Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Labor Clash in Coeur d'Alene Silver/Lead Mines Kills at Least Twelve [otd 07/11]

On the morning of Monday, July 11, 1892, striking union miners and a crew at the Frisco Mine exchanged gunfire. This lead-silver mine is located about four miles northeast of Wallace, Idaho. The crew consisted of replacement workers imported by the mining company and guards to protect them.
Frisco Mill, ca. 1890. University of Idaho Digital Archives.

The conflict had started early in the year, when the mine owners reduced the wages paid to lower-skilled workers. Their jobs could be learned “in a few days,” the owners pointed out, and it was hardly fair to pay them the same as an experienced lode miner. But many union men were sure this was just the opening wedge for broader cuts. So they called a strike. After much negotiation, with no resolution in sight, the companies imported replacements and a protective force.

Although the replacement workers received the (new or old) standard wages, the union claimed that was just a temporary ruse. Most of the crews were short-handed, perhaps because of the extra costs for guards. June passed in an uneasy semi-truce, with much name-calling between union men and company supporters. Occasionally, fist fights broke out between union men and replacement workers.

Finally, the building pressure of the various confrontations, and days with no paycheck, pushed the strikers over the edge. Armed union men began to gather late Sunday evening in the vicinity of the Frisco mine. Shots rang out around 5:00 a.m. the next morning. Reporting on the flareup, the Illustrated History of North Idaho declared, "it is said by both sides that the shooting was not intended at first to do other execution than to frighten the men out of the mine."

Unfortunately, with so many tempers on edge, an exchange of warning shots quickly escalated into a "pitched battle." Caught in the open, the union attackers pulled back. Then, circling up the hill, they slid a charge of "giant powder" down the emptied water-supply flume and blew up the Frisco ore mill.

Badly outnumbered and fearing the attackers would begin bombarding their positions with explosives, the defenders surrendered. In the end, three men on each side were killed. Managers on the spot agreed that the strike-breakers would be sent away. Emboldened, the army of union men then marched to mines in Gem and Wardner and forced the same conditions on them.
Senator Heyburn. Library of Congress.

The next day, a considerable band of armed men assaulted the non-union men as they waited for a boat to carry them out to Coeur d’Alene City. One man was badly wound, but recovered. Many others were reported missing, having probably vanished into the mountain wilderness. ‪Weldon B. Heyburn‬, later U. S. Senator from Idaho, reported directly to the Governor about the incident (Idaho Statesman, July 14, 1892). Witnesses told him that twelve bodies had been recovered from Fourth of July Canyon, about 15 miles southeast of Coeur d’Alene City: “They were riddled with bullets.”

The union denied any involvement in this violence, and it may well have been a “free lance” mob outburst. Authorities made many arrests related to the original violence as well as the aftermath. However, none of the prisoners spent much time in jail: Trials overturned all the arrests on technicalities or for lack of evidence.

In fact, the union was never held accountable for the property destruction, and no one was punished for any of the deaths.
References: [Hawley], [Illust-State], [Illust-North]

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