The Gem Mine and the Pinkerton Detective Agency

The modern surveillance state casts a long shadow back to the center of silver extraction: the Coeur d’Alene Mining District in northern Idaho during the late nineteenth century. In 1892 Charles Siringo, a Pinkerton agent, ran for his life from the Gem Mine through the mountains at Burke Canyon, during a heated labor dispute.

Pinkerton National Detective Agency routinely attempted to crush labor activity in many of the mines in the Coeur d'Alenes. In an act of deception, Charles Siringo, under the alias C. Leon Allison, infiltrated the Gem Miners Union and became union secretary reporting all labor activity to the Mine Owners Protective Association (MOA), a group of mine bosses. Once Siringo was identified, a backlash of industrial violence swept through the canyons of the Coeur d'Alene Mining District and ultimately led to martial Law.

Miners at the Gem mine worked for $3.50 a shift for millionaire bosses in one of the most dangerous extractive industries, hard rock mining. Unions were set up at many of the mines operating in the Coeur d'Alene's in an effort to secure higher wages and shorter working days. Union activity, though, remained under the watchful eye of Pinkerton and groups like the MOA. In 1883 the Western Federation of Miners (WMF) was established in an effort to combine the fractured union organizations and to promote unified tactics within the unionization movement. In acts of repeated deception, Pinkerton agents turned in and intimidated the more radical union organizers.

Siringo escaped that day in Burke Canyon. He went on in a successful and colorful career of union-busting, chasing outlaws, and writing a series of popular books about his exploits. Violence between mine owners and the men who worked the mines continued in the Silver Valley, with major outbreaks in 1892 and 1899, and the assassination of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905, allegedly by Western Federation of Miners member Harry Orchard.

The events at the Gem Mine in 1892 were a microcosm of American labor history at the turn-of-the-century, an era that was often punctuated by similar labor violence.