Shoot-out In Burke Canyon


Military officers swept aside the sheriff and began making wholesale arrests. The Wallace schoolhouse was converted into a guardhouse, and nearly four hundred men were packed in there before the action was over. Many of these were quickly dismissed, but it would be another year before the courts could process all the cases that flooded their dockets.

And so the battle of Burke Canyon ended, with a toll of six dead, dozens wounded, and a mill destroyed.

Yet, in another sense that battle was only the opening of a long and bitter war. Rightly or wrongly, the men who worked the mines reasoned that violence was their only recourse to achieve what they construed as justice. The frontier West was, of course, geared to this philosophy. Every mining camp had its boot hill. But beyond that, the courts, the police, the troops—all were allied with the employers against the employees. The union men who fired the opening salvos in Burke Canyon were the front ranks of a movement that was to challenge this domination and eventually break it.

But that was still far in the future, and now in mid-July of 1892 the mountains around Wallace were full of union men who had fled to escape arrest by the troops. One of these was George A. Pettibone.

Pettibone had been appointed justice of the peace at Gem the year before, and promptly showed his sympathies by levying maximum sentences against any company guards so injudicious as to retain their sidearms when they dropped by a saloon for a drink. And no wonder—Pettibone also was the first president of the local miners’ union.

He was among the group that sent the powder down the flume to blow up the Frisco Mill, and in fact suffered an injured hand in the resulting explosion. Thereafter he took to the hills and ranked high on the list of indicted men sought by the troops.

When Pettibone eventually was caught and brought to trial, charged with dynamiting the mill, the prosecutor was an attorney newly arrived in Idaho from Kansas, William E. Borah. He was later to be appointed by the state legislature to the United States Senate, in part because of the statewide fame that came to him from the Pettibone trial. One of the points in the defense of a charge that union men commandeered a freight train during the shoot-out was that they could not have stayed atop a train going at the alleged speed. Borah ordered out a train, climbed on the roof, and clung to it before the fascinated eyes of the court. Pettibone and his accomplices were convicted, and Pettibone was sent to jail for eight months.

There was another aftermath of the Burke Canyon battle that was forecast by the editor of the Wallace Free Press , who had staunchly upheld the union cause from the beginning. But he commented editorially after the shoot-out: “However bitter the controversy between capital and labor may be, labor always gets a further setback by resorting to arms and bloodshed. Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword, is an old proverb, and labor is not trained in that school.”

The warning was prophetic. Public opinion recoiled against union men blowing up mills, resorting to armed warfare, seizing railroads, and committing such unprovoked assaults as the Mission Massacre. However justified their grievances, union miners were stigmatized for years afterward as wild-eyed radicals who would balk at no terrorism to win.

Seven years later, as the Gay Nineties were drawing to a close, warfare again erupted in the Coeur d’Alêne. This time the big Bunker Hill mill was blown up; and six years later Frank Steunenberg, who as governor of Idaho at the time had infuriated the miners by subsequent wholesale arrests and imprisonment, was killed by an assassin’s bomb. This was the case that brought Clarence Darrow to Boise, Idaho, as defense attorney for three Western Federation of Miners officials accused of instigating the crime. One of these officials was George A. Pettibone (the others were William “Big Bill” Haywood and Charles H. Moyer). And once again the counsel arrayed against Pettibone included Borah.

The trial dragged on for eighty days, ending in acquittal for the defendants and more national fame for Darrow. His victory at Boise set off wild rejoicing among the miners and their supporters. It by no means marked the end of labor-management warfare in the western mines; but it did give enormous impetus to the struggling young labor union, which eventually was to become the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers of today.

And, in a sense, it all began in Burke Canyon on that bloody July morning in 1892.