Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor strike of 1892

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Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor strike of 1892
illustration showing the town of Wardner, in the heart of Coeur d'Alenes. The place is hemmed in on each side by high mountains. The Bunker Hill and Sullivan mines are in the side hill at the upper hand of the picture, and the Bunker Hill mill, which was blown up is the one from which smoke is rising.
Date July 1892
Location Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, U.S.
Goals wages
Methods Strikes, Protest, Demonstrations
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
Arrests, etc
Deaths: 3
Injuries: 17
Arrests: 600
Deaths: 2

The Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor strike of 1892 erupted in violence when labor union miners discovered they had been infiltrated by a Pinkerton agent who had routinely provided union information to the mine owners. The response to that violence, disastrous for the local miners' union, became the primary motivation for the formation of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) the following year.

There were two related incidents between miners and mine owners in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States: the labor strike of 1892, and the labor confrontation of 1899.

The confrontation of 1899 resulted from the miners' frustrations with mine operators that paid lower wages, hired Pinkerton or Thiel operatives to infiltrate the union, and routinely fired any miner who held a union card.


Shoshone County, Idaho area miners organized into several local unions during the 1880s. Mine owners responded by forming a Mine Owners' Association.[1] In 1891, silver/lead ore worth nine million dollars had been shipped out of the Coeur d'Alene mining district, plus a quarter-million dollars' worth of gold bullion. Mine owners were making fortunes, but hardrock miners and common laborers were not.

Strike of 1892

The mine operators got into a dispute with the railroads which had raised rates for hauling ore. Mine operators also introduced hole-boring machines into the mines. The new machines displaced single-jack and double-jack miners, forcing the men into new, lower-paid jobs as trammers or muckers.[2]

Mine operators found a reduction in wages the easiest way to mitigate increased costs. After the machines were installed, the mine owners were going to pay the mine workers $3.00 to $3.50 per day, depending upon their specific jobs.[3] The operators also increased miners' work hours from nine to ten hours per day, with no corresponding increase in pay. The work week would be seven days long, with an occasional Sunday off for those who did not have pumping duty. The miners had other grievances; for example, high payments for room and board in company lodging, and check cashing fees at company saloons.[4]

In 1892, the miners declared a strike against the reduction of wages and the increase in work hours. The miners demanded that a "living wage"[3] of $3.50 per day[4] be paid to every man working underground—the common laborer as well as the skilled. In an era when many unions were AFL craft unions, in which skilled workers frequently looked after their own kind, this was an unusual circumstance—approximately three thousand higher-paid miners standing up for five hundred[4] lower-paid, in this case common laborers. This principle of industrial unionism would animate Western hardrock miners for the next several decades.

When the union miners walked out of the mines, mining company recruiters used deception to entice replacement workers to Coeur d'Alene during the strike. They advertised in Michigan, in some cases touting mining jobs in Montana, mentioning nothing about the strike. Guards were assigned to the trains that transported the men seeking work, and at least some of the workers felt they were in the "custody of the guards."[5]

Soon every inbound train was filled with replacement workers. But groups of armed, striking miners would frequently meet them, and often persuaded the workers not to take the jobs during a strike.[4]

The silver-mine owners responded by hiring Pinkertons and the Thiel Detective Agency agents to infiltrate the union and suppress strike activity.[6] Pinkertons and strong-arm agents went into the district in large numbers.[3]

Soon there was a significant private army available to protect new workers coming into the mines. For a time the struggle manifested as a war of words in the local newspapers, with mine owners and mine workers denouncing each other. There were incidents of brawling, and arrests for carrying weapons. Two mines settled and opened with union men, and these mine operators were ostracized by other mine owners who did not want the union. But two large mines, the Gem mine and the Frisco mine in Burke-Canyon, were operating full scale.[4]

In July a union miner was killed by mine guards,[7] and the tension between strikers and strike breakers grew. An undercover Pinkerton agent, soon-to-be well-known lawman Charlie Siringo, had worked in the Gem mine. Siringo used the alias C. Leon Allison to join the union, ingratiating himself by buying drinks and loaning money to his fellow miners. Siringo had been installed early enough to have been elected Recording Secretary, a key position for a labor spy, providing him with access to all of the union's books and records.

Siringo promptly began to report all union business to his employers, allowing the mine owners to outmaneuver the miners on a number of occasions. Strikers planned to intercept a train of incoming replacement workers, so the mine owners dropped off them in an unexpected location. When the local union president, Oliver Hughes, ordered Siringo to remove a page from the union record book that recorded a conversation about possibly flooding the mines, the agent mailed that page to the Mine Owners' Association (MOA). Siringo also "told his employer's clients what they wanted to hear," referring to union officials such as George Pettibone as "dangerous anarchists."[8]

Siringo was suspected as a spy when the MOA's newspaper, the Coeur d'Alene Barbarian, began publishing union secrets. Although the union had advised the miners against violence,[9] their anger at discovering the infiltration prompted them to seek a confrontation with the companies.

On Sunday night, July 10, armed union miners gathered on the hills above the Frisco mine. More union miners were arriving from surrounding communities, and a showdown was inevitable. At five in the morning, shots rang out, and the firing became continuous. The miners claimed the guards fired first, the guards accused the miners. The union miners, exposed on the logged-off hillside, had not positioned themselves for a gunfight, while mine guards were able to shelter in buildings. The union men circled above the mill, and got into a position where they could send a box of black powder down the flume into one of the mine buildings. The building exploded, killing one company man and injuring several others. The union miners fired into a remaining structure where the guards had taken shelter. A second company man was killed, and sixty or so guards surrendered. Union men marched their prisoners to the union hall.[4]

Minutes after the explosion at the Frisco mine, hundreds of miners converged on Siringo's boarding house. But Siringo sawed a hole in the floor,[10] dropped through and covered the hole with a trunk, then crawled for half a block under a wooden boardwalk. Above him, he could hear union men talking about the spy in their midst.[4] Siringo escaped, and fled to the wooded hills above Burke-Canyon Creek.[10]

Meanwhile, a more deadly fight broke out at the nearby Gem mine. Guards at the mine had thrown up barricades from which they could pour deadly fire into buildings in the town of Gem, including Daxon's saloon, which was a union hangout.

A man crossing a footbridge was killed, probably by union fire. Company guards and non-union workers fired into the saloon where fifty or so union men were sheltering.

Three union men had been killed, and the union sought a ceasefire and surrender of the men in the Gem mine. After company forces evacuated the Gem mine, hundreds of union men converged on the Bunker Hill mine at Wardner. This mine was also evacuated, meaning that the union miners had closed down three major mining facilities that had been using replacement workers. About 130 non-union miners were disarmed and expelled from the area. While these men waited to board a boat at Coeur d’Alene Lake, there was another incident of gunfire, and at least seventeen were wounded. More than a hundred of the men decided not to wait for the boat, and they hiked out of the area.[4]

The miners considered the battle over and the union issued a statement deploring "the unfortunate affair at Gem and Frisco."[10] Funerals were Wednesday afternoon, July 13. Three union men and two company men were buried.[4]

The violence provided the mine owners and the governor with an excuse to declare Martial Law,[11] and bring in six companies of the Idaho National Guard to "suppress insurrection and violence." Federal troops also arrived, and they confined six hundred miners in bullpens without any hearings or formal charges. Some were later "sent up" for violating injunctions, others for obstructing the United States mail.[12]

After the Guard and federal troops secured the area, Siringo came out of the mountains to identify union leaders, and those who had participated in the attacks on the Gem and Frisco mines. He wrote that for days he was busy "putting unruly cattle in the bull pen." Siringo then returned to Denver.

Military rule lasted for four months.[11]

One of the union leaders, George Pettibone, was convicted of contempt of court and criminal conspiracy. Pettibone was sent to Detroit and held until a decision of the Supreme Court released him. The Court concluded that the prisoners were held illegally. Union members held in jail in Boise, Idaho were also released[12] under the court decision.

Founding of the Western Federation of Miners

On May 15, 1893, in Butte, Montana, the miners formed the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) as a direct result of their experiences in Coeur d'Alene. The WFM immediately called for outlawing the hiring of labor spies, but their demand was ignored.[10]

The WFM embraced the tradition that their organization was born in the Boise, Idaho, jail. Many years later, WFM Secretary-Treasurer Bill Haywood stated at a convention of the United Mine Workers of America that the Western Federation of Miners:

...are not ashamed of having been born in jail, because many great things and many good things have emanated from prison cells.

Charlie Siringo was not the only agent to have infiltrated the Coeur d'Alene miners' unions. In his book Big Trouble, author J. Anthony Lukas mentions that Thiel Operative 53 had also infiltrated, and had been the union secretary at Wardner.[13] One of the demands of the WFM's founding Preamble was the prohibition of armed detectives.[14]

Soon after its founding, the WFM was involved in a significant strike in the Cripple Creek district in Colorado. The miners called it "The Bull Hill War."[12]

Coeur d'Alene Miners engaged in another confrontation with mine owners in the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor confrontation of 1899.

See also


  1. William Philpott, The Lessons of Leadville, Colorado Historical Society, 1995, page 22.
  2. Mark Wyman, Hard Rock Epic, Western Miners and the Industrial Revolution, 1860-1910, 1979, page 169.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Labor's Greatest Conflicts, Emma F. Langdon, 1908, page 12.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 "Shoot-Out In Burke Canyon," American Heritage Magazine, Earl Clark, August 1971, Volume 22, Issue 5, Retrieved March 28, 2007.
  5. Mark Wyman, Hard Rock Epic, Western Miners and the Industrial Revolution, 1860-1910, 1979, page 52.
  6. From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, page 21.
  7. Philip Taft and Philip Ross, "American Labor Violence: Its Causes, Character, and Outcome," The History of Violence in America: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, ed. Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, 1969.
  8. From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, pages 77-78.
  9. From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, page 78.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, pages 78-79.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Mark Wyman, Hard Rock Epic, Western Miners and the Industrial Revolution, 1860-1910, 1979, page 170.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Labor's Greatest Conflicts, Emma F. Langdon, 1908, page 13.
  13. Big Trouble, J. Anthony Lukas, 1997, pages 166-168.
  14. William Philpott, The Lessons of Leadville, Colorado Historical Society, 1995, pages 22-23.

Further reading

  • New Politics, vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25, Summer 1998 by Steve Early [1]
  • Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America by J. Anthony Lukas