November 23

This Day in History

Old West

Nov 23, 1903:

Colorado governor sends militia to Cripple Creek

Determined to crush the union of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), Colorado Governor James Peabody sends the state militia into the mining town of Cripple Creek.

The strike in the gold mines of Cripple Creek began that summer. William "Big Bill" Haywood's Western Federation of Miners called for a sympathy strike among the underground miners to support a smelter workers' strike for an eight-hour day. The WFM, which was founded in 1893 in Montana, had already been involved in several violent strikes in Colorado and Idaho. By the end of October, the call for action at Cripple Creek had worked, and a majority of mine and smelter workers were idle; Cripple Creek operations ground to a halt. Eager to resume mining and break the union, the mine owners turned to Governor Peabody, who agreed to provide state militia protection for replacement workers.

Outraged, the miners barricaded roads and railways, but by the end of September more than a thousand armed men were in Cripple Creek to undermine the strike. Soldiers began to round up union members and their sympathizers-including the entire staff of a pro-union newspaper-and imprison them without any charges or evidence of wrongdoing. When miners complained that the imprisonment was a violation of their constitutional rights, one anti-union judge replied, "To hell with the Constitution; we're not following the Constitution!"

Such tyrannical tactics swung control of the strike to the more radical elements in the WFM, and in June 1904, Harry Orchard, a professional terrorist employed by the union, blew up a railroad station, which killed 13 strikebreakers. This recourse to terrorism proved a serious tactical mistake. The bombing turned public opinion against the union, and the mine owners were able to freely arrest and deport the majority of the WFM leaders. By midsummer, the strike was over and the WFM never again regained the power it had previously enjoyed in the Colorado mining districts.

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