Shoshone History
The Coeur d 'Alene Mines strike of 1899
Aug 3, 2007, 13:14

Bomb Rocked Mining Area – Heard Far

Editor’s Note: Ralph Wetmur, linotype operator at The Press, learned the printing trade in the early 1930’s in the State Teachers College newspaper department at Moorhead, Minn., in order to qualify for his Boy Scout printing merit badge, needed before he could become an Eagle Scout. Before coming to Coeur d’Alene in 1953, he worked in printing plants, weekly and daily newspapers in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington. Mr. Wetmur, on coming to this area, learned of the troubled times in the Coeur d’Alene mining area at the turn of the century, and did much reading on the subject. The following article is a compilation of material from many volumes.


War! . . . Invasions! . . . Fighting! . . .
These were prominent headlines of the press just before the turn of the century.

President McKinley had declared war against the Spanish and Admiral Dewey and American soldiers were fighting in the Philippines. England was engaged in the Boer war in South Africa. In contrast, on the home front, the coming battle between James J. Jefferies and Tom Sharkey was of top interest to the sports fans.

Also there was headline news in the Idaho Panhandle --- the hostilities between newly organized Western Federation of Miners and the Mine Owners association.

Those were the hell-roaring days of the outlaw union in the Coeur d’Alene mining district. The more adventurous were prospecting for placer gold in the vicinity of the tent and clap-board town of Murray but for the hard-rock lead and zinc miners of Wallace, Kellogg, Gem, Mullan, Burke and Wardner it was a different story.

In 1899, the mines of the area produced approximately 100,000 tons of ore a month, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. The Bunker Hill and Sullivan at Wardner was the largest producer, with the Helena and Frisco, near Wallace running a close second. Other major producers were the Last Chance at Wardner, the Tiger and Poorman, Standard, Mammouth, Black Bear, and Hecla, near Wallace, and the Morning Mine at Mullan.

The miners felt they were underpaid for their hard work and they and their union leaders would go to any lengths to bring this fact to the mine owners’ attention. George A. Pettibone stole 200 pounds of dynamite, packed it to the top of a hill back of the Frisco-Helena, mounted it on a float and sent it down the flumes into the smelter building and the whole works blew sky-high. The mine detectives promptly caught up with him and shipped him off to the prison at Boise, Idaho.

An especially aggravated instance of crime committed by the union was the murder in broad daylight of a mine superintendent named Kneebone because he wouldn’t join the union and openly talked against it. From then on the union used the threat of being “Kneeboned” against those who wouldn’t cooperate with them. Many others received notes or were told to leave the country at once or they would be “run down the canyon,” a process that might mean merely deportation, but more often than not included a severe beating-up and sometimes being killed.

Far from giving in to union demands the Mine Owners’ Association was fighting them both openly and secretly. The miners knew that the district was infested with “Finks”, company detectives posing as miners, who were busily engaged in getting evidence to be used against active union men. At the same time the miners thought that the mine owners were preparing for another open-shop drive on a large scale.

The miners at that time were getting $2.50 a day for their labor and in April of 1899 the union went on strike at the Last Chance, the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mines for a raise to $3.50 a day. The superintendents of the mines consented to an increase of the $3.50 for the mockers and miners and $3 for the other laborers but would not concede to the union demand for $3.50 all around.

The mines closed and armed guards were put around them to protect the property in case of violence on the part of the miners. Serious trouble was feared. It was rumored that members of the union would come down from the canyon to give an assist. When asked why the assistance of outsiders was needed the union men hinted darkly of the times of ’92. The streets were thronged with idle miners discussing the situation.

Early the morning of April 29, 1899, the 400 miners at Burke were awakened in their bunkhouses and told to attend an important union meeting at 7 a.m.

“Be sure to fetch your guns,” they were ordered.

At the meeting the miners were informed they were all going to Wardner, the Bunker Hill and Sullivan town, and that “the scab-loving outfit was sure going to get it today!”

They filed from the meeting hall and went to the Burke railroad station where the regular morning Northern Pacific passenger train was ready to make its daily run to Wallace. Masked, armed and desperate, they forced the engineer and fireman to add four boxcars and two flatcars from a siding to the train and threatened to kill them if they didn’t obey orders.

“You’re taking this gang to Wallace,” the train crew was told.

With a gun at his back the conductor yelled “All aboard,” and the corps of trouble on wheels was on its way.

A stop was made at the large Frisco power magazine where 80, 50-pound boxes of dynamite were stolen. Reaching Wallace the cosmopolitan army of Cornish Cousin-jacks, Swedes, Italians, Finns, Bulgarians, Croats, Russians, Irish, Welch, French Canadians and plain Yankees was reinforced by 600 more miners from Wallace, Mullan and Gem, who had been notified by a coded telegraph message of the dastardly mission ahead before the wires were all cut by the miners earlier that morning.

Much against the wishes of the engineer the Northern Pacific train left Wallace on the rails of the O. R. & N. line. The thousand rioters poured into Wardner a short time later to find the town nearly deserted. News of the coming assault had preceded them.

As the train pulled into the station the careful planning of the sabotage maneuver became quickly evident. Paul Cororan, the leader of the Burke union, took command and along with other union leaders formed the men into a semblance of order. The hundred or more carrying rifles or shotguns was sorted out into a group. From these about a dozen were hand-picked to form an advance unit to infiltrate the mine buildings to scout for guards.

“Take them prisoners or use your own judgment,” were the orders.

“Those with pistols or revolvers over here,” someone shouted.

Several hundred miners came on the run, some waving old muzzle-loaders dating back to the Indian fighting days of early Idaho.

Another detail was put to work unloading the 80 boxes of dynamite from the train and piling in on the depot platform.

“As soon as the mine is cleared of those scab guards we will put this to good use,” one of the leaders commented.

A call went out for “powder monkeys” and for miners who had worked for Bunker Hill who would know the right places to stash the explosive where it would cause the most damage.

The reconnaissance crew met with only slight resistance on their tour. James Cheyne, a vanner man at the mine, was shot through the hip from behind and died a week later at the Sacred Heart hospital in Spokane. R. R. Rogers, a stenographer working at the mine office, was shot in the face but miraculously lived through the whole ordeal.

The search for opposition completed, the scouts left the mine buildings toward the main army of men. After hearing the shooting some of the more excited thought the scouts were mine guards and opened fire.

“Hey! Stop shooting, those are our own men,” someone shouted, but it was too late. Jack Smith, a miner from the Tiger at Burke fell dead with a rifle ball through his chest.

Sobered by this incident, the men fell back and regrouped to stand watch while the powder boys, their helpers, and 80 men each, carrying a box of dino, entered the concentrator with their devastating load. Working fast but carefully with the knowledge that came from long experience, the wrecking crew stowed, stuffed, capped and fused the two tons of explosives. In less than a half hour came the shout of “All clear!” The end of the long fuse was touched off and everyone scurried for cover.

The talking changed to whispering, the whispers to a dead silence as the tension mounted. For nearly five minutes you could hear a pin drop, then up she went with all the destruction 4,000 pounds of dynamite can cause. Up, up, up, soared the big roof of the main building, followed by smoke and flame resembling an atomic bomb. The ground shook as if from an earthquake and presently a hail of debris came down in all directions. Smoke and the acrid, biting taste of dynamite filled the air.

When it cleared it left a mighty hole, and nothing else but wreckage.

Almost before the hail of flying timbers and stones had ceased a new project was afoot. The maddened mob ran towards the company boarding house, the offices, and the mine superintendent’s house with coal oil and in no time they were all ablaze. After three hours the lawless violators left with their mission accomplished. The great Bunker Hill mill, costing nearly a quarter of a million dollars, was in about as many pieces. Also destroyed were many valuable documents, maps, drawings of the mines, and data of the greatest importance to the mine owners.

The Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine, employing 600, was closed. With the mill gone it was impossible to handle the ore produced at the mine workings. The Last Chance was also forced to shut down. It had been getting its powder from Bunker Hill as well as having them handle some of the processing, and the destruction of those works prevented either from reopening for nearly 100 days. Bunker Hill finished the rebuilding of a new concentrator in December, 1899. Meanwhile the total working force of miners at Wardner was out of work.

Many of the rioters fearing the reprisal that was bound to come, packed their belongings and skipped the country. Among these was Harry Orchard who left via shanks mare over the mountains to Thompson Falls, Mont. He was to become nationally known for his harsh acts a few years later.

Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg was informed of the Wardner tragedy and he immediately sent a formal demand to President McKinley asking that 500 regular troops be dispatched at once to the Coeur d’Alenes. With the arrival of the Bluecoats, most of which were Negro, martial law was declared. The regulars with the help of the state militia quickly and efficiently rounded up and arrested 700 of the rioters, who were forced to build a stockade in which to confine themselves.

Because they had knowledge of the impending mob action and did nothing to prevent it, Shoshone County Sheriff Young and County Commissioner Boyle were arrested. Both were given a chance to resign from office and both refused. They were promptly turned over to a waiting guard of Negro soldiers and sent to the stockade or bullpen as it was commonly referred to. Their sudden fall from official greatness to the menial end of prison cuisine was quickly accomplished when the rioters placed them head and front of the dishwashing and garbage brigade.

During the hot summer months that followed much of the food served at the bullpen was tainted or spoiled. This together with the harsh treatment of the guards caused much dissention among the prisoners and many tried to escape. Seven did succeed but some were not so lucky. Under fire of a Negro guard, Mike Johnson, crazy and desperate, made a dash for liberty by jumping into the river. Down the rapid stream he bobbed like a great cork, while on the bank his keeper, breaking through the underbrush, peppered at him with his Krag-Jorgensen rifle balls. Somehow or other the floating target evaded the bullets but the treacherous eddies were too much for him, and Johnson’s body was found 20 minutes later down the river – drowned.

In the district most of the sympathies were with the imprisoned miners as was proven when nearly all of Canyon Creek turned out to attend the funeral at Wallace of Mike Devine, who died of pneumonia in the prison hospital at Wardner. About 300 of the men attending wore miners’ union badges.

After one of the greatest battles ever to be fought in the American courts to that time, the Miners’ Union was hopelessly beaten when in late July, 1899, Paul Corcoran was found guilty in the second degree for the murder of James Cheyne. The leader of the Burke union was sentenced by the judge to 17 years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. Of the rioters his was the only case tried before the court adjourned until September.

At the September term of court the trials were postponed again, and the same with each following term of court until 1901. Many of the rioters were still confined to the bullpen and the suppressive measures were so rigorous that they resulted in a Congressional investigation at Washington, D.C., before action was taken. Some rioters were later tried and imprisoned, but most were finally turned loose.

During the fall months of 1899 the unions and miners made a strenuous and persistent effort to have the troops removed from the Coeur d’Alenes. Unknowingly, Governor Steunenberg the same as signed his own death warrant when in November he won a decided victory over the lawless element by shouldering the whole responsibility for keeping the troops in the district. Martial law was not declared off during the Steunenberg administration. When the troops were finally removed in April, 1901, more trouble broke out between the miners and the deputy sheriffs who then had to police the area. Many shooting scrapes took place between them.

December 30, 1905, Ex-Governor Steunenberg, then living at Caldwell, Idaho, was walking to his home from the Saratoga hotel. As he reached and opened the gate to the picket fence around his house he was killed by a tremendous dynamite explosion. Suspecting his death may have been linked to the riots earlier in the Coeur d’Alenes, police picked up several suspects, among them a Thomas Hogan. Finding incriminating evidence in his hotel room proving he had a hand in the vicious killing Hogan was whisked away to Boise to avoid a lynching by a maddened mob.

Further investigation proved Hogan was in reality Harry Orchard. Orchard finally broke down and confessed not only to the bombing of Steunenberg, but also that during the seven years since he was involved in the Bunker Hill dynamiting he had participated in the killing of 30 other people, mostly by dynamite bombs. He named the Union as his employer and Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone (of the Frisco-Helena dynamiting) as his bosses and payoff men.

Orders went out to pick up the three men. Complications arose when it was discovered they were in Colorado, beyond the jurisdiction of the Idaho authorities. In a surprise move the three were literally kidnapped and smuggled to Boise.

With William Borah for the prosecution and Charles Darrow defending, one of the Nation’s most famous murder trails began. Darrow managed to get “Wild Bill” Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W., the Wobblies, I Won’t Work) off the hook by a beautiful piece of oratory, George Pettibone and Charles Moyer were also set free, Darrow claiming that they had been brought into the state illegally, also putting all the blame on Orchard.

But for Harry Orchard, who had confessed all, there was little Darrow could do. The judge sentenced him to be hung for his numerous crimes, the sentence being later commuted to life imprisonment.

During the first decade of his incarceration at the Idaho State Penitentiary at Boise, Harry Orchard worked in the clothing shop and the shoe shop. His evening hours were spent writing a book of his earlier life, “The Confession and Autobiography of Harry Orchard.” This book which was published by McClure Company of New York, makes very interesting reading and tells in full the truthful saga of the many bombings and killings by the “Rocky Mountain Dynamiter.”

His last years were spent on the prison farm where he tended his beloved chickens and turkeys. Having become quite religious he spent his spare time writing another book dealing with his prison life entitled, “The Man God Made Again,” which was published by the Southern Publishing Association, Nashville, Tenn., with the help of the Seventh Day Adventist church.

After confinement for 48 years, Harry Orchard died April 13, 1954, at the age of 88, thus bringing to a close the story of the “Dynamite Demon,” one of America’s most amazing criminals.

May 18, 2007
Fun article! The Northern Pacific train conductor mentioned was my great uncle George H. Olmstead who testified at the trial. See Idaho Daily Statesman July 15, 1899.

Sharon McDonald

August 3, 2007
This is a very good article summarizing the Coeur d’Alene mining “war” of 1899. I had printed out a copy of it long ago and it has a place among my many other articles, writings and mementos of those events and times. I have a personal interest–being the great grandson of the assassinated Governor Steunenberg–but I also have a broader fascination with all of the historical and legal aspects of those tragic times in the history of the West. My great grandfather’s murder was a brutal senseless killing as were all those carried out by “dynamite” Harry Orchard. Orchard’s use of explosives as a terrorist tactic in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s provides an historical lesson that remains all too real and applicable well over a century later. I grieve not only over the cold bloodied murder of my family member–but for all of the death, mistreatment and suffering inflicted upon miners and other members of the so-called working class. All too often miners were viewed by their capitalist employers as mere implements to be used and thrown away once they were worn out and ceased to be producers of profit.

We cannot envision where we are going in our future unless we first look back at where we have been in our history. The suffering on all sides of the battle between labor and capital was intolerable by any standard of decency–but perhaps unavoidable at a time when law and order in the West was still in its infancy. A small number of greedy mine owners and zealous labor leaders took advantage of the working class who merely wished to make a reasonable, respectable and safe living for themselves and their families. Instead they became the pawns in a bloody battle that cost many their life and resulted in the revenge assassination of a resolute governor that believed in the necessity of maintaining law and order in his young state of Idaho. None–the governor included–could claim sainthood but all were victims of a minority few who were driven by greed and violence.

Hopefully we have learned from the lessons of history but I fear all too often we have not been doing our homework.

John T. Richards Jr.
Los Osos, CA

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