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by Murray Dobbin on Tuesday Jun 18 2013
by Miranda Holmes on Monday Jun 17 2013
by Katrine Conroy on Sunday Jun 16 2013
by Michael Jessen on Thursday Jun 13 2013
by Arlen MacLaine on Thursday Jun 13 2013
Tales and Legends of the Mountain Kingdom: A brief history of the Miners' Hall
Today, the Miners' Hall stands sentinel at the western entrance to downtown Rossland, a relic of an age long gone. It’s one of our few remaining structures from that time, having missed out on significant fires that gutted the downtown core in the 1920s. That a wooden building like this has survived so well is a testament to the tenacity of those who built it: the men of the local miners' union, otherwise known as WFM Local 38.
Local 38 of the Western Federation of Miners started out in Rossland in 1895, when mining was taking off here. With a rapidly rising population (many residents were miners or in positions supporting miners, like muckers, blacksmiths, hoistmen, and timbermen) Mountain Kingdom miners felt it necessary to unionize.
Many had worked at mining camps before and had come to Rossland with a certain expectations for wages and working conditions. Also, with a unionized workforce, the mine owners would be forced into conforming with the mining industry’s common practice. In the summer of 1895, a man named Ed Boyce, who was the president of the WFM, came to town to check out the scene, and that, combined with the previous experiences of the workforce, prompted the creation of Local 38, Canada’s first local of the American-based union, which represented miners from Alaska all the way down to Mexico.
They needed a place to gather, and since the union encouraged participation in the community, the Miners' Union Hall was built. Construction started in 1897, and the entire building was wood-framed and at the time was located at the far corner of Ross Thompson’s original land pre-emption that later became the townsite of Rossland. One description of it says, “its steeply gabled, one-storey dark chocolate on almond facade is barely ornamented—honest workmanship reflecting the modest expectations of the builders.” While the facade of the hall makes it look pretty small when viewing it from the front, anyone who’s been in the building knows differently: seen from the back, it's six stories high.
When I was in Carmen Davis’s fourth grade class at Cook Avenue School, we all hiked up for a tour of the hall because (I seem to recall) it was undergoing renovations, or had just recently been renovated. This would have been around 1984. We even got to up to the top floor. I have only vague memories of this, but I do remember the lady who gave us the tour saying that somewhere in the hall, there were secrets. That piqued my interest! But alas, the secrets were never revealed to us. To this day, I wonder what she was talking about.
After the hall’s inauguration in 1898, it was used for much more than just union gatherings. It hosted countless dances, there was a memorial service held there when Queen Victoria died, and many of Rossland’s other working people who were unionized--there were seven other unions representing various other trades in town at the time—would also gather there to listen to their union leaders.
Rossland was a full-on union town. Jeremy Mouat notes in his book Roaring Days, that even the newspaper boys who worked for the Rossland Miner had organized to some degree, and that nine months before the completion of the Miners' Hall, the lads had had three strikes already--and won each time!
The hall was undoubtedly the hub of much action during the miners strike of 1901. In 1899, the provincial government legislated in eight hour workdays for hard rock miners. Mine owners were ticked, and wanted the pay miners proportionately less for a day’s work. Before the new law, miners in Rossland had made $3.50 for a 10-hour day. Miners wanted to be paid the same for the shorter work day, but the owners weren’t having it.
Things came to a head in Sandon in June 1899 when the silver miners there went on strike, the mine shut down, and the first labour dispute in the Kootenays began. The issue was clear: the miners wanted their pay of $3.50 per day to stay the same despite working fewer hours per day, and the mine owners wanted to slash pay to $3 for the new eight-hour day. The mine owners brought in foreign scabs, which did not go over well and things got nasty. Eventually, the issue of foreign scabs was the reason why the strike failed for the union. They decided to go back to work for the compromise of $3.25 a day in February 1900.
In Rossland, two of the largest producing mines, the LeRoi and the War Eagle-Center Star complex, had been bought out at very high prices in 1897 and 1898. The timing was bad because on world markets the price of precious metals was falling. When the eight-hour law came into effect, the Rossland owners were very resentful and they decided to impose a contract system on the miners: they would pay a certain rate for a certain amount of mined ore.
This did not go over well. The union imposed a ban on such contracts on August 1, 1899, and months of bickering ensued that slowed down production. Finally, on February 6, 1900, the owners locked the miners out, saying the mines would be undergoing repairs. In reality, what the owners were trying to do was break the union. This dispute ended a week later when Commissioner Clute, appointed by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to investigate the Sandon strike, came to Rossland to help settle things. The union grudgingly accepted a deal that had one redeeming quality, and that was a clause that stated union members could not be barred from employment at the mines and that the employer would not punish a non-union worker for joining the union.
But the relationship between miners and their employers continued to degenerate, exacerbated by declining ore values. Things came to a head once more in spring of 1901, when the LeRoi smelter in Northport went on strike because the owner would not accept union members working there. They brought in scabs. The Rossland union responded to this by having their own strike vote, since they realized that the Northport smelter was where the money was actually made from Rossland’s mines.
The Local 38 executive said, “As the paying end of the property is in Northport, the miners of Rossland believed it would put management further in the hole to work the mines with the smelter shut down, as every dollar paid out with no returns would lower the paying capacity of the property...However this could not continue long, as as the matter finally came up, it was moved that a strike take place at Rossland.”
Rossland miners went on strike on July 11. There were three main issues at steak: raising muckers’ wages to $3 per day, ending discrimination against union members, and sympathy with the striking workers in Northport.
The strike was long and nasty, and at one point during it, Prime Minister Laurier dispatched William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Deputy Minister of Labour, to Rossland to gather information about the situation and try to conciliate. Initially sympathetic to the union’s cause, his visit changed his mind after meeting with both union members and the mine owners, and he left after 10 days firmly on the side of the owners.
The strike wound up being a complete disaster for the union. The owners brought in strike breakers accompanied by a small army of armed guards, and by the end of the year, the union’s funds had run dry. By December, strike pay had run out. Thoroughly defeated, the union workers were back to work by the end of January 1902.
The strike was disastrous in more ways than one. The mine owners sued Local 38, who were on the outs with the WFM executive in Denver because of the strike. There was a trial, which found in favour of the owners, and the union was fined. It eventually went into receivership, and one of its biggest assets, the Miners' Hall, was handed over to the mine owners. And that was pretty much the end of the miners' union in Rossland.
The mines retained ownership of the Miners' Hall until 1952. It now belongs to the City of Rossland and is back to being used for many of the things it was originally used for: dances, concerts, and other community gatherings. Every summer, the Gold Fever Follies has its home there, and once a month during the rest of the year, people from all over the area flock there for the Joe Hill Coffee House. The Rossland Council for Arts and Culture uses the hall as a venue for some of its events. It’s rented out for wedding receptions and private family events. It’s still very much the centre of Rossland’s social and cultural scene.
But I can’t help but still wonder, years after that tour when I was in grade four, what secrets does that building hold?