Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. All of the selections were nominated for 2019 Colorado Book Awards. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
Jonathan Thompson is the author of the book “River of Lost Souls,” which chronicles the Animas River surrounding the 2015 Gold King Mine spill.
The disaster, caused by the Environmental Protection Agency, put a spotlight on abandoned mines in the West, which leak vast amounts of polluted water into streams every day.
The following is an excerpt from Thompson’s book.
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Creative Nonfiction
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.
The once-glorious Gold King Mine had gone dark nearly two decades earlier, and the massive Sunnyside Mine was sputtering in and out of production. That left just the Shenandoah-Dives, where Todeschi had gone to work 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. The good times, however, wouldn’t last. Nor would the union.
In the absence of any federal agencies looking out for workers, organized labor rose up from the industrializing, nineteenth century West to handle the task. After all someone had to do it, since mining, particularly in the high San Juan Mountains, was hazardous, often thankless, work.
Miners froze to death, were poisoned, and got caught in the crushers in the mills to gruesome effect. In 1899, the Gold King Mine was among the most profitable, and perilous, in the region, with a litany of casualties caused by cave-ins, electrocution, runaway logs, falling rocks. An errant flywheel belt shredded one man’s face and knocked out another’s teeth. One miner was blown up while drilling into dynamite that hadn’t been detonated, while another had the skin scalded from both arms while working on the mill’s boiler. Miners were swept into oblivion by avalanches, large and small, while going 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 lost their lives to snow slides in the county, including a dozen miners in a single boarding house. For most, however, death came far more slowly by way of silicosis, caused by years upon years of inhaling rock dust day after day. Meanwhile, the companies tended to treat the miners as if they were disposable, tossing them into hazard for just five dollars per day, or less.
So miners teamed up underground, and like soldiers on a battlefield each was ready to risk his life to save his buddy. Aboveground, they organized. At first, the labor actions were impromptu, informal affairs, such as when 75 masked and armed men descended on the Mountain Queen to compel the workers to go on strike after the owners had cut their pay from $3 to $2.50 — per day.
Then, in 1893, the loose-knit groups coalesced into the Silverton Miners Union Local #26, a division of the Western Federation of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. 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 local and hosted community-wide parties and Labor Day celebrations. 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. “Silverton is a strong union camp,” wrote Dave Day in a 1907 edition of the Durango Democrat after a gang of miners had run a cook out of town for refusing to join the union, “and it looks like an unhealthy place for non-unionists to visit.”
The strength of Silverton’s unions helped the community avoid the major, sometimes violent strikes that rocked other towns such as Telluride or Trinidad. But in 1938 Congress passed the Wage-Hour Law, requiring that overtime wages be paid to a worker once he exceeds 44 hours of work in a week, setting the stage for conflict between labor and the only big mine still running, the Shenandoah-Dives.
The mine had come to be in 1925, when a dapper man named Charles Chase combed the Silverton Caldera for a prospect for Kansas City investors. Chase, the son of a mining engineer, was educated as a metallurgist. But by then he was better known for his skills as someone who could meld geology, engineering, and business to turn a profit from mountains of rock, as he had done in Telluride as general manager of the Liberty Bell Mine up until it closed in 1921. Chase saw potential in Arrastra Gulch just outside of Silverton, and he and his investors bought and consolidated a handful of mines, including the Shenandoah, the Dives, and others. The new Shenandoah-Dives complex was soon cranking away, sending as much as one hundred tons of ore per day to the Mayflower Mill. Chase managed to keep the mine running during the Depression, and in 1936 — reacting to a state supreme court ruling that ordered mining companies to stop dumping waste into streams — he became one of the first managers in the region to build rudimentary containment systems for mill tailings.
The innovative Chase also found a way around the Wage-Hours 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 foundation for a strike.
Chase argued that the mine was unable to afford to pay the required overtime and he appealed to the union and the community to work together. Negotiations dragged on for months before finally collapsing in July 1939, when the union voted 175-48 in favor of striking.
Following standard strike practice, A. S. Embree, a representative of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, was called in by the union to help organize the strike. Embree, a veteran of many union actions throughout the West’s mining country and protégée of labor hero William “Big Bill” Haywood, arrived with high spirits. The newspaper and much of the traditionally pro-union community had come out in favor of the strike. 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.
By the middle of August, when the union voted to continue the strike, the thus-far ambivalent relations between the company and the union began to fray. 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 circulated anti-union leaflets throughout town, and the San Juan County Board of Commissioners implied in a resolution that miners were being illegally restrained from working. Public opinion shifted. 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. 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.” Other union members were 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—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 union 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 and harassed. “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.”
Clyde Cerniway was a teenager in 1939. His father, Frank, was a Shenandoah-Dives employee and union member, 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 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 not as bloody as the labor-related clashes that had broken out elsewhere in Colorado. 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.