Battles in the Telluride mines, 1901-1903 - Louis Adamic

Smuggler-Union mine, Colorado

A short history of the striking workers who took over the mines in Telluride, Colorado, and the illegal methods the state used to eventually defeat them.

On May 1, 1901, a strike was called in the gold and silver mines at Telluride, in Colorado. The local union, affiliated with the Western Federation of Miners (W. F. of M.), demanded a uniform workday with a minimum wage instead of the contract or piecework system.

For a month the mines were idle. Then Arthur L. Collins, superintendent of Smuggler-Union mines, opened a mine with scabs, most of whom were armed and sworn in as deputies.

The strikers were incensed. Vincent St. John, a local union official, took a piece of union stationery and wrote out an order for 250 rifles and 50,000 rounds of ammunition and sent it to a firm in Denver, enclosing a check in payment, also signed by himself.

On the morning of July 3, as the scabs of the night shift were leaving the mine, the strikers attacked them from ambush. Several men dropped; others returned fire. A brother-in-law of Superintendent Collins was seriously wounded. A few strikers were killed.

The battle lasted several hours. Finally, the scabs at the mine, outnumbered and outclassed in arms, put up a white flag, whereupon a parley was arranged between St. John and the agents of the employers, just as in real war. In the negotiations, the union secured the possession of the mines on the condition that the scabs should be allowed to depart in peace with their wounded.

But before the scabs finally left, there was another battle, in which a few more were wounded; whereupon "the rest of the gang," as miners’ union organiser Bill Haywood put it, "was escorted over the mountains."

The Governor of Colorado sent a commission to Telluride, which reported, correctly enough, that "everything is quiet in Telluride; the miners are in peaceful possession of the mines."

The report created a sensation.

One day Haywood was at the bank in Denver with which the W. F. of M. did business, when the vice-president of the institution approached him. "Is this report true, Bill," he asked, "that comes from Telluride, about the miners being in possession of the mines?"

Bill answered that it was.

"If that's the case, what becomes of the men who have invested their money in these properties?" said the indignant banker.

"If we follow your question to its logical conclusion," replied Bill, "you'd have to tell me where the owners got the money to invest in the mines. Who has a better right to be 'in possession' of the mines than the miners?"

A year later, after the trouble was apparently over, Superintendent Collins of the Smuggler-Union mines was shot dead by an unknown assassin while sitting at a lighted window one evening in his home. The union, of course, disclaimed any knowledge of the killing. In his book, Bill Haywood records the fact, simply: "Some one fired a load of buckshot into him."

There was no end of trouble in Colorado. In 1903 the miners struck in the Cripple Creek district for the eight-hour workday. The governor of Colorado then was James Peabody, a banker closely associated with the conservative business of the State. He was determined to end this radical union movement and, therefore, proclaimed that in the Cripple Creek district there existed a "condition of anarchy in which civil government had become abortive and life and property unsafe," and declared the place "in a state of insurrection and rebellion," the only cure for which was martial law. Later he extended his measure to include the Telluride district as well.

Certain newspapers criticized the State government for such an action, declaring it unconstitutional, and to this criticism the Judge Advocate of the State replied : "To hell with the Constitution; we are not following the Constitution."

More mining bosses were assassinated and mines and mills were dynamited. Law and order broke down completely. The militia paid even less attention to legal provisions or moral rights of others than the unions or corporations. The militia commander at Victor seized a privately owned building for his headquarters and then, marching his army to the City Hall, informed the mayor and the chief of police that unless they obeyed his orders, he would occupy the City Hall as well.

He strutted into the office of The Record and established military censorship.

It was military despotism. Miners, most of them native Americans1 were picked up in the streets, dragged from their homes, locked up in hastily constructed bull-pens, and there held incommunicado for weeks. When their friends instituted habeas corpus proceedings in civil court and the district judge ordered the bull-pen prisoners brought before him for an orderly inquiry as to whether innocent men were deprived of their liberty, the military surrounded the courthouse, posted riflemen on the roofs roundabout and a Gatling gun in the street outside. When the judge appeared, a trooper aimed a bayonet at his chest.

The Record was printed with black-bordered blank columns. One night General Chase, the ranking military officer in the State, appeared with a troop of cavalry before the newspaper office, arrested the editor for an alleged criticism of the martial-law administration, and took him to the bull-pen, along with all the employees he found in the building.

Small boys and women were put into bull-pens for sticking tongues out at the soldiers or speaking disparagingly of them. Private homes were entered and searched without warrants. An ex-Congressman was attacked in his law office by a squad of soldiers and shot in the arm. Shopkeepers were forbidden to sell merchandise to strikers, and the unions, lest the families starve, were compelled to establish their own commissaries. Then, quoting Mother Jones the militia raided these stores, looted them, broke open the safes, destroyed the scales, ripped sacks of flour and sugar, and poured kerosene oil over everything… The miners were without redress, for the militia were immune.

Finally, scores of men, most of them union officials, were forcibly deported from the Telluride district, that is, taken to the county boundary line, and later even into Kansas, and told not to return. Some of these men owned homes and had their families in Telluride.

The Smuggler-Union mines were restored to the owners.

Bill Haywood was in the thick of the fight. The following conversation between him and President Moyer of the W. F. of M., recorded by Haywood in his book as having occurred when they were on the point of leaving for Cripple Creek, is indicative of the mood he was in:

“I don't propose to spend any time in the bull-pen," said Bill.

"Well," said Moyer, who was not quite of the same calibre as Bill, "what are you going to do if they arrest us?"

"Let's shoot it out with 'em."

They put a couple of extra revolvers in a handbag. "If we don't need these," said Bill, "we can leave them with the boys."

It was war, frank and open on both sides. Violence against violence.

Ultimately, of course, the strike was broken. The A. F. of L. miners' unions, under John Mitchell, helped the employers and the militia to break it.

This text has been excerpted, and very slightly edited by libcom.org to make sense as a stand-alone text, from Louis Adamic's excellent book, Dynamite: the story of class violence in America.

  • 1. live, note: Meaning of European origin, but not first-generation immigrants