern Pacific train at Burke and ran it to Wardner, picking up delegations from Gem, Mullan and Wallace. A stop was made at the ‘Frisco magazine and eighty fifty-pound boxes of dynamite were taken. By the time the train reached Wardner it had over a thousand men on board. Many of them were masked and carried rifles. They evidently anticipated and were prepared for a fight, but they met with no opposition, as all of the mill employees had heard of the approach of the train and fled over the hills. James Cheyne, one of the mill men, was shot and mortally wounded as he was running away, and Jack Smith, one of the rioters, was killed by his companions, presumably by mistake. The eighty boxes of dynamite were scattered around the mill and it was blown to fragments. The rioters then returned home, and in an hour everything was quiet again.

Governor Steunenberg called for federal troops, and several hundred were sent in under command of Brigadier General H. C. Merriam. Martial law was declared in Shoshone County, and Bartlett Sinclair, state auditor, was placed in charge as the governor’s representative. He caused wholesale arrests, and at one time nearly one thousand men were in custody. Those who were considered to have had no part in the rioting were released as rapidly as possible, but on September 1st there were still about one hundred men confined in a stockade known as the “bull pen,” while many others were out on bond. Paul Corcoran, financial secretary of the Burke Miners’ Union, was the first one of the alleged rioters to be tried. He was convicted and sentenced to seventeen years in the penitentiary. Many other cases are to be tried in September 1899 the time of this writing. Corcoran’s attorneys alleged gross irregularities in his trial and a motion was made for a rehearing.

The sheriff and commissioners of Shoshone county were removed from office when martial law was declared, as it was claimed they sympathized with the rioters, and the county attorney was suspended for the same reason. Other officers were named in their places. The miners’ unions were declared to be criminal bodies, and the governor’s representative issued an order that none should be employed in or around the mines without a permit from him. Governor Steunenberg declared that troubles in the Coeur d’Alenes must stop and the miners’ unions be wiped out, and that to that end martial law would’ continue until his term of office expires on January 1, 1901. The sub-committee on mining of the industrial commission visited Wallace and investigated the trouble, but could secure no conclusive testimony that the unions were responsible for it, though members of the unions might have been involved in it. All of the union men who were examined swore that the blowing up of the mill, or any other deed of violence, was never discussed or thought of by the unions, and was deplored by them. They said the mill was blown up by outside hotheads and not by members of the unions. Some of the mine-owners expressed the belief that very few of the rioters were union men, and even that they did not know that property was to be destroyed when they joined the mob that went to Wardner. There is no doubt that all of the leading spirits in the mob, who are declared to have never been members of any union were out of the country long before the soldiers arrived, and there seems to be little likelihood of their ever being apprehended or punished.

Illustrated History of the State of Idaho. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company. 1899.

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