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Industrializing the Rockies: Growth, Competition, and Turmoil in the Coalfields of Colorado and Wyoming, 1868-1914

Author(s):Wolff, David A.
Reviewer(s):Ronning, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

David A. Wolff, Industrializing the Rockies: Growth, Competition, and Turmoil in the Coalfields of Colorado and Wyoming, 1868-1914. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2003. xiv + 270 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-87081-747-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Ronning, Department of History, Albright College.

Scores of historians have considered the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre and the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, two of the most notorious outbreaks of labor violence in the history of coal mining in the American West. Typically, however, scholars have treated these incidents as substantively different; in Rock Springs organized Anglo-American miners went on a rampage and attacked Chinese replacement workers, while at Ludlow a combination of National Guardsmen and hired mine guards both in service to powerful corporate interests attacked a multiethnic camp of striking miners as part of a coordinated effort to eliminate the influence of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from the region. David Wolf bookends his study with these two events, however, arguing that a straight line can be drawn from Rock Springs to Ludlow that provides both geographical and chronological definition to a discrete era in the history of American industrialization. He suggests that, as different as they may seem, these two episodes of labor violence suggest historical continuities that resulted from regional labor patterns generated during the industrialization of the Mountain West. In connecting these two events, Wolff offers an ambitiously comprehensive study of coal mining in the Rocky Mountain region through the early twentieth century.

Wolff’s thesis is relatively modest — he contends that a true understanding of the industrial and labor history of the Mountain West and its uneven and violent history of class conflict must take into account the intentions of capital, the evolving requirements of labor, and the changes in the business environment (p. x). “The way [these] three variables came together,” Wolff concludes, “determined labor relations” (pp. 245-246). In a rather fine distinction, Wolff further argues that three additional factors determined the historical course of the contest between capital and labor: “depression, corporate action, and workers’ responses” (p. 39). In his analysis, labor violence was the predictable outcome of companies’ search for profit and their defense of market share and the miners’ attempts to defend their positions or maximize rewards during periods of economic contraction or expansion.

Wolff has organized his narrative chronologically, devoting a chapter each to the rises and falls of the business cycle beginning in the 1870s and extending to 1914, an approach that he argues more effectively sheds light on the West’s recurrent labor struggles by revealing common underlying patterns associated with the rise and fall of the economy. The author claims that the general pattern of labor conflict established itself in the first decades of the industry’s history when Anglo-American miners who had been steeped in a “work tradition” and “mine culture” that emphasized skill and autonomy were able to exercise significant influence over the terms of labor (pp. 18-19). While skilled miners were necessary to develop the industry, owners resented the leverage that this rather skilled, homogenous, and cohesive workforce exercised upon their bottom lines. From the 1870s to the early twentieth century, then, the battle between miners and mine owners turned upon the issue of control over the workplace. Depression in 1873 offered mine owners the opportunity to undermine the strength of their laborers, and in a cycle that would repeat itself for the next several decades mine owners attempted take advantage of the slack economy to break down and undermine the shared work culture of the miners. The owners tried various means and measures ranging from what Wolff calls “diversification and replacement” policies — importing nonwhite or immigrant workers to replace organized miners and importing unskilled workers of different races or ethnicities — to the creation of company towns and the implementation of corporate welfare programs (pp. 22-23). In each case Wolff argues that the miners adapted, and in especially hotly contested strikes they conceived of worker solidarity in ever broader terms in order to defuse the tactics of managers and owners.

In demonstrating these historical processes Wolff has chosen to cover a large expanse of the West including parts of Montana, southern Wyoming, Colorado, and parts of New Mexico, while focusing on three sub-regions — Southern Wyoming, the Denver Basin, and the central and southern Colorado coal fields. In turn, each of these smaller regions furnishes Wolff with examples of the different results that emerged from the interaction between the needs and goals of mine owners and miners. Where markets were competitive, as in the Denver Basin for instance, the author argues that companies were eager to come to terms with miners lest they lose valuable market share. Where coal production represented an ancillary or support industry for a larger investment, as in the case of railroads, workers benefited from management’s emphasis on expediency over profit. In cases where coal was the primary concern of management and competition had been limited by merger and monopoly, however, conditions favored capital and violent confrontation between miners and managers often resulted.

Given the broad scope of his subject — over forty years of industrial history that involved a dizzying number of unions, councils, alliances, and associations, labor and capital took part in literally scores of strikes and lockouts — the human element involved in the history is often submerged by the tangled course of events. While his early suggestions of “mine cultures” and “work traditions” suggest the richness of E.P. Thompson’s investigations into working class moral economies or Herbert Gutman’s multilayered studies of working class culture, the task of ordering the many strikes and walkouts that occurred over a vast region into a single coherent narrative flattens out the experiences of workers. Casting the racial and ethnic segmentation of their work forces as “diversification” policies, moreover, seems to force complex and dynamic relationships into a rather generic mold. Nevertheless, David Wolff has performed an invaluable service for any student or scholar of coalmining in the American West by bringing the many labor conflicts of the region and era into one continuous and meticulously detailed chronological narrative.

Gerald Ronning is an assistant professor of history at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania specializing in working class and cultural history. He is currently revising his dissertation, “‘I Belong in This World’: Native Americanisms and the Western Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917” (2002), for publication.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII