[Editor’s Note: Thomas Andrews, a very dear friend, has agreed to handle This Day in History today (so that I can sleep in). Thomas’s first book, which still has no title, is an environmental history of labor conflict in the Colorado coalfields, culminating in the Ludlow Massacre. You can look for that from Harvard University Press next fall. Or, if you want to read more of his stuff before then, you can check out this article. I should probably also note that Thomas has won like eight national prizes for his scholarship. But that would just make me green with envy embarrass him.]

February 7, 1894 – The Cripple Creek miner’s strike, led by the Western Federation of Miners, begins in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

The winter of 1893-94 descended amidst widespread misery in the Rocky Mountain West. Silver prices had plummeted the previous year because of the repeal of the Sherman Act, leaving thousands of miners out of work. The crisis deepened as smelters closed, banks failed, and speculative real estate bubbles—a recurring feature of western economic booms—busted. Unemployment in Colorado soared above 25%. Public relief was minimal to non-existent, leaving the jobless hordes little choice but to seek refuge from the economic storm in the public parks and gathering places of Denver and Pueblo.

One of the sole bright spots in a state experiencing the deepest depression in its short history was Cripple Creek, the largest town in a sprawling, bustling mining district whose urbanity belied its youth. Just a few years earlier, the townsite’s residents were almost entirely of the bovine persuasion. Then the chance discovery of gold in 1891 by Bob Womack, a ranch hand and prospector, was followed in quick succession by a series of rich strikes by carpenter and building contractor Winfield Scott Stratton and others.

Miners flooded in from the gold and silver camps of the West and far beyond, joined by barbers and railroad workers, masons and prostitutes, laundresses and gamblers and musicians. Capital migrated to Cripple Creek still more readily. Colorado Springs, a resort town at the foot of Pike’s Peak that had long prided itself as “Little London,” became the favored haunt of the small cadre of men who bought up the claims of Womack and other prospectors. Among Cripple Creek’s first generation of sourdoughs, in fact, only a handful—-Winfield Scott Stratton, James Burns, James Doyle, and John Harnan–held on to develop their claims. Stratton gained particular repute for his philanthropy and insistence on plain living. In time, he alone managed to span the growing divide between workers and capitalists in the district; little surprise, then, that his death in 1902 would play a direct role in hurtling the district toward its second major strike in a decade.

Mine owners had good reason not to live where they made their fortunes. Cripple Creek was high in elevation and more than a little rough around the edges. And for all the romance associated with gold, the business of mining was hardly pretty. Beneath the district’s dirty, smoking surface coursed many miles of dank and dangerous tunnels and galleries. The men who worked in these subterranean spaces were a varied lot, but they shared a desire to survive each day’s work and a belief in their entitlement to a fair share of the immense wealth (over $3 million was taken from the district’s 175 mines in 1894) extracted from the earth’s depths by the miners’ toil.

Cripple Creek’s miners also joined other American workers in supporting the eight-hour day. So when the owners of the Isabella Mine tried to establish a ten-hour day in August, 1893, hundreds of miners rushed to join the Western Federation of Miners, a union founded that year at a convention of gold and silver miners from Colorado and other western states held in Butte, Montana. The Isabella’s employees refused to work, and the mine’s owner soon relented.

In the months after this initial success, WFM organizers mounted a campaign to secure a uniform daily wage of $3 for eight hours’ labor in all the mines of the Cripple Creek District. The owners responded to union strikes at individual mines by announcing their intention to implement a ten-hour day throughout the district starting February 1, 1894. A few more moves and countermoves brought about a combination strike and lock-out on the 7th. Yet of the district’s twelve to thirteen hundred miners, only a quarter labored at affected mines. Assessments on the union miners who continued to work in properties complying with the WFM’s demands insured deep coffers for prosecuting the strike, while the sympathetic administration of Governor Davis “Bloody Bridles” Waite, an Aspen Populist, made it unlikely that the state would interfere on the owners’ behalf.

The county sheriff, in contrast, was eager to do the capitalists’ bidding. As the strike dragged on into May, he deputized more than 1,200 men. Pitched battles followed in which WFM members tried to defend their stronghold on Bull Hill while blocking the advance of deputies on Victor, the district’s second largest town. After two men were killed in fighting and several hostages were taken by the two sides, Governor Waite arrived to arbitrate the dispute; about this same time, tracklayers made their first appearance in the district, completing the first of several low-cost railroad routes by which owners could transport Cripple Creek’s rich ores to processing plants and markets on the plains below. This gave capitalists an undeniable incentive to settle; an agreement signed in Colorado Springs conceded all of the union’s demands.

There followed a decade of general prosperity as Cripple Creek became at once a union stronghold and a “white man’s camp.” There as in Butte, Denver, and Salt Lake City, an assortment of craft unions, most of them virulently nativist, reinforced (and occasionally challenged) the WFM’s power; “union control of the basic industry,” as historian Elizabeth Jameson writes, “provided the basis to organize the rest of the District’s work force.”

But capital was organizing, too. Stratton’s death finally helped the District’s internally-divided ruling elite to unite, while the end of the Mountain West’s greatest depression and the decline of Populism ushered in a new era of conservative rule in Colorado. By 1903, when the WFM called an ill-advised sympathy strike in which Cripple Creek miners walked off the job in support of smelter workers in Colorado City, the mine owners were poised to undo everything unionists had achieved. In a long, bitter dispute that lasted through the summer of 1904, a coalition of mine owners, state militiamen ordered to Cripple Creek by Republican governor James Peabody, and conservative vigilante groups who called themselves “citizens’ alliances” employed armed force, deportations, and other forms of subterfuge to crush the WFM. As union rule in Cripple Creek drew to a close, other mining regions were drawn into the struggle, laying the groundwork for the deadliest strike in American history, the Colorado coalfield war of 1913-’14, in which upwards of eighty men, women, and children died.

Never again would labor organizations wield as much power as they had in the 1890s and the early decades of the twentieth century. Never again would they enjoy the strong support of the state’s executive. And though Colorado workers continued to square off against their employers and state authorities, these scattered acts of militancy succeeded only in prompting ever more complete forms of retaliation and repression.