The Cripple Creek gold rush of the 1890s led to numerous struggles between capital and labor. The industrial nature of the Cripple Creek mining operations required many wage laborers, attracting unions that organized the industrial workers. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM), one of the more powerful and militant trade unions to arise in the nineteenth century, gained a stronghold.
In 1893 federal currency converted solely to the gold standard, a decision that put silver miners across the state out of work. Many unemployed miners sought work in the Cripple Creek gold camp. This surplus of labor led mine owners to seek concessions from the workers in 1894. The WFM organized workers against proposed changes and went on strike. Most mine owners refused to negotiate with the WFM and employed strikebreakers, protected by privately-subsidized deputies under the El Paso County Sheriff.
Armed conflict followed with near autonomous control of parts of the mining district by union labor; violence was prevalent on both sides. Opinion pieces fomented fear in Colorado Springs that radical miners would march on the city, and the Gazette issued a call to arms. The El Paso County Sheriff deputized a force of 1,300 mercenaries to march on the WFM camps.
The state militia had to intervene in the Cripple Creek district between deputies and miners. With the intervention of Governor Davis Waite, a Populist elected in 1892, and Adjutant General Thomas Tarsney, the WFM won recognition of their demands. Cripple Creek gained a reputation as a labor stronghold, which Colorado Springs mine owners did not take lightly. In retribution, Tarsney—the man in charge of the state militia—while staying overnight in Colorado Springs was abducted from the Alamo Hotel, taken nearby to the Otis house at Austin Bluffs and tarred and feathered. He was abandoned along the D&RG railroad tracks, where he made his way to Palmer Lake before the governor sent a train to rescue him.
Nobody was convicted of the affair and El Paso County solidified its reputation for anti-union, pro-business Republican politics. Relations were so bad between Colorado Springs mine owners and Cripple Creek laborers that Teller County split off from El Paso County in 1899. Labor relations again flared up in 1903, but this time Colorado Springs mine owners broke the WFM, illegally deported union workers, and left Cripple Creek firmly under their control.
Generously Submitted by Dr. John Harner, Professor of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs