Most people who know something about union history are familiar with the Ludlow Massacre in 1914, where the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency and the Colorado National Guard killed 18 people, mostly women and children.
What most people aren't familiar with is that the Ludlow Massacre was just one event in more than 30 years of bloody labor struggle in the mountains of Colorado.
Our story starts in the company mining town of Cripple Creek in 1894.
Today Cripple Creek has less than 1,200 people, but in 1894 it had 15,000 and was the 2nd biggest city in Colorado. The reason for its size was its location: at the foot of Pikes Peak.
In January 1894, the three major mine owners, J. J. Hagerman, David Moffat and Eben Smith, announced a return to a 10-hour day with no increase in pay. When miners protested, they were given the option of an 8-hour day and a 17% cut in wages. In response, the miners affiliated themselves with the new Western Federation of Miners, which was created in violence after a Pinkerton infiltration. On February 7, 1894, the strike began.
The strike was effective. By the end of February, nearly every smelter in Colorado was shut down. By the beginning of March the smaller mining companies shifted back to an 8-hour day.
In the middle of March the mining companies began bringing in strikebreakers. After the strikers failed to persuad the scabs from joining the strike, they resorted to threats of violence, which was more effective.
On March 16, a fistfight broke out between miners and sheriff deputies in which the sheriffs lost.
Sheriff Bowers had 19 miners arrested and the local marshal (who sympathized with the strikers), but they were all acquited in a short trial. Meanwhile, sporadic violence was increasing, including guns and ammunition being stolen from local stores.
When talks between the WFM, led by John Calderwood, and companies broke down, Bowers met secretly with the mine owners and they agreed to raise a private army of thugs from Denver.
Word leaked out about the secret meeting, so the strikers built a camp on Bull Hill complete with fortifications and began military training under Junius Johnson.
The strikers made the first move on May 24, by seizing the Strong Mine. The next day 125 thugs of Bowers' private army arrived. As they began marching on the miner's camp, the miners blew up the shafthouse and steam boiler, which showered the thug army with timber and iron.
The deputy/thug army panicked and fled.
A celebration broke out amongst the miners. Liquor warehouses were broken into and things began to get out of hand. The more radical miners wanted to blow up more mines. The only way that Johnson kept things from getting completely out of control was to direct their anger towards the fleeing deputies.
Several drunken miners stole a work train and steamed into the town of Victor, where they caught up with the fleeing deputies. A gun battle broke out. One deputy and one miner died. Six strikers were captured.
The miners responded by capturing officials of the Strong Mine and holding them ransom until a prisoner swap could be arranged.
On May 26, Sheriff Bowers again met with the mine owners, and they agreed to raise a much larger army of thugs.
This is where things get really interesting.
Governor Davis Hanson Waite was unusual in American politics. Mostly because he was a member of the short-lived People's Party. They were hostile to banks, railroads, and the 1% in general.
A year earlier Hanson tried to remove the police and fire commissioners of Denver who were shielding the gamblers and pimps. The officials refused to leave and the result was a standoff between the corrupt officials who had barricaded themselves in City Hall and the state militia that Waite had ordered to get them out. It became known as the City Hall War.
When Governor Waite heard of the private army that Bowers was raising, he did something that had never happened before and would never happen again in American labor history: he interceded on and strikers behalf.
Governor Waite declared the private army illegal and ordered it disbanded.
Waite then visited Cripple Creek the following day. He met with the miners and they agreed that he could negotiate on their behalf.
The first meeting on May 30 nearly ended in disaster. The building was stormed by local businessmen who had been victims of theft during the strike. They blamed Calderwood and Waite for the violence and intended to lynch them. A local judge distracted the mob while Calderwood and Waite escaped through the back door.
Nevetheless, negotiation resumed and an agreement was reached on June 4. The 8-hour day was reinstated at the original pay rate. No retaliations were to be conducted by either side.
However, one issue had been forgotten: the 1,200-strong private army of thugs camped nearby, 300 of them calvary.
Sheriff Bowers was having trouble controlling the thugs.
On June 5, the thug army moved to the edge of the miner's camp and cut the telegraph wires leading into town.
Waite then did something else never done before or since in American labor history: he ordered the militia to intervene on behalf of the strikers.
While Sheriff Bowers of the thug army and General Brooks of the state militia argued over what the next step was to be, the thugs tried to storm the miner's camp. The militia hurried into position just in time to prevent a bloodbath.
Brooks then occupied the miner's camp, and the miners offered no resistance.
The frustrated army of thugs then turned their attention to the town. Hundreds of citizens were "arrested" without cause. Others were pulled from their homes and beaten in the streets.
Thugs formed a gauntlet and forced townspeople to run through it, all the while getting slapped, kicked and punched.
Waite threatened to declare martial law, by the mine owners refused to disband their army of thugs. Brooks then threatened to keep the militia in town for another 30 days and force local businesses to pay for it. The mine owners gave in.
Around 300 miners were arrested and charged for a variety of crimes, but only four were convicted. Governor Waite then pardoned the four.
The success of the WFM strike was dramatic. Almost every worker in Cripple Creek was organized, including waitresses, bartenders and newsboys.
They also managed to elect local officials, including a new sheriff.
However, there was a long-term backlash.
Governor Waite lost the election in the fall of that year to Republican and anti-union Albert McIntire.
This became very important in 1896 when the miners of Leadville, Colorado went on strike. Eben Smith one of the mine owners in Cripple Creek, was also a mine owner in Leadville. He ordered his mines to close "unless lightning strikes and kills off all the Irish."
Unlike at Cripple Creek, the mine owners were completely organized. They had infiltrated the union with spies ahead of time.
After violence erupted in which four strikers were killed, the militia was called out again, but this time on the side of the mine owners, and the strike was broken.
John Calderwood was permanently blacklisted from ever working as a miner again.
The Cripple Creek and Leadville strikes had radicalized both the union and the mine owners. This would lead to deadly consequences in the decades to come.