It Happened Here: The Roslyn Coal Company Calls In Black Miners To Break Strike In 1888 | Come

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More than 130 years ago this week, Roslyn coal miners, like others across the country, went on strike for better working conditions.

Although their demands were not met, the strike led Roslyn to become a more diverse community, as the mine owners brought in black scabs to operate the mines.

Roslyn was settled in 1886, after Northern Pacific Railway surveyors discovered coal near Cle Elum. For the railroad, this meant an accessible fuel supply for its locomotives, and which would be under the control of the railroad.

The Northern Pacific Coal Co., the railroad’s coal subsidiary, made its first expedition in December of that year, when the “camp” population reached 1,200.

Roslyn, like many mining communities, was a company town, with the company operating the store and providing the doctors and other services.

The main problem for the Roslyn miners was the length of the working day. They spent 10 to 11 hours a day underground in dangerous conditions.

In Roslyn, workers were represented by the Knights of Labor, a union that sought to organize both skilled and unskilled workers into one union. In its heyday, the Knights of Labor was one of the leading labor organizations in the country, with 700,000 members in its ranks in 1886.

But when Roslyn workers demanded an eight-hour day, the union was in decline, after the Haymarket riot in Chicago and other strikes sparked an anti-union backlash.

When the Northern Pacific Coal Co. refused workers’ demands for better hours, the union called a strike on August 17, 1888.

To break the strike, the company brought in 50 black miners from the Midwest and Eastern United States, guarding them with 40 heavily armed “detectives”. The presence of gunmen increased tensions, but no violence erupted, unlike other labor disputes where business owners have used private security to violently break strikes.

But it was reported that the guards were acting like a paramilitary organization, pretending to be “US Marshals” and harassing the residents of Roslyn. These reports went to Olympia, where Territorial Governor Eugene Semple considered the company’s action to undermine government authority.

Semple ordered the Kittitas County Sheriff to disperse the security forces or, if they resisted, place them under arrest.

When the sheriff arrived, the company guards had entrenched themselves at Roslyn No.3 Mine, but ultimately withdrew without any violence.

Semple visited Roslyn to investigate the situation himself on August 29. He found that the company assumed that the use of black workers would praise the white strikers, who would then prey on the scabs without interference from the local police.

Instead, he found the people of Roslyn to be “law abiding and smart” and the security guards to be an unwarranted provocation. He called this decision a “serious threat to our free institutions”.

While Semple forced the company to forgo any tough tactics to break the strike, he did not intervene in the labor dispute that was at the heart of the problem. The strike ended with few concessions from the company, and many strikers found themselves out of work.

Black miners stayed and were joined by others, eventually making up 22% of the city’s population in 1900, joining various European immigrants working in the mines. There was no trace of racial animosity, as the miners knew they had to work together to stay safe in the mines.

Among these miners was Ole Washington, who became the first known black settler in the Yakima Valley.


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