Labor Day longread

The Silverton Strike of 1939

The following is excerpted and adapted from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, by Jonathan P. Thompson, Torrey House 2018.

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I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me, Says I, But Joe you’re ten years dead, I never died, said he, I never died, said he. The copper bosses killed you Joe, They shot you Joe, says I. Takes more than that to kill a man, says Joe, I didn’t die. And standing there as big as life and smiling with his eyes, Says Joe, What they can never kill went on to organize. From San Diego up to Maine in every mine and mill Where working men defend their rights. It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

—Phil Ochs

Silverton Labor Day parade, 1940. The union had been busted by then, replaced by a sham that was installed by the company. But it continued to host one of the county’s largest celebrations every Labor Day. Photo by Lee Russell, Farm Security Administration, retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Soft orange light licked into the cool July night, illuminating the rusty steel grid of the tram tower and the quivering leaves of aspens and the faces of the standing men, staring into the bonfire, talking about nothing at all. The mood was festive, infused with a touch of nervousness, but the men were not partying, they were on duty, vigilantly listening for the telltale whir of cable against wheel, of the tram kicking into operation. Their job: make sure no workers went up to the Shenandoah-Dives Mine, and that no ore came back down to the mill. The 1939 Silverton strike was on. 

Joe Todeschi was there that night, lean and young and wiry, with a hooked, crooked nose like some Roman welterweight fighter. Just twenty-four years old, he’d already worked enough for a man twice his age, milling ore, placing and spiking ties on the Silverton and Northern Railroad, drilling rocks to make way for the highway up at the Champion Cliffs. A year earlier, he’d gotten a job at the only real mine still running, the Shenandoah-Dives, working under Italian stone mason Carlo Palone to build a massive “slide-splitter”—a stone and concrete monolith placed above tram towers and other infrastructure to protect them from avalanches. 

This was Todeschi’s first labor action, and so far it was a pretty good deal. To keep morale strong, the union threw picnics and parties and doled out enough money to the strikers to keep their families fed. Within weeks, however, things would go bad, real bad. 

Spectators at the Silverton Labor Day mining contests, 1940. Photo by Lee Russell, Farm Security Administration, retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Organized labor was a force in Silverton almost since the mining industry got started. And it’s no wonder. The Gold King Mine, for example, reportedly grossed around $4 million per year, with more than $1 million in dividends paid out to the New England investors annually. The miners, meanwhile, endured rough and even deadly conditions daily for a pittance.

Mining is and always has been a difficult and hazardous vocation. In 1898 alone, Silverton-area miners froze to death, were poisoned, and got caught in the belting at a mill to gruesome effect. Frank Deputy and Gail Munyon figured it would be a good idea to thaw their powder on their cookstove in a cabin near the Yukon Tunnel along Cement Creek. They were both blown to bits. Miners were swept into oblivion by avalanches, large and small, while they were getting to and from the mines or even while sleeping or dining in the boardinghouses, built with no respect whatsoever for geologic hazards. On St. Patrick’s Day 1906, following a massive multi-day storm, nearly two dozen people, mostly miners, lost their lives to snow slides in the county. Local newspaper editors called repeatedly for county-wide zoning aimed at preventing such tragedies. They were ignored. 

The Gold King was as perilous during its heyday as it was profitable. The litany of dead and injured near the turn of the century was relentless: John Fitzgerald, Peter Casagrande, Gus Swanson, John Norquist, Sidney Duval, H. E. Jones, Hans Tanstad, and on and on. A slab of rock kills a man, a cave-in breaks another’s leg. One miner is blown up while drilling an unshot hole, another touches a live wire, sending a deadly current through his body. A runaway log lops off a man’s leg, and an errant flywheel belt shreds another’s lips and knocks out his teeth. One man is inside the Gold King mill’s boiler when another turns on the steam, taking off all the skin on his arms.

The blood, the broken bones, the torn-up bodies, and most insidious, the dust of pulverized rock. Day after day, the men emerged from underground coated in the stuff, and their lungs filled up, too. “Can you feel the rock dust in your lungs?” asks the traditional ballad. “It’ll cut down a miner when he is still young. Two years and the silicosis takes hold, and I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold. Yes, I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold.” All that for five dollars per day or less. 

Without the mine owners looking out for the miners, the miners had to look out for one another. They teamed up underground, and like soldiers on a battlefield each was ready to risk his life to save his buddy. Aboveground, they organized, and formed and joined labor unions. One of the first labor actions in the Silverton area was sparked in 1885, at the Aspen Mine, when owners tried to reduce the $3.50 daily wage. Shortly thereafter, workers at the Mountain Queen accepted a pay cut from $3 to $2.50 per day. Seventy-five masked and armed miners from nearby operations, fearing the same fate, converged on the mine and compelled the workers to go on strike. 

In 1893 the Western Federation of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers formed the Silverton Miners Union Local #26. Before long it boasted a membership of hundreds, and by the turn of the century had become the most powerful institution in the county. Unions did far more than just agitate for better working conditions. The Silverton union built and ran the Miners Union Hospital, hosted community-wide parties and balls, and started the Labor Day celebrations (that live on as Hardrockers’ Holidays). When a miner died, the union stepped in to help his widow and children, and in the days before the New Deal, the unions generally cared for the destitute, the elderly, and the ill. 

The Gold King had to shut down for a period in 1899, when the workers at Durango’s smelter went on strike over hours worked and wages paid. In 1905 all 175 of the Gold King complex’s workers walked off the job after the manager barred the president of the Silverton Miners Union from coming on the property to collect dues. And just weeks later, the miners again went on strike—very briefly—because the boardinghouse cook, who was of French descent, printed the menu in his own language and the miners couldn’t read it. Management ended the strike by getting a bilingual waiter to translate. When another Gold King cook refused to join the union in 1907, all 180 boarders escorted him on foot to Silverton and told him to keep going. “Silverton is a strong union camp,” wrote Dave Day admiringly in the Durango Democrat, “and it looks like an unhealthy place for non-unionists to visit.” 

San Juan County was a veritable multicultural mélange during the first half of the 20th century, with nearly half of its population foreign-born, making life in the high country both more interesting and challenging. A majority of the new Americans came from the mountain regions of Italy and Austria, where the border between the two countries was somewhat fluid. There was a bar in Silverton for the Italians, one for the Austrians, and one for the French-born folks called, believe it or not, the Frog Saloon. In the boardinghouses, miners tended to congregate with their countrymen. The various elements in the melting pot didn’t always mix well and the unions often fueled the discord. 

On a late-summer’s night in 1904, an explosion echoed through Silverton’s streets, waking up a good number of citizens, who soon found “the little frame cottage occupied by Peter Dalla with the north side almost blown out, the interior furnishings badly wrecked, and the lifeless body of Dalla deposited in the opposite side of the room from that where the explosion occurred.” This was no accident. Someone had murdered the young Dalla, and suspicion soon fell upon Barney Fiori (or Fori). “A feud of long standing between the Italian and Austrian elements in Silverton may have some bearing on the matter,” noted the Silverton Standard shortly after the murder, “but to date no positive proof has been obtained.” There was, indeed, such discord. Dalla was born Powel Patro Dallapiccola in Austria, while Fiori was Italian. Yet in this case it’s likely that romance, not nationality, fueled the deadly quarrel. That May, Fiori had burst into Dalla’s and Tona Todeschi’s saloon with a Colt .44 revolver and ordered all hands up before shooting Dalla in the leg. Fiori, it turns out, had a hankering for Dalla’s fiancée, Katie Satore. The law apparently didn’t have enough evidence on Fiori to get him for the dynamite job, though. A year later, a newspaper article lauded him for shooting two 600-pound “silver-tip” bears northeast of Silverton. 

Yet for all its drama and violence, the Dalla-Fiori affair was far from the ugliest incident of ethnic tension—make that ethnic cleansing—to occur in Silverton and its surroundings. 

Even as Europeans flooded into the United States’ East Coast, Asians, predominantly from China, were making their way to the West. Chinese immigrants joined the California Gold Rush, and many were hired in the 1860s to help build the transcontinental railroad. When the railroad was completed in 1869, the workers converged on the mining camps of the West, looking for jobs and entrepreneurial opportunity. In the mid-1870s a handful joined the throngs of opportunity-seekers converging on Silverton. 

For several years, the Chinese Americans were just another ingredient in the mountain cultural mix. While few seem to have worked the mines, Chinese-born citizens did locate and own the St. Paul Mine, near Red Mountain Pass north of Silverton, for a time. Silverton was home to a handful of Chinese laundries and several restaurants. Their neighbors tended to eye them with racism-tinged curiosity: “Last Sunday was the Chinese New Year and the Celestials celebrated the day in a becoming manner,” noted the San Juan Herald in 1887. “For the past six weeks, Meng Lee, who keeps the washee shop next door to the St. Charles Restaurant has been fattening two domestic ducks and one old hen for the purpose of giving a blowout to his fellow Chinamen. … Besides the game mentioned above, the dinner consisted of several Chinese dishes which appeared to be quite palatable to them but we would want to have our own life insured were we to have partaken in the same.”

Perhaps inevitably, curiosity eventually disintegrated into xenophobic derision throughout the region, despite the fact that there were never more than fifty or sixty China-born residents of Silverton or in other area towns at any given time. In 1880, the Dolores News, of Rico, Colorado, wrote: “The Mormons and Chinese should not be allowed to people Colorado.” Soon the “Chinese Question,” much like the “Ute Question,” was on many a lip. In 1885, Silverton cops rounded up “a number of the almond eyed residents of Silverton, who were driving quite a trade in fine silk handkerchiefs, teas, spices, medicines, dried fish.”1 The case was dropped when the prosecutors failed to appear in court. Most heinously, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, that September, a mob of white union men massacred twenty-eight Chinese coal miners and beat fifteen others because they refused to join their coworkers in a strike for higher wages. 

Ultimately, it would be organized labor dealing the final blow to Silverton’s Chinese Americans, as well. In 1902, the Silverton Miners Union, the Cooks and Waiters Union, and the Federal Labor Union 112 turned on their fellow citizens. “Do you want the yellow man or the white man?” a union representative wrote. “The Chinese (opium) dens in this city have destroyed over 300 human beings. No white man can compete with their labor on account of their cheapness in living.” Never mind that there is little evidence that opium dens even existed in Silverton, let alone killed off more than one-tenth of the population. The Chinese immigrants were largely self-employed, so could not take any jobs. “The Miner believes in ‘America for Americans’ and white men, and is therefore in sympathy with this movement. … It is a straight proposition: The Chinese must go, and with this concerted action (a boycott of their businesses) it will not be long until they are out of Silverton and without violence or injustice to anyone concerned.” 

Within a few weeks, the Chinese American population had gone. No one was killed or beaten, at least according to the newspapers, which had by then sided with the racists. Yet the expulsion was a violent, hateful, unjust one all the same. The community of Silverton was the loser. The surrounding communities, particularly Durango, that tolerated and even embraced the exiles were the winners. As for the Silverton unions that drove the racist expulsion, in a few more decades they’d be on the other side of the stick. 

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The Great Depression dealt a swift and brutal blow to metal prices, with the exception of gold. The Sunnyside, one of the two major mines in the area, like most other base-metal-reliant mines, suspended operations in 1930, and stayed dark for most of the decade, reopening briefly in 1937. Only Chase’s Shenandoah-Dives Mine, along with a handful of other smaller operations, kept churning out ore during the early 1930s, in part thanks to a deal Chase struck with his 240 employees to lower their wages until the hard times were through. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal pumped some life back into mining country in the form of federal incentives and subsidies. But for the corporations running the mines it was a mixed bag. New regulations, particularly regarding labor, were also part of the deal. 

Beginning in 1936, the Silverton Miners Union Local #26 (an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) began making demands on Chase and the Shenandoah-Dives for safer conditions, higher wages, and more union-friendly hiring practices. Although not all of the union demands were met, the union and the company were able to come to agreements and contracts were signed in 1936, 1937, and June of 1938. As the summer of 1938 dragged on, however, tensions between the workers and the Shenandoah-Dives began to build. 

“Those opposed to our Democratic form of government are the ones who live in hopes of forcing upon the American People the Fascist and Nazi forms of government which are un-American as they are opposed to unions, freedom of speech, press, and assembly.”

In the beginning, the Silverton Standard was with the union. “Wages are none too high in San Juan County, and while higher as a rule than in some of the past years of the industry, are paid to men doing more work and making greater output than in any time in the history of mining.” Indeed, during 1938 San Juan County produced metals valued at $2,437,952, a sixteen percent increase over the previous year. 

In November of that year, Congress passed the Wage-Hour Law, requiring that overtime wages be paid to a worker once he exceeds forty-four hours of work in a week. Since miners worked as many as sixty hours a week, the new law would cost mine owners dearly. Chase, like many managers, found a way around the new law. He paid the required overtime, but not until he had reduced hourly wages for all of his employees. The miners continued to work sixty hours a week with paychecks that remained about the same as before the law was passed. 

The union was not impressed. The following spring, local union leaders passed a resolution that read, in part: “Those opposed to our Democratic form of government are the ones who live in hopes of forcing upon the American People the Fascist and Nazi forms of government which are un-American as they are opposed to unions, freedom of speech, press, and assembly.” Immediately following the posting of this decree, the union went to the National Labor Relations Board and accused Chase of unfair labor practices, setting the foundations for a strike. Negotiations dragged on for months before finally collapsing in July 1939, when the union voted 175-48 in favor of striking.

Chase argued that the mine was unable to afford to pay the overtime required by the Wage-Hours Law and he appealed to the union and the community to work together in the spirit of cooperation that had carried them through the crisis of 1932. The union responded by agreeing to compromise on its overtime demands but not on seniority and closed-shop demands. With community support still behind the union, no agreement was reached. 

In the meantime, following standard strike practice, A. S. Embree, a representative of the CIO, was called in by the union to help organize the strike and keep it running smoothly. Embree, a veteran of many union actions throughout the West’s mining country and protégée of labor hero William “Big Bill” Haywood, arrived in high spirits. Silverton was well known as a pro-union town, and the Local #26 had been a stalwart of the community for decades. The newspaper had come out in favor of the strike, as had many town businesses. Victory seemed assured. 

Even then, however, inklings of discontent sat beneath the surface. Gerald Swanson, who was a child during the strike, and whose ancestors, like Todeschi’s, immigrated from the Trentino region of Italy, remembers other kids calling him “Swanson scab” because his father, a butcher, opposed the strike. A handful of other merchants also questioned the wisdom of battling against the only big mine left, as did some of the Shenandoah-Dives’ foremen and shift bosses. The company also had the sympathy of the businesspeople of Durango, a town known for its anti-labor attitude. 

By the middle of August, when the union voted to continue the strike, the relatively friendly relations between the company and the union began to bitter. Chase unleashed a vicious campaign to turn public opinion against the union. “The present situation started,” said Chase in an August 22 speech, “when an avowed communist came into the mining camp and preached class hatred and other principles of communism.”

The company printed out anti-union propaganda leaflets and circulated them throughout the town. A few days later, the San Juan County Board of Commissioners cast doubt on the legality of the strike, and asked in a resolution whether “workers are being illegally restrained from working?” Public opinion was changing rapidly. Idleness and resentment bubbled into tension. And on the evening of August 28, just six weeks after the strike began, the conflict reached an ugly climax.

It was a warm evening, at least for Silverton, the kind where you linger out on the porch in shirtsleeves with a cold beer in your hand, watching the last light illuminate Kendall Mountain, and think about all the trouble you could get into if you were just a little younger. A big crowd gathered inside the Miners Union Hall, a brick building on Silverton’s main drag that would later become the Miner’s Tavern, for a regular meeting and update on the strike. The tension was palpable. The miners hadn’t worked in six weeks. They were antsy, anxious, pent up. 

Rumors had been spreading that a group of insurgents—with the company’s backing—would try to build support for a vote that night to end the strike. Unable to stay away, Chase, wearing his trademark round spectacles, fedora, and light-colored suit, drove around town slowly, passing the Union Hall on occasion to see if the plan was reaching fruition. The meeting remained fairly calm, however; the insurgency either got cold feet or couldn’t muster the votes they needed. Yet outside the Hall, a crowd had begun to gather. Frank “Corky” Scheer, a compact but pugnacious miner, ardently anti-union, was there, as was mine foreman William Hughes, and other Shenandoah-Dives middle management.

At about eight p.m., as dusk took hold, the meeting ended and the union men came streaming out, eager to escape the stifling heat that two hundred people packed into a room in August can generate, and to get home or to the bar to blow off some steam. But like a river backing up behind an ice dam, the crowd slowed and eddied up as it encountered the growing pack outside. Faces scrunched and flushed with anger. A shout. Spittle. A fist thrown. “Several of the union members were attacked by the mob,” a witness testified in a National Labor Relations Board hearing months later. “Frank Scheer initiated the hostilities by kicking Embree … eight to ten others then closed in on Embree. When John Hancock tried to come to Embree’s assistance, he in turn was set upon. Scheer caught Hancock as he was running toward the union hall and threw him in the gutter. Meanwhile, Bert Ady was beaten by Claude Deering. Aaron Harper was also beaten.” 

After the union leaders had been roughed up, the sheriff and chief of police, clearly in the pocket of the company, ambled into the fray and escorted Embree and others out of town, “… for their own safety.” The Ouray newspaper reported gleefully that when they were brought through Ouray, the men’s clothes were torn, they were bruised, and their faces showed the “nail marks of irate miners’ wives.” 

What was left of the crowd then convened their own meeting, dissolved the local union, and created a new one, the San Juan Federation of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers—a sham organization—with Scheer at the helm. It would later be revealed that Scheer had been hired by the company to break the strike, and that he had planned the union coup weeks in advance, even going so far as using Shenandoah-Dives money to get cards printed for the bogus Federation in blatant disregard of labor laws. In the coming days, the new “union” ended the strike and signed a contract with Shenandoah-Dives. 

Those who remained loyal to the Local #26 were threatened, harassed, and discriminated against. “The town was split in two,” recalled Todeschi when I interviewed him in 1996 (he died in 2011). “Either you were for or you were against the company union.” Todeschi and his stepfather refused to join the strike-breakers, making life difficult for years to come. 

Clyde Cerniway was a teenager in 1939. His father, Frank, was a Shenandoah-Dives employee and union member who went on strike, and like Todeschi refused to join the new, sham union. In a 1996 interview, Cerniway remembered the day, shortly after the strike was busted, that a car full of men pulled up to his Snowden Street house. “Three of the men in the car had artillery,” said Cerniway, “and two were law enforcement people.” The men ordered the family to leave town. While his family defied the order, many others caved in to the threats and left, never to return. 

“The strike was broken by a mob of Company officials and business men of town,” reads a 1941 letter from the Silverton Ladies Auxiliary to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. “Several CIO members and their families were driven from town and lives were threatened. We have very little relief as the whole town and county setup are against us. All CIO members are blacklisted throughout the state and many other states.” 

The demise of the Local #26 was far less bloody than the labor-related clashes that had broken out in Trinidad and Telluride a few decades earlier. Yet it was no less significant. Chase and his hired goons had managed to channel the anger and resentment of a few working-class men and turn it with chilling effect against their own allies. It was made to look like a populist revolt against elitist, socialist outsiders. In fact, it was suppression of the people by the moneyed elite—the Kansas City Shenandoah-Dives Syndicate—who were unwilling to give up a little bit of profit to make workers’ lives a bit more bearable. Think Silverton, 1902 (when the Chinese were run out of town); Germany, 1932; or the United States, 2016. 

The union that had watched the local workingman’s back, and served as an unwavering pillar of the community since the 1880s, had itself been stabbed in the back on that August night. Organized labor in Silverton was dead. But it was more than that. This was a piece of something far larger, a tectonic global tilt toward modernity, sparked by world war, by scientists on a New Mexico mesa, by a flash of blinding light and tens of thousands dead in an instant halfway across the world. It would crash into the American West after the war, a giant wave of people, machines, prosperity, and destruction, leaving no ranch, no forest, no town untouched.

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La Plata Miner, February 21, 1885.