The Mining Wars of Idaho

Updated on February 13, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Coeur d’Alene Mining District of northern Idaho was the scene of labour disruption in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The mine owners cut the wages of miners and increased their hours. Strikes followed and, eventually, the dispute cost the life of Governor Frank Steunenberg.

Governor Frank Steunenberg.
Governor Frank Steunenberg. | Source

1892 Miner’s Strike

Lead, silver, and gold were the minerals pried from the rock of northern Idaho. The work was dangerous and gruelling. The pay was reduced to between $3.00 and $3.50 a day after new machinery was introduced that down-skilled the workers. The workday was 10 hours and the work week was seven days.

Mine company lodging was expensive and company stores charged inflated prices. Medical service was of poor quality and each man was forced to pay a $1-a-month fee for it.

By 1892, the miners had had enough of the exploitation and they walked off the job. The companies hired replacement workers and used Pinkerton Agents to guard them, although it was against the state laws to bring armed guards into Idaho. But, lawlessness on the part of the mine owners didn’t matter; they had complete control of governments and could act with impunity.

In mid-July, fighting broke out between union and non-union men, a plant was dynamited, and several people were killed. Martial law was declared, the militia sent in, and 600 union members were arrested.

For the time being, a lid was clamped on the dissension.

Idaho miners.
Idaho miners. | Source

The Populist Party

In May 1891, a new political party was created in Cincinnati with the aim of improving life for farmers and labourers. The Populist Party caught on in Idaho by declaring its “hearty sympathy” for miners in their battles with mine owners.

A depression in 1893 made life even worse for the miners and, in the election the following year, Populist Party candidates won big. However, the Populists were unable to change legislation to help the miners in the face of opposition from the Republican Party.

In 1896, 35-year-old Frank Steunenberg ran for governor on a joint Democratic/Populist ticket; he won in a landslide with 77 percent of the popular vote.

Some of the mine owners had already agreed to pay union-scale wages but those of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine refused to even meet with union representatives. Governor Steunenberg was unable to persuade the company to be more reasonable.

An 1896 cartoon shows Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan swallowing the Democratic Party with Populist support.
An 1896 cartoon shows Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan swallowing the Democratic Party with Populist support. | Source

Idaho Strike of 1899

Low-grade violence continued for a couple of years until April 1899 when miners seized an ore train. They forced the engineer to take the train to Wardner, site of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine. On the way, they picked up 3,000 lbs of dynamite.

That must have been one heck of a boom as it totally destroyed what was, at the time, one of the world’s biggest mineral concentrators.

Historian William J. Gaboury notes that “A group of miners captured and harassed three Bunker Hill and Sullivan employees, fatally wounding one of them with rifle fire, and somehow managed to kill one of their own members. When the destruction was completed, the miners returned to the depot, clambered aboard the train, and fired their guns in a five-minute victory fusillade as the ‘dynamite express’ headed slowly back up the canyon.”

The wreckage of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine complex.
The wreckage of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine complex. | Source

No matter how sympathetic towards the miner’s cause he was the violence was too much for Governor Steunenberg. Once more martial law was declared and this time federal troops were deployed. The governor took a very stern view: “We have taken the monster by the throat and we are going to choke the life out of it. No halfway measures will be adopted. It is a plain case of the state or the union winning, and we do not propose that the state shall be defeated.”

These were actions that would cost the governor dearly later.

Ringleaders were rounded up and held in stockades and boxcars illegally. When those incarcerated asked to see the arrest warrants “the police would pull their revolver and declare, ‘This is my warrant’ ” (The Daily Kos). A local newspaper that supported the miners was closed down by order of the governor.

Effectively, the union movement in northern Idaho was choked out of existence.

The End for Governor Steunenberg

The union movement had been effective in supporting Steunenberg when he ran for governor in 1896. Facing re-election in 1900, he had become so unpopular he decided not to run.

In late December 1905, the former governor went out for a walk. When he returned home, he opened the gate and there was an explosion; two sticks of dynamite ended Frank Steunenberg’s life at the age of 43.

Pinkerton detective James McParland led the investigation and closed in on union member Harry Orchard who was found in possession of explosives. Orchard was offered a deal; confess and give us the names of those behind the plot and we’ll go easy on you. He handed police the name of William “Big Bill” Haywood, the General Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, along with others.

Harry Orchard.
Harry Orchard. | Source

The Trial of William Haywood

Only seven years into the nineteen-hundreds and Haywood’s court appearance was called “The Trial of the Century.” Haywood was defended by none other than Clarence Darrow. The great defence attorney questioned Orchard on the stand for more than a week, and carefully demolished his story. It became clear that the prosecution only had Orchard’s accusation against William Haywood with nothing to corroborate it.

The jury voted to acquit, and the same result was returned with a second union leader fingered by Orchard. Then, in a twist that must have surprised Harry Orchard, he was put on trial and his confession was used in evidence.

This time the prosecution got a guilty verdict and Orchard was sentenced to death. However, he caught a break and his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He languished behind bars until 1954 when he died at the age of 88. He never wavered from his accusation about William Haywood and other union leaders ordering the killing of Frank Steunenberg.

Idaho vultures wait to pick over the bones after the death of capitalism.
Idaho vultures wait to pick over the bones after the death of capitalism. | Source

Bonus Factoids

  • Harry Orchard was a pseudonym for Albert Edward Horsley. He claimed to have committed 17 murders related to union disputes.
  • Pinkerton detective James McParland had infiltrated a Pennsylvania coal miners’ organization known as the Molly Maguires in the 1870s. Through his actions he broke up the nascent union that was calling for better wages and safer working conditions.
  • In 1927, a memorial stone and statue to Frank Steunenberg was set up in Boise, the Idaho state capitol (below). An inscription on the stone reads “Frank Steunenberg, Governor of Idaho, 1897—1900. When in 1899 organized lawlessness challenged the power of Idaho, he upheld the dignity of the state, enforced its authority and restored LAW AND ORDER within its boundaries, for which he was assassinated in 1905. Rugged in body, resolute in mind, massive in the strength of his convictions, he was of the granite hewn. In grateful memory of his courageous devotion to public duty, the people of Idaho have erected this monument.”



  • “Coeur d’Alene Miners’ Dispute (1892-1899).”, undated.
  • “From Statehouse to Bull Pen.” William J. Gaboury, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, January 1967.
  • “Topics in Chronicling America―The Coeur d’Alene Mining Insurrection.” Library of Congress, undated.
  • “Hidden History: The Assassination of Gov. Frank Steunenberg.” Lenny Flank, Daily Kos, September 17, 2019.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


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