Montana Mosaic 1: When Copper Was King

Montana Mosaic 1: When Copper Was King

[Music] I believe Helena is our capital because I know that it was voted as the capital and it was actually in competition with Anaconda which is kind of ironic because Anaconda is far from a capital city nowadays. Helena is our capital because at one time they won an election. … centrally located kind of … There’s a lot of governmental myths there. I want to say the “Copper Kings” in Butte didn’t want it in Anaconda ’cause the Anaconda Company had a lot of control there so what they tried to do is they, with a lot of backdoor deals and stuff, they tried to push and it ended up the capital becoming Helena. I’ve heard that Helena is our capital because there were these two big copper barons Clark and Marcus Daly and essentially they were both fighting for control over the state’s politics and I guess Clark just won when it came down to punches being thrown. [Music] [Music] Capital fights in western states are pretty notorious and there’s always a good story that goes with the capital fight and Montana is no exception [Music] Montana became a state in 1889 as a direct result of the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in ’83. Montanans were eminently ready for statehood. If you look at the Montana newspapers during the 1880’s there talking statehood all the time and when the state constitution was written at that time, they decided to postpone the decision on where the capital would be. They figured it was too controversial an issue; it might sink the Constitution or Montana’s ability to become a state. So in 1892 they had a statewide vote. Several, almost every community in the state wanted to become the state capital if that was possible. No one community received a majority of
votes in 1892 so that led to a runoff in 1894 and the two finalists for the position were Helena and Anaconda. Montana in the 1890’s had greater ethnic and racial diversity than it does today. It had sizable African American communities in Helena and Butte. In fact those communities were large enough that both Butte and Helena had African American newspapers. There was a substantial Chinese presence in Montana. Going back to 1870, the Chinese represented anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the territory’s population. Because of the rise of copper, you had a very large number of Irish who would come into Montana. Virtually every country in Europe was represented in the Montana census of 1890-1900. That’s before the homesteading boom so there’s not a lot of population in eastern Montana. Western Montana is the focus for just about everything. You can tell that by looking at the maps. When you look at the maps from the 1890’s the smaller counties are in central and western Montana and the great big counties are in eastern Montana and nobody’s in them. This drops right into the middle of the Clark and Daly feud. Marcus Daly of course was the power behind the company called Anaconda, and the town called Anaconda was a classic company town. He was very anxious to have the state capital in his town. Daly’s nemesis in the war of the “Copper Kings” was William Clark and because Daly was promoting Anaconda, Clark decided that he would support Helena. Clark has Helena interests, but he also backs Helena because he wants to oppose Daly. The other strength for the Helena push is from Samuel T. Hauser. It’s a battle that’s fought on a number of fronts. The whole newspaper industry becomes involved. It was pretty biased stuff. If you picked up the Anaconda Standard you’d get Daly’s take on something, but you knew that, then, you could always balance it by picking up the Butte Miner because you get Clark’s take on it that way. There are a lot of Labor newspapers. During that capital fight there were four black newspapers funded by Clark and Daly to sell one side or the other to the black community. Historians estimate that Daly, perhaps, spent as much as $2.5 million trying to support his cause in Anaconda. Clark spent, perhaps, as much as $400,000 of his own personal money to fight the Anaconda choice. It generated some great journalism and some wonderful pamphlets that were distributed all around the state. Some tremendous satire was written during the capital campaign. The five-dollar bill became the election ticket. Five-dollar bills were handed out – big money at the time – at a rally, at a picnic, where the speakers were. Both sides had speakers bureaus that sent people around the state to hold rallies and speak for one side or the other. The same is true in in terms of buying saloons. The money from Clark and Daly would go in and a guy drop a hundred dollars and say buy everybody drinks on Helena. So that happened a lot. They gather you at a rally or a picnic where they provided the food and passed out five-dollar bills and the speaker’s fed you their propaganda about why Helena is clearly the better choice. Then down the road would come the Daly people two days later and they’d want to talk to the Bozeman Capital Club and so you do the same thing for them. The Butte Standard not only complained that Helena, perhaps, had too large a population of African Americans and Chinese immigrants but they also complained that Helena was a bit too proud of its social and economic advancements. The little campaign features was a copper collar – a small copper collar pin – and the idea was if you vote for Anaconda, you know you’re becoming one of Day’s henchmen. Their argument against Helena is old money, snooty people, and Helena’s take on Anaconda is a young pup. Do you want to be owned by Daly? The day of the vote finally came. People voted statewide. Helena won by less than 2,000 votes. There were a lot of people in Anaconda, including Marcus Daly, who felt that there were shenanigans in the vote; that there was some ballot stuffing that might have taken place, and truth there was probably some of that on both sides. But ultimately the political figures within the state concluded that the election was fair enough so that Helena won that particular fight. It’s a victory for Helena, but it was also a victory for William Clark. What comes of that is Anaconda losing because it’s a company town. There was a growing concern in other communities in the state that if the capital were put in Anaconda, it would allow the Anaconda Copper Mining Company to really control the political levers within the state. [Music] Today it’s difficult to imagine Montana’s capital being anywhere but Helena, or that the nation’s capital be anywhere but Washington DC. And yet if we study the history of the nation as a whole, if we study the history of individual states in some detail, what we discover is the location of the capital often suggested significant rifts within the community over political issues. So, in fact, it wasn’t natural that Helena become a capital. Helena was chosen, in large part, because of these fears that were beginning to develop over the economic and political clout that the Anaconda Company was able to exercise. I think kids out there should know why we’re not in the Anaconda today. When you drove over to the Historical Society, Why didn’t you drive to Anaconda? Well it’s because of all the stuff that happened in ’94. [Music] The fight between Marcus Daly and William Clark over the location of the Montana State Capitol illustrates the kind of political power that money could buy at the end of the 19th century. The national and even international demand for copper made men like Daly and Clark fabulously wealthy and a political force to be reckoned in state politics. The successful search for copper not only produced world-class fortunes for a handful of individuals, it also led to dramatic confrontations between powerful corporations such as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the thousands of skilled and unskilled blue-collar workers carrying out the demanding and often dangerous jobs inherent in the underground mines and smelters. These tensions were intensified when miners trying to secure better pay and safer working conditions attempted to organize themselves into recognized labor unions. One of the most famous of these confrontations was the Great Butte Miner Strike of 1917. In uptown Butte today, one can still see evidence that this was once one of the great industrial centers of the West. The workers here were some of the staunchest Union men and women in America, but the emerging corporations of the 20th Century we’re not willing to cede power to organize labor. And with World War I, the federal government itself turned its might against the unions as unpatriotic. All these forces converged in the Great Butte Miner Strike of 1917. What happened here had a profound effect on the national labor movement as America became a modern industrial power. The 1917 strike in Butte was one of the most important strikes in American history. This is a strike against the largest producer of copper in the world at a time when copper has been identified as a basic material of war, and at a time when United States is at war. Butte’s labor crisis of 1917 has its roots in 1914 with the destruction of the old Butte Miners Union. The BMU, as it was known, was the largest union local in the world. Miners formed the union in 1878 to fight for the “Butte Wage” of $3.50 a day. At the time, it was the highest wage in industrial America. Labor and management felt they had much in common in those days. The union’s Irish leadership saw Irish businessman Marcus Daly, the immigrant who built the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, more as kinsmen then as boss. And most of Daly’s staff had come from a working Irish background. By 1912, things had changed. Daly was dead, and John D. Ryan had come from Standard Oil to take over as director of Anaconda Copper. Ryan was a professional manager with none of Daly’s populists instincts. The old union leadership had not adjusted to these new times. Then in 1914 the BMU’s older Irish leaders refused to strike in support of 500 Finnish miners fired by the Anaconda Company as socialists. On miners Union day June 13, 1914, the Union rift turned into a riot. An angry crowd attacked BMU leaders during the parade, and a mob swarmed the Union Hall stealing and dynamiting the safe. The Conservatives called a meeting on June 23rd to try to salvage the old BMU. A mob soon gathered outside. Someone started shooting and a bystander was killed. Some of the crowd rushed to the nearby West Stewart Mine and returned with dynamite. Through the night uptown Butte shook with more than 20 blasts at the old Miners Union Hall. The building and the Union were in ruins. By September, Butte’s socialist government was gone. Troops had been used for the first time in Montana in reaction to labor unrest, and every mining company in the city led by the Anaconda Copper Company had declared an end to union representation on the hill. An uneasy peace settled on Butte for three years. On June 8, 1917 disaster brought matters to a crisis. Just over 400 men were on the night shift at the North Butte Mine. A shift boss inspecting the damaged cable accidentally ignited it’s exposed insulation with his carbide lamp. Fire and poison spread throughout the Speculator and Granite Mountain Mines. 168 miners died that night; the world’s worst disaster in hard rock mining history. Many bodies were charred beyond recognition. Some victims had worn their fingers to the knuckles trying to claw through bulkheads. By law, those bulkheads should have had escape hatches. In fact, they were solid concrete. Four days later, the newly formed Metal Mine Workers Union reported more than 1,000 members at a mass meeting at Butte’s Columbia Gardens. The Union drew up seven demands: 1.) Recognition of the Metal Mine Workers Union by all of Butte’s mining companies. 2.) Abolition of the rustling card, a right-to-work card the company could withhold at will. 3.) A minimum wage of six dollars a day. 4.) Monthly safety inspections 5.) Escape plans in all the mines 6.) A grievance system 7.) Manholes in all mine bulkheads. The mining companies answered quickly: “Absolutely not. We’re not going to negotiate with you. “You’re a bunch of ‘Wobblies.’ “We’re not going to talk to you. Get back to work. End of story. That’s the company’s position.” Butte workers were outraged. On June 14th the Metal Mineworkers sent out the strike call. By month’s end as many as 15,000 miners, electricians, and metal tradesmen were idle in Butte. The mighty Anaconda Copper Company was paralyzed. The new union won the support of not only labor radicals and the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, but of steady Butte men who had families and long connections to the community. The Anaconda Company owned most of the state’s newspapers which denounced the strikers as Bolsheviks, Anarchists, and Wobblies, and suggested the strike was funded by German agents out to scuttle the American war effort. To counter the company newspapers, the Union circulated the Strike Bulletin edited by William Dunne, a union electrical worker. Dunne editorialized that the miners wanted only their rights as free men, self-respect, a fair wage, and a safe workplace. The attitude, I don’t believe, changed significantly from the first union that organized in Butte in 1878, the Butte Workingmen’s Union. And they’re organizing, their rallying cry was simply that a man is worth more than a mule. The mules cost the company. The men didn’t. But in 1917 the Metal Mine Workers faced not just the mining companies, but the federal government which had something much bigger than a local riot to use as ammunition against the miners. America entered into World War I in April 1917, and isolationism was replaced by patriotism fueled by the government’s propaganda effort. In Montana, the Anaconda Company’s position was now enhanced by its patriotic mission as a producer of a strategic metal. But there was little enthusiasm for war among Butte’s miners and US entry into World War I became an ethnic issue. The idea of fighting alongside the English was unthinkable to many of Butte’s Irish. On July 13th electricians accepted a modest pay raise from the Anaconda controlled Montana Power Company and return to work even as Anaconda Vice President Cornelius “Con” Kelly repeated the company’s position that it would NEVER meet with the Metal Mine Workers Union. The striking miners were completely isolated. This was a strike against copper during war, and the tendency to ignore the legitimate strike demands of Butte miners was proved irresistible. Nobody paying attention to the demands of working people. This was an act of sedition, an act of treason. The company came out of the six month shutdown stronger than before. The federal government did set the wartime price of copper at twenty-four cents a pound. Anaconda Company shareholders earned a record $23 dividend on company stocks in 1917, and the biggest labor action in Butte history was crushed. Finally, thanks to fear of revolutionary unrest in Butte, the legislature was ready to pass new laws to make it easier to prosecute radicals. In February 1918, the state legislature passed the Montana Sedition Act making it illegal to utter, print, write or publish any attack or criticism of the United States government, Constitution, military, flag, or uniform. So the unions were effectively crushed by the power of the state, and the power of the state giving validation to that idea that free men organizing into free labor unions and collectively bargaining were, in fact, treasonous. But in Butte it is the men and women of that time, not the rhetoric, people remember. For the older generation in Butte, to have been a miner and a union man, carries nothing but honor. [Music]


  1. My students thoroughly enjoyed this fantastic and informative historical video! Please, please continue your hard work in educating the children of Montana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.