Saturday, April 29, 2017

Angry Union Men Blow Up Wardner Mill, Kill One Non-Union Worker [otd 04/29]

On April 29, 1899, a train packed with perhaps a thousand angry union members rumbled along the tracks leading from Burke and Wallace into the Kellogg-Wardner area. They were headed for the concentrator mill of the Bunker Hill & Sullivan (BH&S) Mining Company in Wardner, Idaho.
Wardner mine before bombing, ca 1899.
Washington State Archives.

Near Wallace, they had loaded up with "giant powder" (an early form of dynamite). The act of violence they planned arose from years of labor-management confrontation, which had reached a “critical mass” in the previous few months.

Few “good guys” appeared in this tragic opera. The companies generally extracted substantial returns from their properties, while paying the miners as little as possible for their dangerous and debilitating labor. For years, many refused to recognize the miners’ union as a legitimate bargaining unit. Plus, they routinely placed spies in the union ranks.

The unions countered with informers of their own. Some were men who understood and sympathized with the workers’ plight. More were persuaded by bribes, or compelled by threats and bullying. In fact, some radical union leaders considered violence and intimidation their preferred weapons … strikes were too slow and ineffective. Union members routinely taunted, threatened, and – when opportunity arose – beat up replacement workers.

On this crucial day in 1899, the union “army” had targeted the Wardner mill because the BH&S still adamantly refused to recognize the union, and persistently suppressed internal union activity. When the union men reached their destination, explosives experts set the charges while the rest stood ready to quell any resistance. In a brief scuffle, a Bunker employee was fatally wounded.

At one point, a small group of union men had become separated from the main body. These may have been a scouting party, or just some men who had gone off on their own – stories varied. When the bands stumbled into one another in the dark, they exchanged volleys of gunfire before the mistake could be sorted out. One union man in the smaller group died instantly in the hail of bullets

After the blasts, the union force ran the train back to Burke, groups of men dispersing along the way.
Wardner mine after 1899 bombing. Washington State Archives.

Alarmed by the flagrant show of force, Governor Frank Steunenberg called in Federal troops to impose martial law. A substantial number of union men were imprisoned in an open-air stockade, dubbed the "bull pen."

In the proceedings that followed, state authorities removed the county commissioners and sheriff from office for gross dereliction of duty. Evidence showed that they had ample warning that the union was planning a violent, illegal demonstration ... and did nothing about it.

Prosecutors convicted the secretary of the Burke for second degree murder for the killing of the Bunker employee. He was not, apparently, directly involved in the murder. The state based his conviction on the established legal principle that a willing, knowledgeable participant in a crime that leads to murder bears equal responsibility. (The state Supreme Court upheld the decision, but -- the State having made its point -- he was pardoned and released two years later.)

The violence did not end there: In 1905, a union assassin murdered retired Governor Steunenberg with a bomb at his front gate [blog, Dec 30].
References: [B&W], [Hawley], [lllust-North]

1 comment:

  1. Yes, that man was Harry Orchard. And he lived right outside of Wallace, Idaho.