The mining industry of Colorado is not restricted to the production of silver and gold. The State also produces immense quantities of coal. The coal is Bituminous, and the entire output is practically controlled by three great corporations. The Northern Coal & Coke Company owns the big mines in Northern Colorado, while the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company and Victor Fuel Company virtually control this industry in the Southern part of the State.
At the time of our story, the relations between miners and operators in the Northern coal fields were quite friendly, and the conditions tolerably good. It was otherwise with the conditions which prevailed in the Southern fields, particularly in those camps owned by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company.
The miners working for this company were compelled to labor twelve hours a shift, for wages which really averaged above two dollars a day. They received their pay once a month in what is known as "SCRIP," or paper good for its face value in exchange for merchandise only at the company's stores. This system practically prevented the miners from ever accumulating any cash, and placed them at the mercy of the company. These conditions were naturally obnoxious to the employees of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. One cannot blame the miners for hating a system that compelled them to toil twelve hours a day at the dangerous, unhealthy occupation of coal mining, and then to receive their meagre wages, not in United States money, but in merchandise at the company's stores, at prices which often left them in debt to the company.
The officials of the company, better than anyone else, knew that a system of this kind must be heartily detested by the men, and that if a union organizer should appear among the miners, the latter would lend a willing ear to his program. As the establishment of a union would result in shorter hours and the abolition of the scrip system, the company took steps to stifle in embryo any attempts at organizing.
In the first place, the company hired deputy sheriffs, ostensibly for the purpose of patrolling and protecting their property, but in reality to watch every stranger entering the camps, and to order him out of town if found to be a union organizer.
This precaution prevented organization openly among the coal miners. However, a deputy sheriff could not prevent an "agitator" from getting work in some mine, then secretly talking to and organizing the men into a union. The company thought of this possibility, and applied the only remedy; namely, the placing of Pinkerton operatives in some of their camps as practical coal miners, in which capacity they were in an excellent position to discover the presence of a secret organizer, and to report the names of all disaffected.
The company had one operative in Fremont County, and another in Las Animas County. The former was J. Frank Strong, No. 28, and the latter Robert M. Smith, No. 38. Both operatives did the same work, yet neither was acquainted with the other.
No. 28, in addition to his regular work among the miners, kept special watch on John L. Gehr, a member of the National Executive Board of the United Mine Workers of America; while No. 38 maintained intimate relations with William Howells, President, and John Simpson, Secretary, of District No. 15, comprising the Colorado division of the United Mine Workers. Thus, through the medium of operatives Strong and Smith, the coal miners' union could not make a single move that would not be promptly reported to the company.
It once happened that National Executive Board Member Gehr made a trip to Las Animas County in order to strengthen the union in that section. Operative Strong was very anxious to thwart Mr. Gehr's plans, so he accompanied him to Trinidad, on the plea that he wanted to help in the good work.
When Operative Smith heard that Gehr was coming to Trinidad to direct an organizing campaign, he at once left Aguilar, where he was working in the mines, and hurried post haste to Trinidad in order to meet Gehr whom he knew well, and on some plausible excuse he hoped to wheedle out of the latter what his plans were.
When Operative Smith met Mr. Gehr at Trinidad, the latter was very glad to see him, and introduced Operative Strong to him as his best friend. The two spies, who had never met before, addressed each other as Brother and cordially shook hands, neither suspecting the identity of the other. Their emotions might have been ungovernable had they realized the fraternal bond of scoundrelism that connected them. The reader can imagine how successful a campaign of organization could be, when Pinkerton operatives had the running of it. The incident, from the workers' point of view, is tragic rather than farcical.
The following report of No. 38 is a good description of how he and No. 28 were introduced to one another by John L. Gehr:
OPERATIVE NO. 38 REPORTS:
Trinidad, Colo., Wednesday, February 25th, 1903.
After having breakfast, Curtis and I started out to hunt John Gehr at the Trinidad Hotel where he stays. We learned that he had not gotten up yet this morning. We then sat around the bar-room a while, when, as he had not shown up yet, we went up to his room, and found him awake but still in bed. He, however, invited us in and was both surprised and glad to see us. Then, after exchanging greetings, he got up and dressed, and invited us to accompany him to another room where, he said, he wanted to introduce us to a friend. He introduced us to a Mr. J. Frank Strong, who comes from Fremont County, and from Gehr's home local, and was a candidate for District Secretary against Simpson last Fall. Gehr introduced Strong as his best friend. We talked until Strong was dressed, when we went down into the bar-room where we had drinks, after which Gehr and Strong went to breakfast.
Curtis and I went up to the county jail to see Jim Ritchie, promising to meet Gehr and Strong again on our return from the jail. After visiting Ritchie, we returned down-town, and at the Horse Shoe Club we met Gehr, Strong, Frank Hefferle and several other men from he would kill him. Hefferle had him arrested and the trial It appears, that a fellow who is cooking at the boarding house at Majestic, got a valentine recently that did not suit him, and he blamed Hefferle for sending it, and told Hefferle that if he did not get out of camp immediately, he would kill him. Hefferle had him arested and the trial was to take place to-day, and they had sought Gehr's counsel. He was trying to settle it out of court, which, I believe, he finally did with the assistance of Curtis. At the first opportunity I began to sound Gehr with regard to these two organizers mentioned in a letter to me; but if they are here, he would not let anything out to indicate that he knew anything about it. I did not, however, ask him outright if they were here, but if they are here he could gain nothing by not telling me so, as I will surely find them out.
Generally, Gehr is as open as a book on such matters with me, which leads me to believe that if these organizers have been ordered here, they have not yet arrived, or at least have not made their presence known to Gehr. However, he did tell me that he had been informed that James Kennedy had got a commission, and was going to assume his duties on the first of March. I can now see that there is going to be a clash of authority when Howells returns here, as he and Gehr have exactly opposite views on the system of organization. Gehr is bitterly opposed to the Group System, and Howells thinks it is the only way to organize District No. 15. Gehr said, that when he came down here he had not intended to remain here, but had simply intended to see how things were going, and then return north and go into Wyoming, but he had found the Trinidad Local in such a dilapidated condition that he had decided to remain here and try to put it on its feet again. He then went on to criticize old Bill Howells for letting the local go to pieces after he (Gehr) had laid the foundation for the best local in the district. I then asked him if the national officers had promised anything for District No. IS while he was back there in attendance at the convention. He said they had not promised him very much, but he felt that whenever we could convince John Mitchell that we had restored harmony in Districtt No. IS, and were all working together, we could safely expect something from the National.
We then all went to dinner and I saw no more of Gehr until after supper, and then the talk was almost entirely on Jim Ritchie's case, and the one between Hefferle and the other fellow. At 10.30 P. M. I left Gehr and went to my room and retired for the night.