- Historic Sites
Shoot-out In Burke Canyon
The Idaho mine war broke into flame in 1892 and cast a glare with very long shadows
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
But as the year 1892 opened, they weren’t even getting that. For the Mine Owners’ Association by then had become embroiled in a dispute with the railroads over freight rates. The carriers had raised rates two dollars a ton the year before, boosting the shipping costs by about fifty dollars a carload. When the mine owners were unable to negotiate a lower rate with the railroads, they simply shut down their mines, declaring they would ship out no more ore until the railroads came to terms.
The impasse dragged on through the winter and into spring, with the miners the innocent victims of this dispute between warring capitalists. By early April the railroads had come around. But now a new element entered the picture. The owners announced they would need two thousand men to open the mines, and former employees would be given preference. But they also added an hour to the shift, offering $3.50 per day for ten hours’ work instead of nine—for miners. The pay for carmen and shovellers would be cut to three dollars per day. The men could have Sunday off if they insisted, except in pumping mines—where the workweek would be seventy hours.
So now the impasse in the mines took on a new dimension. During the preceding year or two the miners had decided that in union there is strength—particularly in labor unions. Each mine or town now had its own union, very loosely confederated into the Central Miners’Union a forerunner of the Western Federation of Miners, whose officers Clarence Darrow would be defending fifteen years later.
All through that uneasy spring the union miners stayed home. They had other grievances besides the pay cut. When the mines were working, about a third of their wages went for board and room in company lodging. Company-owned stores took more of their pay. Even the saloons, where checks were seldom cashed at par, usually were owned by mine officials. But first and foremost, the union demanded $3.50 per day for every man who went into the mines, whether miner or common laborer.
At first the owners retaliated by announcing they would keep the mines shut until June. When that didn’t bring the miners around, they launched a new tactic, one that was easily available to them in those days. They simply advertised in the Midwest for help. Soon every inbound train was bringing in scabs from as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin. But they didn’t come in without incident. Reception committees of armed unionists took to meeting every train, a type of welcome that induced some of the newcomers to catch the next train back home.
The owners responded by hiring armed guards to escort their new employees from the station to the mines. One trainload of seventy-three men who arrived at Burke in May from Duluth was escorted to the ironically named Union Mine by sixty armed guards. Gradually, the mines resumed work through May and June, manned by imported labor, protected by Pinkerton men and husky youths from eastern Washington wheatlands, while the unions and mine owners fired salvos of propaganda at each other in the region’s newspapers.
Neither side showed any indication of backing down. Angered by the continued resistance, the owners declared they would not rehire any former employees unless they promised to quit the union. More and more scabs were imported, including a big contingent from California. Tempers grew ever more edgy, ultimatums were issued by both sides and as regularly ignored, arrests for brawling and carrying deadly weapons were frequent. Two of the mines broke ranks to reopen with union help, and as a result their owners were ostracized by their fellow employers. But the big Gem and Frisco mines in Burke Canyon now were operating full-scale with nonunion men, and their continued defiance was a bone in the new union’s throat.
By early July an inevitable showdown loomed. As more and more nonunion men had come into the mines, they had grown bolder, and instead of ducking away from abuse by the strikers they were more inclined to fight back. Fist fights between strikers and scabs became ever more frequent, and occasionally guns were wielded as well.
Such was the situation on Sunday night, July 10, as union men began gathering at Gem. There was an ominous tension in the town, like the mugginess that portends a thunderstorm. It was no chance gathering. Every train brought in more miners from the surrounding towns of Wallace, Mullan, and Burke. And they were carrying rifles, shotguns, and revolvers.
As the sun rose over Burke Canyon on Monday morning, the hillsides overlooking the Frisco mine were speckled with union men, guns at the ready. Down at the mine a few guards uneasily paced the dump at a tunnel entrance, trying to make out the shadowy shapes on the hillside in the early morning light. An ominous silence hung over the canyon.
This silence was shattered at 5 A.M. by the crack of a rifle. The strikers later claimed the shooting started when guards fired on a union man who was walking too close to mine property. The guards said the unionists fired the first shots to scare them off the dump.