Clear Creek’s gold mines had a dark past

By Phyllis Adams
Posted 9/7/09

After the early gold mining frenzy died down and the silver boom faded, mining continued at a steady but comparatively calm pace in Clear Creek County. Over 13,000 mining claims had been recorded …

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Clear Creek’s gold mines had a dark past


After the early gold mining frenzy died down and the silver boom faded, mining continued at a steady but comparatively calm pace in Clear Creek County.

Over 13,000 mining claims had been recorded between 1859 and 1861. By 1902, there remained just over 300 working, productive mines in the area. The 1900 census recorded 7,082 residents in Clear Creek County, down from 7,823 just 20 years earlier. Nevertheless, Clear Creek County witnessed some extraordinary events.

The agreement settling the 1894 strike in the Cripple Creek District provided an eight-hour day for miners.  The Western Federation of Miners argued that the eight-hour day should become state law for mine and mill workers.  The Colorado Supreme Court found that such a law would be unconstitutional.

When a similar law was passed in Utah, and it withstood a U.S. Supreme Court challenge, Colorado legislators friendly to the miners federation adopted the precise language from the Utah law and introduced it into the Legislature. Ignoring the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Colorado Supreme Court again asserted that the law was unconstitutional. It would take an amendment to the Colorado Constitution to satisfy the Colorado high court.  

So, the federation sought an amendment to the Colorado Constitution. By now, the issue had been contentious for nearly a decade. The Colorado State Legislature passed the amendment, and it was submitted to voters. On Nov. 4, 1902, Colorado voters passed the amendment 72,980 to 26,266, an approval rate of greater than 72 percent.

The new law, with the force of a state constitutional amendment, had to go back to the state legislature in the 1903 session for final implementation. Under pressure from mining companies, the Colorado government ignored the results of the referendum and allowed the amendment to die.  Gov. Peabody, elected with pro-business support, had the opportunity to rescue the amendment but opted not to do so. When the federation’s drive for the eight-hour day, supported by a majority vote of Colorado citizens, was thwarted, anger and frustration provoked walkouts by several locals, including the one in Idaho Springs.  

Idaho Springs miners went on strike in May 1903. Part of a larger series of events known as the Colorado Labor Wars, news of the Idaho Springs strike was even reported in the New York Times.

While strikebreakers worked Idaho Springs mines, an explosion destroyed the powerhouse at the Sun and Moon mine, killing one miner. Authorities concluded that the union was responsible. The Citizens’ Protective League stepped in and, for all practical purposes, displaced local authorities.

On the night of July 29, 1903, nearly 500 citizens, including the majority of the town’s businessmen, convened at the call of the league to plan a course of action. City officials openly participated in the proceedings. Prominent residents like Lafayette Hanchett, president of First National Bank, whipped up the emotions of the crowd with inflammatory speeches that condemned the federation, blamed its local officials for the powerhouse episode, and demanded that the men arrested and jailed for the crime be driven out of town. Moderates who counseled against mob action and urged that the guilt of the prisoners be determined by due process were ignored.

Twenty-three union members were forced to leave town. The league then ordered the arrest and interrogation of other suspects and held them incommunicado. They also watched incoming trains to ensure that the removed miners didn’t try to return and warned union sympathizers to leave town. Colorado’s Gov. Peabody chose to ignore this illegal exercise of power.

District Judge Frank W. Owens recognized the illegality of the expulsions and issued an injunction against the league to prevent interference with the return of the union miners. When eight federation members returned to Idaho Springs, they were arrested and tried for the powerhouse explosion but were acquitted. Owens then issued bench warrants for 129 of the Citizens’ Protective League vigilantes who were charged with “rioting and making threats and assaults.” But the district attorney who had cooperated with the league would not prosecute the warrants.

As mines went deeper, more and more ground water stalled progress. To allow drainage from the mines between Idaho Springs and Central City, and to provide more efficient transport of ore, the Argo Tunnel was started in 1893 and completed in 1910.  The tunnel is 4.16 miles long with a .3 downhill grade to the portal at the mill.

The Argo Mill, built and operated by the Argo Reduction and Ore Purchasing Co., was one of the largest and most modern 300-ton mills in the nation and was able to recover a higher percentage of values than older mills in the area.  The mill recovered over $100 million of gold in its 50 years of operation.

The 1920s and 30s were dark decades for gold mining due to low prices and a post-war Depression. Since 1837, the price of gold had been fixed at $20.67 per ounce. “$20 gold” had little glitter left due to the high costs of labor, materials and services. One bright spot was the government’s decision to rebuild Highway 40 from Denver to Loveland over Berthoud Pass, providing a welcome boost to the local economy.

Although they didn’t know it, as the country began to pull out of the Great Depression, Colorado miners would soon hear the death knell for gold mining. No one thought there would be another world war and, certainly, no one dreamed it would have such a dramatic impact in Clear Creek County.



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