This Day in Labor History: February 7, 1894

On February 7, 1894, gold miners near Cripple Creek, Colorado walked off the job, leading to one of the biggest victories for organized labor in the Gilded Age after the state of Colorado intervened on the side of the workers. This strike made the Western Federation of Miners the major labor organization among western miners, as well as a reputation for violence that made it unacceptable to conservative labor leaders in the American Federation of Labor.

By the 1890s, the area around Cripple Creek was the center of the Colorado gold fields. Cripple Creek itself was the second largest city in the state. The Panic of 1893 theoretically could have helped these workers; it was silver prices that collapsed and the government needed all the gold it could get. But this led silver miners to flood into the mines and convinced the mine owners to lower wages. Announcing a 10 hour day (previously 8) with no pay raise led the miners to walk out.

C.O.D. mine, near Cripple Creek, 1894

The strike was widespread and effective. By the end of February, virtually every gold mine in Colorado was shut down. A few gave in and restarted their mines after retreating back to the 8-hour day. However, the big mines were intransigent and brought in scab labor. At first, the WFM tried to organize these men into the union. But work was scarce in 1894 and even a low-paying job with long hours was too good to pass up. So on March 16, a group of armed miners captured and beat six sheriff’s deputies heading up to a mine at Victor, where they were to assist in the protection of scabs.

This act of violence led to El Paso County Sheriff M.F. Bowers to request state militia intervention from the governor, the Populist Davis Waite. Waite was not the preferred governor for Colorado capitalists. When he realized that Bowers was lying to him about the extent of violence and really wanted a state strikebreaking force, he withdrew the militia. Bowers then arrested the strike leaders, but a jury found them not guilty of trumped up charges. Meanwhile, the strikers began to attack the scabs, throwing bricks and getting into fistfights with them. The mine owners then attempted to negotiate with the miners, offering a return to the 8 hour day but at reduced pay.

When the miners rejected this offer out of hand, and with the refusal of Governor Waite to use the militia as the personal army of the mine owners, the owners decided to raise a private army of their own. They paid for an army of 100 men, mostly ex-policemen, to become sheriff’s deputies and protect the hundreds of scabs they intended to bring to the mines.

When the miners heard about this, they organized to defend themselves. On May 24, they took over the Strong Mine, near Victor. When 125 deputies marched to take it, the miners blew it up. The deputies fled and the miners wanted blood. They filled a railroad car with dynamite and send it down the railroad track, hoping to cause an explosion in the deputies’ camp, but it derailed. Many wanted to systematically blow up the mines. This didn’t happen, but tensions rose even further when the mine owners paid for an additional 1200 deputies for their private army.

Criminal Record of the Western Federation of Miners, compiled by the Colorado Mine Owners Association.

Fearing a complete massacre, Governor Waite stepped in. In an extremely rare move for the Gilded Age, Waite issued an order declaring the owners’ private army illegal and ordered the capitalists to disband it, sending in the state militia as a peacekeeping force. He then went to the miners and got their approval to be their bargaining agent with the mine owners.

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