donkey heading lamp
"Mining today is an affair of mathematics, of finance, of the latest in engineering skill. Cautious men behind polished desks in San Francisco figure out in advance the amount of metal to a cubic yard, the number of yards washed a day, the cost of each operation."
–Merle Colby, 1941

"A thundering rush of rock roared through the bowels of the Smuggler-Union Mine, spewing dust into the nearby stopes and drifts. No one screamed. Before the dust settled, shift boss R. M. "Bob" Wright plunged into the stope, discovering the body of E. J. Oakland, his head pulverized by a mass of rock. Life had been snuffed out instantaneously and the men who dug out the body whispered a prayer, the prayer their comrade had no chance to utter. His wife collapsed in horror and grief when they brought Oakland's mutilated body down to Telluride…" [From the book, The Corpse on Boomerang Road: Telluride's War on Labor 1899-1908, Western Reflections Publishing 2004]


Mining long has been a dangerous profession. Historically, numerous miners died from accidents, explosions, or mine-related illnesses before the age of forty. Men working in the bowels of the earth lived a life of risk, where dark and damp and poor ventilation and the threat of cave-ins were daily companions. Often all they had for illumination was a candle, or wick lantern, that attached to their hats, or was set into the rocks with a spike-like holder. It was no wonder many died from "picking missed shot" - a term that meant they hit powder that had earlier failed to explode and went unnoticed. Later, carbide lights gave them more visibility until the advent of electrical lighting. Even mines that used electric light were still too dim for men working with dynamite, and the electric lighting was only in the main tunnels and galleries, not in the stopes where the men were working. Electricity itself was a risk, as many mines didn't use insulated wires for either lights or trams or ore cars. Bare wires electrocuted numerous men.
Most mines were damp or dripping wet, with pumps constantly needed to remove the water in order for the men to work. To provide adequate ventilation, air pumps were also in use. If either failed, drowning and suffocation threatened. The air was constantly full of rock dust from blasting and power drills, and mine operators never thought to provide protection against this dust that caused permanent damage to miners' lungs, damage that invariably led to lung disease and death.
miner with candle

Smuggler Mill

Large mines had deep shafts, and in order to go down to work in the lower stopes, miners rode skips or lifts into the belly of the workings. A skip usually consisted of a platform and cage that was raised and lowered on cables via a hoisting engine. This equipment sometimes failed, plunging the men several hundred feet to their deaths. If the skip wasn't working the men had to climb manways which were vertical ladders bolted to the walls of the shafts. These ladders could be hundreds of feet high, damp and slippery, and a risky mode of exit for a man who was exhausted from a 12-hour day.

Most miners worked twelve-hour shifts, despite the difficult and always fatiguing labor. Management rarely thought shorter hours would save lives. Two twelve-hour shifts seemed reasonable and economical to mine operators, who more often than not required the miners to board at the mine. A twelve-hour shift allowed boarding houses to use one bed per every two miners, since one could sleep while the other was working. Boarding house meals were generally the bare minimum, and the miners were charged for them, whether they liked the food or not.

Management not only made miners pay for their bed and board, but they made them pay for their equipment, the candles they used, the dynamite, and even for sharpening tools that belonged to the company. Many a miner could wind up at the end of the month having little left of his paycheck after all the supplies, room and board were deducted. Some miners bought their supplies at town stores where the cost was less. Yet all too often mine operators forced their employees to board at the mine and gave them no choice to purchase supplies elsewhere because they paid them in scrip. Employees hated scrip, since it wasn't money but certificates redeemable only at the company's store. "Owing your soul to the company store" was not a fanciful line. It happened indeed.
Although many mine owners knew that treating employees with fairness and respect was good business, too often profit was the only objective. Some truly believed the most important thing to come out of the mine was the miner; while others believed the most important thing was the ore. The attitude of John F. Geisel, a foreman at the Terrible Mine in Ouray County in 1887, typified the latter. Geisel allegedly took no interest in recovering the body of a miner killed while working. "What's the difference?" he told an employee. "Men are cheaper than timber."
If miners were crippled in accidents, they were let go. Many were fired if they asked for better wages or safer working conditions or even for better meals. Some companies blacklisted such "trouble-makers," discriminating against what they termed "disloyal" workers. Some managers refused to hire men unless they had a certified employment card "proving" the miner was not involved in "radical" activity. Was it "radical" to want a living wage, freedom to board where one wished, an end to child labor, safe working conditions, and the right to equal opportunity? Yoked to long hours, wages halved by boarding and equipment fees paid to the company, dismal or non-existent medical care, and no compensation to his family should he meet with accident or death, the miner's hope for a better future was in solidarity, a brotherhood of skilled men who could stand shoulder to shoulder across the West. Out of this hope the Western Federation of Miners was born.

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) organized in 1893 to give miners protection against powerful owners who could force them into starvation or run them out of town or even have them illegally incarcerated whenever they demanded fair wages or safe working conditions or an end to child labor. The WFM also organized for advancement of the mining profession, standardization of safety codes, and the universal eight-hour day. The preamble to the WFM constitution began:
"We hold that all men are created to be free and should have equal access and opportunity to the enjoyment of all benefits to be derived from their exertions in dealing with the natural resources of the earth, and that free access and equal opportunity thereto are absolutely necessary to man's existence and the upward progress of the human is highly fitting and proper that the men who are engaged in the hazardous and unhealthy occupation of mining, milling, smelting, and the reduction of ores should receive a just compensation for their labors..."

The organization sought to "secure compensation fully commensurate with the dangers of" the mining profession, to end the use of scrip as payment and end the dictation of employers as to where employees were to spend their earnings; to "strive to procure...the use of any and all suitable, efficient appliances for the preservation of life...and to labor for the enactment of suitable provide for the education of our children and to prohibit the employment of all children until they have reached at least the age of 16 prevent by law any mine owner, mining company, or corporation...from employing detectives or armed forces, and to provide that only lawfully elected or appointed officers...shall act in any capacity in the enforcement of the law... to use all honorable means to maintain and promote friendly relations between ourselves and our employers and endeavor, by arbitration and conciliation or other pacific means, to settle any difficulties which may arise between us, and thus strive to make contention and strikes unnecessary [emphasis added]."
[From, The Corpse on Boomerang Road, 2004]

The Telluride WFM Local 63 was charted 3 August 1896 as the "Sixteen to One" Telluride Miners' Union. Since many of the mine operators in the Telluride district ran a relatively decent operation with standard wages of three dollars per day, Local 63 had few members and little interest in demanding better working conditions until 1901. The new manager of the expanding Smuggler-Union Mining Company, Arthur L. Collins, abruptly changed the wage this company paid, introducing the old "Cornish system". This meant men were paid for only the amount of a vein they mined. Consequently miners wound up with less than half of the standard wage, some only a mere sixty-seven cents per day.
Local 63 demanded a return to standard, living wages, but the company refused. Union men were fired. This only created a rift and an urgency, swelling the ranks of the union under the new leadership of a passionate and determined young man, Vincent St. John. Most of the company's workforce joined the union. Still management refused to pay a living wage or to allow men to board off company premises. After several failed attempts to make Collins listen to reason, a strike was called, and the men walked out. The company's production was crippled. Something that should have been reasonably and simply resolved became a nightmare that erupted in riot, ending with three dead and several wounded. Finally Collins saw his stubbornness was only destroying the town and creating death and enemies where none had existed. He signed a contract with the union.
A few years later the millmen of this same mining company demanded an eight-hour day, but once again the company refused. The men walked out. Mine manager and part-owner, Bulkeley Wells, hired gunmen to harass the pickets, brought in strikebreakers from out of state, and demanded the use of the Colorado National Guard for his own purposes. Union leaders were arrested; union miners were forced from their homes, driven from town, and threatened with death should they return. Even a local newsman, Charles Sumner, who dared to question the illegal use of the militia and the courts, was forcibly removed from the town and told not to return.
The strike of 1903-04 was a nightmare, a travesty of justice that reverberated across the country. Mine owners and operators took control of the courts, the civil authorities, and used the militia to destroy the union. Colorado Governor James Peabody refused to listen to reason, refused to send in arbitrators, refused to listen to the wounded miners and their supporters that hammered at his door for assistance. Anti-labor editors condemned the WFM and Local 63 as butchers, dynamiters, anarchists, and assassins. Rational editors demanded justice for the miners. Senators cried out for an investigation. The WFM appealed to the President. But still the nightmare continued, until no "undesirable citizens" were left in the district. Wells personally visited the remaining families, wives, and supporters of the deported men and politely ordered them to leave town, for, he claimed, he could not protect them, if a citizens' committee came for them with a rope.

Under Bulkeley Wells, Telluride fell into the darkness of discrimination and antipathy, and this undercurrent clung to her petticoats for decades. As a mining town she declined, Wells' sins sinking into the mist of her lost glory. Miners gave her life, gave her exuberance, but the "leading citizens" drove out the men and women who believed in an end to child labor, who worked hard and faced even death to bring safety in the workplace, to give everyone the eight-hour day and a living wage, to lift the worker from the muck and restore his/her dignity.

Many still hold the view that the union miners were devious and violent in Telluride, and they continue to perpetuate this propaganda with essays or paintings, such as John Boak's,"The Ouray Miners Invade Telluride." According to Boak, this hostile red painting with its sharp jarring angles claims to be representative of history. Boak notes, "During the strike at the Smuggler mine, Ouray miners would get off work, fill their packs with sticks of Hercules dynamite, climb thirteen thousand foot Imogene pass in the dark, descend into the Tomboy basin, and proceed on over to the Smuggler. There they would fling dynamite at the management men protecting the mine."
Such "history" never happened.

It is time the ugly shadows crawl into the now silent mines and are left there until the mountains are no more. It is time Telluride once again embraces her heritage of mining in the light of truth. It is time Telluride honors and celebrates The Miner who gave her life. Please join us in that celebration.

"The miners lost because they had only the constitution. The other side had bayonets. In the end, bayonets always win."

–Mother Jones (1830-1930), U.S. labor advocate, remarking on the failed Colorado miners' strike while addressing a 1915 mass meeting in New York City. [From: The Autobiography of Mother Jones, 1925].


Copyright by TMM 2005
[Much of this material has been taken from the book, The Corpse on Boomerang Road: Telluride's War on Labor 1899-1908, Western Reflections Publishing, 2004. No part of this material may be used without permission of TMM]

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