The Leadville strike of 1880 was the first major labor conflict in the central Colorado silver boomtown, shutting down most of the area’s mining district from May 26 to mid-June as miners pressed owners and managers for higher wages, an eight-hour workday, and more control over their working conditions. Owners and managers successfully resisted workers’ demands until a local citizens’ committee convinced Governor Frederick Pitkin to send in military support to get the mines reopened. The unsuccessful strike helped mark Leadville’s shift from boomtown to stable city as miners accepted existing power relations after their failure. The city went more than fifteen years before its next major labor conflict.
End of the Boom
Leadville’s silver boom started after the town’s first smelter, the Harrison Reduction Works, was built in 1877. Tens of thousands of miners, speculators, merchants, and others flocked to the town, turning it quickly into the state’s second largest city. A few people found their fortunes in mines such as the Little Pittsburg, Chrysolite, Little Chief, and Matchless, while many others found that a day’s labor in those mines paid anywhere from $2 for surface work up to $3.50 for underground mining. As it grew, Leadville still had many of the characteristics of a rough mining camp, with murders, lynchings, disease, and more brothels than restaurants, but it also retained its buoyant boomtown atmosphere while the mines poured forth what seemed like an endless stream of silver.
That boom ended in 1880. One sign that the boom was over came in the consolidation of local mines under a small group of companies controlled by an even smaller handful of friendly owners. By 1880 only eleven companies were responsible for more than 80 percent of Leadville’s silver production. Around that time, it also became apparent that the dreams launched by Leadville may have outpaced the reality of what was available in the hills. In February there were whispers that the famous Little Pittsburg mine, the source of Horace Tabor’s fortune, was exhausted; soon the stock price declined, and dividend payments stopped. Similar fates awaited the Chrysolite and the Little Chief, which had been mismanaged and underdeveloped such that production had to stop until new ore bodies could be opened. These mines were not played out—they still had plenty of silver in them—but their public stumbles led to the collapse of many Leadville mining stocks as confidence in the region plummeted.
Strike of 1880
Some historians believe the Leadville miners’ strike of 1880, which started in May, might have been intentionally provoked by the Chrysolite Company as a way of hiding the company’s other problems. Whether true or not, the claim reflects the fact that changes at the struggling Chrysolite provided the immediate source of miners’ grievances. First, the company attempted to take $1 per month from employees to fund a kind of compulsory medical insurance before backing off the plan in the face of opposition. Next, the company banned talking and smoking during working hours, presumably in the name of safety. Finally, the company replaced several underground foremen, claiming that the foremen had been allowing miners to slack off. This action was the last straw. On the morning of Wednesday, May 26, night shift workers at the Chrysolite prevented their day shift replacements from going into the mine. Leadville’s first strike had begun.
It remains unclear whether the strike was spontaneous or planned. More than a year earlier, in January 1879, Leadville miners had banded together in the Miners’ Cooperative Union, which joined the Knights of Labor as Local No. 1005. There is no evidence that the union planned the strike ahead of time, but local president Michael Mooney did lead the strikers as they marched from the Chrysolite to the Little Chief, which shared the same management. At the Little Chief, strikers presented manager George Daly with their demands: a raise to $4 for an eight-hour workday. Daly said he would have to consult the mining company’s owners back east. The strikers promptly fanned out across the mining district spreading word of their labor stoppage and gaining followers. By the end of the day, more than 2,000 miners had walked off the job, bringing mining activity (and most other business activity) in Leadville to a halt.
Collective bargaining between the striking miners and the mine managers and owners began on the second day of the strike. After a morning parade through town, the miners agreed on their official demands: $4 per day, an eight-hour day, the right to choose their own shift bosses, and formal recognition of their organization, which they now named the Miners, Mechanics and Laborers’ Protective Union. The managers rejected those demands that afternoon and appealed to the county to help guard the mines even though the strikers had remained peaceful. Further negotiations over the next few days led nowhere.
As mine owners and managers maintained their resolve during the second week of the strike, it became increasingly difficult for Mooney and other local labor leaders to sustain the strict discipline that had characterized the strike’s early days. Provocations started piling up: first, the Lake County commissioners declared that citizens could potentially be called on to serve as mine guards; then, Daly and fellow manager W. S. Keyes reopened the Chrysolite, Little Chief, and Iron Silver mines, offering room and board to anyone willing to work; finally, on June 1, a deputy sheriff shot at a group of strikers, injuring three. Rumors spread of drunk strikers marauding through town and harassing anyone trying to work at a mine.
As the strike went on, tensions mounted. Anonymous letters threatened violence to property and people. Meanwhile, the rest of the community grew increasingly frustrated, feeling as if they were living through a siege. Finally, on June 8, Mayor John Humphreys implored both sides to make one final effort to compromise. In the bargaining that followed, both sides did move slightly from their opening positions, but wage increases remained a sticking point.
With negotiations stalled again, local businessmen and other residents suffering from the city’s stalled economy decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed a citizens’ committee and on Friday June 11, declared that they would organize an armed militia to protect any miners willing to go back to work on the old wage scale. They also sent a request to Governor Frederick Pitkin to send arms and ammunition. This activity got the union’s attention. The next day saw marches and countermarches by the strikers and the citizens’ committee, with each side leading hundreds of men through the streets of Leadville. Local law enforcement declined to intervene (perhaps because it was wildly outnumbered), prompting the citizens’ committee to complain to Governor Pitkin that the sheriff had sided with the strikers and could no longer be trusted “to protect life and property.”
After a brief moment of hesitation, Pitkin yielded to the property owners and declared martial law in Leadville on Sunday June 13. Major General David Cook arrived the next day and organized sixteen companies of volunteers. With the state firmly on the side of mine owners and managers, the strike’s final act came quickly. Most mines resumed work on June 15. At a mass meeting on June 17 featuring mine managers, labor leaders, citizens, and the military, the union consented to return to the prestrike status quo. In addition, although it was not formally part of the agreement, influential mine managers Daly and Keyes agreed to implement an eight-hour day at their mines and to try to convince others to do the same. After the miners went back to work, their union soon dissolved, with many of its leaders leaving town voluntarily or by force.
The Leadville strike of 1880 hurt many businesses in town, several folding as a result of nearly three weeks of little economic activity. The mines themselves did not suffer much; despite the stoppage, annual production in 1880 improved on the previous year.
The strike can be seen as just one more in the series of events that helped Leadville shift from a boomtown to a stable city. Coming on the heels of consolidation and the stock crash, the strike raised the important question of who would control Leadville’s mining economy. The answer came loud and clear: mine owners and managers, with the backing of the state if necessary. Mine workers accepted their failure, perhaps in part because the arrival of the first railroad to Leadville in July led to a surge in productivity and profits, which mostly benefited owners but also buoyed the city as a whole. The combination of that prosperity and the consolidation of power among mine owners and managers meant that Leadville would not see another major labor disturbance until the Western Federation of Miners’ strike in 1896–97.