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Ideas in Conflict: Opposing Views of the Cripple Creek Strike

Some of the sharpest and most violent class struggles in American history were fought in the hard rock mining towns of the nineteenth-century West. In Cripple Creek, Colorado, for example, violent conflict broke out in 1903 between members of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and corporate mining interests determined to crush the union. Before it was over, thirty men had been killed in numerous gun battles. The civil war was not only fought with fists, bullets, and dynamite in the streets and mines of Cripple Creek; it also was a war of words waged in the press. In June, 1904, the Mine Owners’ Association and the WFM submitted these statements to eastern newspapers, expressing opposing viewpoints on the purpose of the strike.

Statement of the Mine Owners' Association:

There is no vigilante’s committee in this community. The only movement that might be considered of that character occurred after the Independence outrage of Monday, when determined citizens took steps to bring about the resignation of several officers who were either incompetent or in sympathy and collusion with those responsible for the murders and dynamiting which have taken place here since the strike. These offices have been filled by capable men, and the situation is now in the hands of the sheriff, who is fully able to handle it. He is acting in full harmony with the adjutant-general of the state.

The position of the Cripple Creek operators has been placed in an absolutely false light by the eastern press. Labor leaders attribute these troubles to the defeat of the eight-hour law in Colorado. The fact is that we have been working an eight-hour day for ten years, paying a minimum wage of $3, and an average wage of about $4 per day. The actual working time of a miner is about seven hours. No grievance was lodged against our operators when the strike was called, and had the question been left to the miners themselves, 90 per cent would have voted against it. This strike is due to the fact that the striking power had been taken from the union members and lodged in the hands of a few leaders, criminals themselves, and dependent on crime to attain their ends.

While this strike has been called a sympathetic one to aid certain mill men, most of them also working an eight-hour day, its real purpose was to compel every miner in this district to join the Western Federation of Miners or leave the country. This organization has a record of lawlessness, murder, arson, and dynamiting in the Coeur d’Alenes, Butte, Leadville, Idaho Springs, Telluride, Cripple Creek and elsewhere, extending over a period of ten or fifteen years, which should appall humanity. These outrages culminated here Monday, when 15 men were blown into eternity and nearly as many more maimed so death would be a mercy. The only parallel to this organization which can be found is the Mollie Maguires of Pennsylvania, and their members were law-abiding citizens compared with the organization which we have to deal with. The peace authorities of the State demand that this organization be exterminated root and branch.

The responsibility for the above outrages is so well fixed that no person can belong to the Federation and pretend to be a law-abiding citizen.

Since Monday’s calamity we would close every mine in this district for ten years rather than let a single member of this organization work or live here. But this is not necessary, for all our mines are working full-handed with a better class of men, all nonunion, than ever before.

The fact that no lawlessness has been committed since the outrages of Monday, and that every good citizen is standing at the right hand of the sheriff in his endeavor to maintain the law and to suppress this lawless organization, speaks volumes for the patience and law-loving qualities of the people of this community. There is now no legal question involved in this controversy other than that of the right of a community to purge itself of a criminal organization whose very existence is a standing menace to the lives and property of those whose only offense is that they claim the right to work.

Our fight has not been against unionism as such, but against criminal organization, and it will not be discontinued until no member of this organization is left in Teller County.

The Executive Board of the Western Federation of Miners to an Eastern Newspaper Syndicate, June 11, 1904:

The cause of the strike of the Western Federation of Miners in Colorado is one of long standing, and involves the failure on the part of the mine managers in various parts of the State to live up to their own written agreements. As far back as 1894, as a result of the strike at that time, the mine owners agreed that eight hours should be $3, and that there should be no discrimination against union men in the hiring and discharge of labor. At the outset of the present trouble Manager MacNeill, of the Standard Mill at Colorado City, peremptorily discharged 45 men, members of the Western Federation of Miners, for no other reason than that they had become union men. All of them were old employees of from two to six years' standing. Mill men are affiliated with the Western Federation of Miners, and are entitled to all of the protection that goes with such membership.

To-day the only questions involved are the enforcement of the eight-hour day, the right of men to organize in the unions, and to prevent discrimination against union men of all kinds.

The responsibility for the lawlessness connected with the contest rests entirely on the shoulders of the mine operators, the Citizens‘ Alliance, and their allies, backed up by the assumed military power of the State government. The responsibility has been placed on these persons and organizations by District Judge Theron Stevens, who denounced the military usurpation in Telluride in strong language from the bench; by District Judge N. Walter Dixon, Republican, who openly condemns Governor Peabody and severely criticizes his acts, involving the deportation of men from the State without trial or other chance of hearing; by ex-Governor Charles S. Thomas, who plainly points to the Mine Owners’ Association and Citizens Alliance as being responsible for the many outrages committed on the persons of helpless and innocent miners; by the recent Democratic State convention, which denounced in scathing terms the line of policy pursued.

The events of the present week in the Cripple Creek district justify every accusation contained above. The following crimes upon citizenship have followed swiftly upon one another:

The resignation of Sheriff Robertson, of Teller County, forced by a mob at the point of the pistol and the coil of a rope; the forced resignation of Coroner Doran, of Teller County; of the city marshal of Victor; of various aldermen and justices of the peace in the district; the entire official directory of the city of Goldfield; assault upon and demolition of the union hall in Victor; forcible entrance into the four union cooperative stores and destruction of the contents; destruction of the Victor Daily Record by an armed mob; invasion of Dunnville, outside the military lines, by an armed force under military command; arrest of men at their work and incarceration within the military lines; hundreds of men confined in unsanitary bull pens; forcible shut down of the great Portland mine, employing union men, by order of the military commandant, on the plea of military necessity, and subsequent deportation of men therein employed.

Concerning the explosion which wrecked the depot at Independence and killed 16 unfortunate nonunion miners, it need only be said that the self-confessed train wrecker, McKinney, in the employ of the Mine Owners‘ Association, had a few days previously been released from custody at the behest of the attorney for the association, and that this same McKinney was observed going down Pott’s canyon, in the immediate vicinity of the wreckage, only a short time after the disaster. McKinney stated, under cross-examination during the trial of the union miners who were accused of the attempted train wrecking, that he and other detectives did tamper with the rails, and that for a money consideration he would pull spikes and wreck a train. Bloodhounds used to follow the trail of the criminal went directly to a house occupied by a detective in the employ of the Mine Owners’ Association and were promptly called off.

Photographs of marked miners referred to by General Bell, who, he claims, were marked for death, must be regarded as an invention of his own brain. The photographs in question are those of strike breakers and were kept for the purpose of publishing a “scab” list, with the pictures of the men accompanying their description, so that members of organized labor all over the country would become thoroughly acquainted with these men who have committed treason to themselves and to their class. These pictures are nothing more than those having charge of the strike in the district have publicly used for many months.

Charges that miners are not allowed to vote on questions of strike are utterly absurd. As a matter of fact, according to the constitution of the Western Federation of Miners, it is absolutely impossible for the executive board to call a strike of its own volition.

The present strike is the result of a direct vote of the members of the various unions in the district, which left the matter entirely in the hands of properly delegated authority for adjudication and settlement. The twelfth annual convention, recently held in Denver, appointed a special investigating committee, consisting of Malcolm Gillis, of Butte, Mont.; H. B. Seaman, of Rossland, B. C., and R. E. Allen, of Dillon, Wyo, which committee made a personal investigation, by a visit to the Cripple Creek district only last week, and reported to the convention that the constitution of the Western Federation of Miners had been observed in the minutest detail during the entire prosecution of the contest.

Absolutely no deaths have occurred during the contest for which the Western Federation of Miners can be or ought to be held responsible. Some 15 men were killed in the Stratton Independence mine through the incompetence of the men employed and the culpable negligence of the management. These men were unfamiliar with the work and were such as this mine and other mines in the district have been compelled to employ at the behest of the Mine Owners' Association.

We are unfortunately forced to abide by the acts of an unbridled military despotism that is driving our members from pillar to post. Their fortitude under the circumstances is the marvel of the age, and shows that the Western Federation of Miners is composed of the highest type of American citizenship.

Our attitude is fully expressed by the following telegram:


"President United States, Washington, D. C.:

"A duty devolves upon you as President of the United States to investigate the terrible crimes that are being perpetrated in Colorado in the name of law and order. We will render every possible assistance to the proper authorities in such investigation, to the end that the people of the country may realize the outrages that are being inflicted on innocent persons by those in temporary official power.

"W. D. HAYWOOD, Secretary."

Source: U.S. Congress, A Report on Labor Disturbances in Colorado from 1880 to 1904, Inclusive (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1905), 269–272.

See Also:Gompers Calls for Action Over Cripple Creek
Playing for the Press: Strike Coverage by the Media
Union-Busting at Cripple Creek