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This Day in Labor History: July 11, 1892

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On July 11, 1892 striking silver miners in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho blew up the Frisco Mill, a mine building filled with guards, after getting into a firefight with Pinkertons, killing two mine employee and taking about 60 mine guards prisoner. This led the governor of Idaho to declare martial law over the mining district, crushing the mine strike.

Conditions in the northern Idaho mining district were as bad as you’d expect in the 1890s. High number of deaths, endemic poverty, etc. In order to invest in new machinery, the mine owners wanted to cut costs. Naturally, they chose to make their lives of their workers more hellish. They demanded an increase in the work day from 9 to 10 hours, 7 days a week and with a pay cut on top of it.

Mining near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

In response, the miners decided to strike. What’s interesting in this strike was the sense of industrial solidarity expressed by the workers. The 3000 miners demanded not only good wages for themselves, but for the 500 common laborers who toiled in the mines.

Typically, the mine owners responded in two ways. First, they shipped in thousands of scabs, mostly from Montana. The Idaho miners did have some success in turning them toward the strike, but it was an uphill battle.

Second, the mine owners hired the Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate the strike. Some of them protected the scabs, others served as spies. One of the latter was a man named Charlie Siringo. Siringo, who actually witnessed the legendary Wyatt Earp shootout with Clay Allison in Dodge City, Kansas in 1877, was the Pinkertons’ top undercover operator. He managed to gain the trust of the strikers, advancing men small loans and buying them drinks. He became Recording Secretary for the union, giving him access to the union’s books. Siringo then reported everything back to the mine owners. He also overplayed the miners’ radicalism, allowing his own hatred for organized labor to paint the miners as anarchists.

Charles Siringo

By early July, Siringo was suspected as a spy when union information began appearing in local newspapers. Outraged, the miners took a more militant stand. Late on the night of July 10, miners gathered to stop a new trainload of scabs from entering the mines. No one knows who shot first, but Pinkertons were far more prepared for the shootout, having hidden behind rocks whereas the union members were in the open. Nonetheless, the union men climbed above the Frisco Mill and dropped a box of powder down a flume. It exploded upon impact, killing one mine employee. The Pinkertons ran out and hid in another building. The miners fired into the building, killing another and forcing the Pinkertons to surrender.

At this point, the miners turned their fury on Siringo. Hundreds converged on the boarding house where he stayed. But he cut a whole in the floor and jumped out to his escape. Meanwhile, a battle began at a nearby mine that led in the death of 3 miners before the owners surrendered. Overall, 3 mines fell into the hands of the workers by the evening of July 11. This led Idaho Governor N.B. Willey to declare martial law and send in the Idaho National Guard to break the union. Siringo identified the union leaders for arrest and the National Guard rounded up the miners, locking them in a bullpen. Martial law continued for 4 months.

The impact of the mine strike was perhaps most felt in the creation of the Western Federation of Miners the next year. WFM leaders such as Big Bill Haywood declared their union was born in the Boise prisons where the Coeur d’Alene miners served their prison sentences. The WFM became a force in the western mines during the 1890s and 1900s. It then played the most important role in creating the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. George Pettibone, one of the main miner leaders in Coeur d’Alene, was accused of murdering former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905 for his actions in another Coeur d’Alene miner strike in 1899, but was acquitted of these false charges, dying of cancer in 1908.

Charlie Siringo went on to infilitrate Butch Cassidy’s Train Robbers Syndicate. His work led Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to flee to Bolivia. Later in life, Siringo attempted to write an autobiography exposing all the Pinkerton’s dirty tricks, but the detective agency sued and halted publication.

This is the 34th installment of this series. See here for a complete digest of previous posts.

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