Monday, February 7, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of the Jackson Miners Union (Post 1)

By David Roddy
The barbarous gold barons--they did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them!”
William “Big Bill” Haywood, organizer for the Western Federation of Miners, Industrial Workers of the World, and Socialist Party of America.
Introduction: Rebellion Beneath the Wild West
The songs of the mines permeated Jackson, a steady percussion of turning gears and cranking levers while whistling boilers and gushing water provided the accompanying chorus. The melody had no end, continuing throughout the day and night as men toiled beneath the earth. It claimed ownership of the community, and must have reminded a group of men who skipped work one warm May morning of the constant presence of the mines.
A different time: the Kennedy Mine & Mill, Jackson, Ca.
A group of seventy or so gathered on Main Street, preparing to parade. They shouted slogans in English, Italian, and Austrian while waving a forty-five starred American flag. Strange as all this sounds, perhaps the most peculiar detail was what the miners flew alongside Old Glory. For this is May Day 1906, and what flourished above the parading workers and their wives that morning was the red flag of the socialists. 

Cover of sheet music to "Rebel Girl" depicting a similar scene.

It was eleven years before the formation of the Soviet Union, and the scarlet banner did not have the current connotations of Lenin’s brutal autocracy and the regimes that modeled themselves after his dictatorship. What the miners demanded was not the massive bureaucracy of Marxist orthodoxy, but rather that—instead of harsh administrators interested in getting the most labor for the least capital—the miners themselves democratically run the mines that dominated their lives. They believed that the municipal government, which reflected the needs of the community more than distant stockowners, should own the mines, railroads, and essential services. They demanded foremost the right to form a union and work an eight-hour day.

The rush for gold in the California foothills during the late 1840s brought a large population of migrants hoping to stake out a share in the riches. The ballooning population had increasing trouble extracting gold from the topsoil, and within a decade, most small mine owners could no longer sustain a living on the remaining gold. The mineral ran deep into the beds of quartz beneath the hills, a reservoir of wealth inaccessible to small-scale miners panning, sluicing, and hydraulicking for gold.

The retrieval of this gold required intensive capital investment to dig the shafts, build the timber head frames, and buy the labor needed to mine it. Historian Thomas Heaney, in a 1993 master’s thesis on the transformation of Sutter Creek during this period writes: “The miners who formed partnerships to extract and mill the gold quartz had been replaced by the wealthy quartz operator, his superintendents, boss miners, and dozens of hard rock miners and mill workers.” Within a decade after the discovery of gold, the canyon between those who owned the mines and those who worked the mines cracked and stretched across Californian society.

Most of the men who settled the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1849 searching for a lucky break moved away from mining, and mine owners hired thousands of immigrant laborers willing to work for a low wage. Ownership of the mines shifted from wealthy local miners to corporate shareholders in San Francisco, who in turn hired superintendents to run the distant mines for the most profit.

The assurance of the most profit possible demanded that mine owners cut the costs of labor and safety precautions. Mining was dangerous work, and all four elements conspired against the miners: the danger of earth collapsing tunnels extending thousands of feet beneath the surface, water pumped continuously to prevent flooding, the timber supports offering themselves as fodder for stray flames, and the hot subterranean air liable to filling with poisonous gases and quartz dust.

An August 1907 report by the radical newspaper The Calaveras News illustrates the dramatic character of mining disasters when describing an accidental explosion in a Tuolumne County gold mine:

This 1900 photo of miners in Grass Valley's
Empire Mine, gives an idea of labor conditions.
  “Last Thursday morning at 4:30 o'clock, a round of eight holes was fired in the Patterson mine at Tuttletown by the night shift. Seven of the blasts went off, one failing. One of the miners, John Uardella, went to the place of work to see why the eighth hole failed, and inserting an iron spoon into the hole caused the blast to go off. He was torn to pieces.”

Between 1850 and 1910, the working conditions of mines, railroads, and factories killed American laborers by the hundreds of thousands. Jesse Mason, in his 1881 History of Amador County, reported the accidental death of sixty miners during the twenty years after the 1852 founding of Old Eureka Mine Sutter Creek alone.

Industry cannot operate without labor, and this gave workers a powerful advantage against their employers when trying to raise working conditions: the strike.


"Declaration of Principles of The Social Democracy of America." The Social Democrat [Terre Haute, IN], (July 1, 1897)“

“Socialist Parade.” The Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca], (May 4, 1906)

“Mining Accident.” The Calaveras News [Angels Camp], (August, 1907)

Haywood, William. Autobiography of ‘Big Bill’ Haywood. International Publishers, 1929.

Heaney, Thomas. “From Frontier Mining Camp to Company Mill Town: Sutter Creek, 1851-1881.” MA Thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 1993.

Mason, Jesse. History of Amador County, California, with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers. Oakland, Ca, Thomson & West, 1881.


  1. Interesting read, looks like the seeds of labor strikes and unions for the Mother Lode area.

  2. learning alot about this stuff in our US history class