The Legacy of the Bunker Hill Mine

Drilling and loading holes and the storage of explosives was another source of injuries and death. Even common sense was not all that common in the bosses pursuit of fast profit. At one mine the dynamite was stored in the blacksmith shop of all places, and was detonated by a spark touching off the blasting caps, blowing the place up and killing the workers inside. The most common accidents from drilling and loading holes came from:

1. Sparks igniting the charge before the blaster was ready.

2. Premature explosions due to misjudging how fast a fuse burned. One of the causes for this was that fuses were not made in a standardized manner.

3. Overloading a hole. Remember that the miner was forced to work quickly and for very long hours and by making the mistake of overloading a hole would bring the ceiling down upon him.

4. Misfired holes, the blaster would set 12 charges at a time and if there were not 12 that detonated that meant misfired holes. Some times the charge dud not misfire but had a slow burning fuse (again lack of uniform quality) and when the blaster would check on it the tardy charge would go off. Reloading a hot hole was also very dangerous. Sometimes in haste a loaded hole would be missed and in the dark the pick or shovel of a miner would hit the missing loaded hole and set it off.

5. The drilling of the holes often would send bits of rock or steel snapping back striking the miner, often putting out eyes.

Cages that were used to lower the miners down the shaft, buckets, mine cars, giraffes and electric trains were another source of injuries and deaths. Like all things in a mine the equipment was the cheapest that the boss could get away with, additional safety equipment was not used, the equipment that they did have was not maintained as it should have been, equipment was pushed passed its limits, and the great speed that the workers were forced to work caused mistakes. Because of these things many a miner were injured or died.

Gas was another common source of danger. As the blasters would blast out new holes, from time to time they would hit pockets of gas. If the gas did not explode causing a far larger explosion than the blaster counted on, it would fill up that part of the mine killing all workers in that area.

Silicosis, or as the miners called it, "the con", is a lung disease, like Asbestosis, Black and Brown Lung disease. It comes from Silica that is the world's most abundant mineral. In mining operations, such as blasting and drilling, great clouds of dust are created and within that dust is Silica. In the old days the bosses made no effort to keep the dust down. Once a miner got "dusted" as they called catching "the con", the miner did not last long. It starts out with a shortness of breath and slowly the miner suffocates to death. There is no real treatment for silicosis, other than to stop working in the mines at the first symptoms. But since most miners were trapped in their line of work, they would keep on working until they could not carry on any longer. Then most of them would slowly die along and penniless. In later years, as the result of a bitter struggle for safety, water hoses were connected to the jack-legs (drilling machines) that would cut down on the dust. Though this did prolong the lives of the miners, it did not eliminate "the con" all together.

Rock bursts [are] a source of many deaths and injuries of miners. Rock bursts are caused when the ground is blasted loose in one area of the mine, causing stresses to build up in the surrounding rock. When the rock can no longer withstand the stress it bursts out in a shower of rock and dust. Sometimes the burst is so great that the whole mine shakes like an earthquake. There have been some big rock bursts that were so great that they showed up on regional earthquake monitoring equipment. Rock bursts can spilt or even cause to crumble of even the best timbering supports. Miners can be buried or hit by flying rock. Those not in the direct area will be hit by an air blast, which they, unaffectionately call "a visit from Mr. Air Blast."

No miners ever doubted the inhuman greed of the mine owners. They knew that if they were injured, sick or killed, some other poor soul would take their place.

These early miners' unions had a lot of community support, not only because the miners made up a lot of these communities, but also because the mine owners callously endangered these communities for the sake of profits. The best example of this was in Butte where the city passed an ordinance prohibiting the open roasting of copper ore. This process had covered the town with noxious sulfurous fumes. In December of 1891 the Boston and Montana Company disregarded this ordinance and began roasting its ore in the open. Within 48 hours there were 15 deaths and many within the community were sick and confined to their beds.

The first miners' union was organize in the Silver Valley in 1887, but little about this union is known for its members and activities were all secret. Organizing at Bunker Hill was hard, and anyone thought to be sympathetic to unions, or raised their voice about anything was fired. It was not until the winter of 1887-88 that the union was able to lead its first strike at Bunker Hill. On New Year's Day of 1891 a central union organization for the Coeur d'Alene District was set up called the Central Executive Committee of the Miners' Union of the Coeur d'Alenes. Throughout 1891 and 1892 Miners' union halls were built in every mining town in the district.

The miners at Bunker Hill struck for a second time over the bosses' trickery in an election over health care. The company had agreed to hold the election, but when the miners looked at the ballot they found it only had the company supported options on it and left off the union supported Miners' Hospital. The strike not only won the Miners' Hospital, it also raised miners' pay to that of other union mines in the district.

Later that year the mine owners and the railroad began to fight with each other because the railroad had raised their shipping rates. That winter the Mine Owners' Association shut down most of the mines to try to force a reduction of the rates. A settlement was reached in March, but before the owners would let the miners go back to work they had to agree to a reduction in wages. Thus, the first district wide lock-out/strike came to be.

The owners brought in scabs to work the mines, leading to furious battles between union miners on one side and scabs, deputy sheriffs, gun thugs and the despised Pinkertons on the other side. The owners went to the state court and got an injunction against the union, and the governor ordered the miners to "disperse all unlawful assemblages and to cease interference with the mine owners." Miners fought back any way they could, for this battle was not over just wages and the ideas of unionism -- if the union was broken the effect of that would be counted in dead and crippled miners. Gun battles were fought, mills were dynamited, people died on both sides of this class war.

The mine owners tried to bring in scabs from Missouri and Michigan by train, but armed union miners met the train load of scabs and forced them to turn back. On July 11, armed union miners confronted scabs and gun thugs at the heavily barricaded Frisco mine. After a firefight the union miners loaded an ore car full of dynamite and sent it down the incline toward the mine, but it blew up short of its goal. Then they tried again and blew up the four-story wooden structure in front of the mine. After that the scabs and gun thugs surrendered under a white flag. After that firefights broke out at other mines and a short time later all the scabs were run out of the district.

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