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Vörå Man Martyred at Telluride

Karl G. Olin

At the incredibly beautiful graveyard in Telluride in the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Colorado there is a splendid monument. At the plinth one can read that the monument was raised for John Barthell, born in Kovjoki, Vörå, Finland and that he died at the Smuggler mine July 3, 1901. He was 27 years old when he died.

It relates to Johan Bertills from Vörå, whose tragic destiny has been the background for a chapter in the prize-winning novel "Colorado Avenue" by Lars Sund.

Johan Bertills, or John Barthell as he called himself in the new country, originally came from Kovik in Vörå. At that time Kovik went by the name of Kovjoki, and the rather odd birthplace designation which still is to be found on his monument at the Telluride cemetery derives from that fact. It is said that young Barthell, shortly after his arrival in Telluride, CO, climbed up on the highest mountain top and placed the US flag there. Few guessed the Kovik boy with the Star-Spangled Banner would go down in history as one of the American union movement's martyrs.

Piecework Wages Worsen the Workers' Conditions

The large mining companies arrived in the Rocky Mountains at the end of the 1800's concurrently with the fact that the most easily obtainable ore deposits had been emptied. It demanded capital and expertise to make the mountains give up their additional treasures. For those who lacked the two assets there was no other choice than to sell their manpower, a condition which was headed for conflicts, especially since the employers significantly enough could contend that timber was expensive but Italians could be gotten free. Just before the turn of the century and in order to circumvent the requirements of the eighthour workday, the owners of the Smuggler-Union mine went in for a new way of reckoning the workers' pay. They instituted an old English piecework system which fixed it so that there were few mine workers who could reach the normal daily wage of $3.00 despite the fact that many stayed down in the mine longer hours than the legal eight-hour work day. Many of the workers even began to build up debts to the mining company when their pay couldn't stretch as far as food, lodging, and purchases in the company store.

The workers protested, of course, but the mining company was unrelenting. Those who weren't satisfied could leave. The next step was a strike, which broke out in May of 1901 and closed the mine for six weeks. The employers answered by hiring non-union workers. But this piecework pay system wasn't applied to the strikebreakers; they got the $3.00 per day, which the striking workers desired. It was a clear sign that the owners were trying to drive out the militant mine workers' union, the Western Federation of Miners.

The strikers were furious, of course, and they tried everything to get the strikebreakers to stop work. On July 3, 1901, 250 of them moved to take extreme measures. Apparently, the union leadership was unaware of their activity. Early that morning the strikers marched to the Bullion Tunnel to persuade the strikebreakers to stop work. Outfitted with weapons and revolvers, they circled the mine entrance and took cover behind rocks, trees, machinery and buildings.

Strikebreakers Arrested

When it was time for the morning shift to begin, the strikers' army yelled to the strikebreakers that they had to stop work. If they obeyed the command, they could leave the mine unhurt. If they continued to work, on the other hand, there would be trouble. The strikebreakers refused to obey despite the threat. John Barthell, who was one of the leaders for the strikers' band, then did something which he had no authority to do and which seemed completely lacking in good sense. He climbed up onto a rock and announced that all the strikebreakers were under arrest. For their answer, one of the mine company's guards opened fire, and Barthell, who was hit in the neck, instantly sank down dead on the ground.

After that a heavy exchange of gunfire followed between the strikebreakers and the strikers. The greatest part of the latter sought cover in the mine shaft, while a smaller number managed to get away. Finally, the battle slowed toward evening, when the miners' union president, Vincent St. John, came out to the mine and achieved a cease-fire. St. John had himself been shot at by his own men on the road up to the mine - they didn't know who it was riding along the narrow path. Telluride's sheriff, who accompanied St. John, actually turned back when the bullets began to whine.

When the guns were silent, two strikebreakers had been killed and five had been wounded. On the strikers' side, one man had been wounded accidentally by one of their own men. St. John had promised the strikebreakers safe-conduct from the mine, but his promise was ignored by the strikers' troops. Several of the prisoners were beaten up badly. One was shot through both arms and another was knocked unconscious. The strikebreakers were forced to march over the 400-meter-high Imogene Pass. There they received strict orders to never show their faces again in Telluride, this despite the fact that many of them had home and family in the community.

During the intermezzo's duration, the sheriff in Telluride had telegraphed to the territorial governor, James D. Orrman, and requested that 500 men be sent in order to stop the strikers. The troops were already mobilized in Denver when they were reached by the message that the conflict was over.

Monument for the Martyr

John Barthell stood out as the heroic martyr after the shootout. When he was buried the weekend after the mortal shot, 600 mourners followed his coffin to the grave. The attendance was even greater at the unveiling of the memorial monument for Barthell on the first anniversary of his death. Despite pouring rain, about 1,000 people gathered then for the memorial festivity at Lone Tree Cemetery. On the monument raised over Barthell, they had inscribed the following verse by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivoure of life
Be not like dumb driven cattle -
Be a hero in the strife.

The verse was chosen for several reasons. The poet Longfellow had become known for his translations of several works of Scandinavian poetry and, in addition, had written The Song of Hiawatha, an epic which was strongly inspired by Indian sagas, as well as the Kalevala.

Shot Through the Window

After the shootout at Bullion, the employers backed off and signed an agreement with the unionized workers. According to the three-year contract, Smuggler-Union would only hire union workers and pay would be $3.00 per day without piecework. But it meant nothing that peace had returned to Telluride. The events of the summer of 1901 were followed that fall by a run of serious accidents which took several people's lives. It was quite clear that the mining company had not followed safety requirements, and the relationship between workers and the company's representatives grew extremely tense. In the fall of 1902, conflict broke loose again. At that time Smuggler-Union's director, Arthur Collins, advertised in the local press for non-union mineworkers. The result probably wasn't what he had expected. The following evening he was shot through the window of his home. The mining union's leader, Vincent St. John, and several others were accused of the murder, but no proof could be produced at all.

In the summer of 1903, a strike broke out in another mine in the district, and the workers at Smuggler-Union lay down their tools in sympathy. The workers even occupied the mine and sent a telegram to the territorial governor with the message that the union had taken over the mining company's property. The Mine Owners' Association, on their side, requested that troops should be sent in against the strikers, and this time 500 men were sent to Telluride. When the soldiers arrived by train, they were accompanied by a troop of strikebreakers who immediately were put into the mines. Even Finlanders and Swedes were included among these strikebreakers.

The Unionized Were Deported

All the organized workers who in any way dared set themselves up against the mining company were immediately deported from Telluride by the Army or the National Guard, which was established in the community. The heavy-handed reaction awoke general sympathy for the strikers. A Finlander, Henry Maki (Mäki), even appeared on an attention-getting propaganda poster. Maki had been seized by the Army and had been tied much like a dog to a telephone pole where he was photographed. The picture of this inhumanely-treated Finn along with the American flag and the question, "Is Colorado in America?" was printed up as a poster.

Smuggler-Union's new branch director, Bulkely Wells, was also a target for attempted murder. One night while he lay sleeping in his room a bomb exploded under his bed. Wells flew out through the window and landed in the yard surrounded by flying splinters. Miraculously enough, he lived through the somewhat violent awakening without any wounds of note.

Soon a union activist by the name of Adams was seized by the police on suspicion of the bombing. Adams was pretty close to being lynched by the public when Wells himself stepped in and insisted that Adams should be brought before the judge. In order to avoid any further heating up of the tempers in Telluride, the case was moved to another nearby community. There, they had no interest at all in mixing into the conflict in Telluride, and the bomber got to go free.

It was asserted that the most militant in the Miners' Union planned to get their revenge on the Telluride residents by rolling down dynamite charges into town or by poisoning their water reservoir with cyanide. That the militants were actually capable of deeds of this type was apparent from the fact that in a nearby community they had blown up an army barracks. The result of this deed was 13 dead and 26 wounded.

The mining union armed their members as well and began to train them in regular warfare. In Telluride they also discovered the body of a foreman who had disappeared during the strike. Examination of the body proved that he had been murdered. Gruesomely enough the murdered man's skull was exhibited in a shop window in Telluride.

That's the way it was during the tough old days in the mining towns of the Rocky Mountains.

Karl G. Olin is a journalist with the Jakobstads Tidning and an independent historical author. This article was published in the Jakobstads Tidning, Jakobstad, Finland, Nov. 6, 1993, and has been translated by Syrene Forsman.

Published by SFHS Newsletter 1995, Vol. 4, No.3

© K-G Olin

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