Willoughby: Men on strike

Cripple Creek miner’s strike, 1894.
Public domain photo

The screenwriters’ strike, approaching five months at the time of this writing, crippled the industry and LA and was reported on frequently. The 1894 Western Federation of Miners’ strike in Cripple Creek was covered nationally and was especially of interest in Aspen because many Cripple Creek miners had previously lived in Aspen.

The miners did not initiate the issue. The Cripple Creek mine owners, capitalizing on wage decline caused by the Panic of 1893, announced that miners who had previously been working 8-hour days at $3.00 a day ($86 in today’s dollars) would have to work 10-hour days at $2.00 a day. Miners went on strike on Feb. 2.

After five companies of the National Guard were sent to set up a buffer between miners and deputies the owners hired, The Aspen Times reported in March that “among the mine owners, the general opinion is that a war —sharp, quick, and decisive — is at hand, and they seemed welcome to it as a solution of the difficulty, as some of them expressed the opinion that if a conflict was not forced at the present time, the strike and consequent enforced idleness of the miners would continue for an indefinite period.”

Union miners claimed that “they could see no plausible cause for the force the authorities are making, as they declared they proposed to do all within their power to uphold the dignity of the law, and they would not commit overt acts unless they were forced to do so.”

When the price of silver dropped by one third in 1893, Aspen’s larger mines shut down. Some miners moved to Cripple Creek because its gold production was increasing, and miners were being hired at $3.00 a day. But that was short-lived. Aspen’s miners went back to work in 1894; however, some mines, like the Smuggler, instead of hiring miners for wages leased sections of their mines, 100-feet long and 75-feet high. Partnering miners, usually around four, would bid $500 to $4,000 and would get 10% to 70% of the profits depending on the quality of ore. Leasing miners that year averaged $6.43 to $8.24 per shift, slightly more than their 1892 wage level depending on how many partners there were.

By the end of 1894, most Aspen mines were turning a profit, and most were hiring miners back on daily wages at the new going rate of $2.50 per day, the standard for most of Colorado.

Aspen’s Della S mine announced a dividend of $10,000 ($288,000 in today’s dollars). The Free Silver Shaft on Smuggler Mountain began work again and was down 300 feet. In 1895, they went to three shifts a day and reached 900 feet. In 1896, it was at 1,000 feet. It would become Aspen’s deepest shaft ending at around 1,200 feet.

The Taylor and Brunton sampling works, which processed most ore from Aspen Mountain, was operating two shifts a day. Aspen was producing between 6,000 to 8,000 tons of ore per month — around $2,112,000 dollars/month of silver in today’s dollars. While miners and owners were both making less than in 1892, they felt lucky compared to the millions still unemployed nationally.

Cripple Creek owners offered $2.62 for an 8-hour day, miners offered $2.75 in April, but nothing happened. In May, strikers blew up one of the shaft houses when owners were setting up a way to have non-union workers come to Cripple Creek. There was a “battle,” and deaths were reported; later, that was changed to wounded. 460 deputies were being organized to come to the aid of the owners.

Governor Davis H. Waite — who was from Aspen and had been a partner with B. Clark Wheeler in mining investments, a law office, and with The Aspen Times — sent the troops back in and intervened on the side of the miners. Waite was the first Populist to be elected as a governor, and he was the first governor to side with unions. That ended the five-month strike, and miners went back to work at the same pay they had before the strike: $3.00 for an 8-hour day.

Leadville miners went on strike again in 1896 because only about two-thirds of mines had raised wages back to $3.00 from $2.50. Eugene Debs got involved on behalf of miners, and owners decided not to settle and to not hire union miners. A 10-month strike was unsuccessful. After miners attacked strike breakers and destroyed some mine facilities, the new governor, Albert McIntire, sent the National Guard to end it in favor of the owners. During the strike, many returned to Aspen where they could find work.