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Mute Symbol of Corporate Power

Found in: | Inside | Politics | Outside | Climbing | Mountaineering | Where to Go |


By 1910, Fort Peabody had become a tourist spot. Compare the photo at left to the similar view from 2006 (below), which shows the flat mount in the foreground now completely disintegrated. (photo by MaryJoy Martin)

Located above the Imogene Pass summit (13,114 feet) on the Ouray/San Miguel County line, in the Uncompahgre National Forest, Fort Peabody can be accessed from Telluride, Colo., via the Tomboy Road, a distance of 6.9 miles. The road requires high clearance and four-wheel-drive in the summer. The road is closed in the winter months, because of heavy snow. For a longer and wilder ride, approach the site from the Ouray side, via the Imogene Pass road, which forks south from the Yankee Boy Basin trail. Although this road goes through spectacular scenery, it has more challenges for the backroad enthusiast, and can claim the life of the inexperienced. In some places it is difficult to distinguish road from rock. Once within view of the sentry post, turn south a few hundred feet and park at the base of the peak. The National Forest Service requests no motorized vehicles access the foot trail to the sentry post, as this can damage historical materials and the integrity of the site. The climb to the top of the ridge is only 250 feet to the breathtaking height of 13,365 feet, where the humble ruins of Fort Peabody hold against the wind. - MaryJoy Martin

(courtesy of Fort Peabody historic collection)

A nearly insignificant bit of wood and stone in the grand sweep of the San Juan Mountains, Fort Peabody holds a story too big to fit within its slumping walls.

The sentry post, which commands a breathtaking view above Imogene Pass between Ouray and Telluride, was built on a 13,365-foot shoulder of Telluride Peak during the height of statewide labor disturbances in 1904. At the time, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was managing legal strikes in the San Juan district and other regions of the state. The Colorado National Guard's Troop A specifically built the post on the county line to prevent union miners and their sympathizers from entering San Miguel County, and to thwart deported men, classified as "undesirable citizens," from returning home via Imogene Pass.
Fort Peabody's mute wood and crumbling walls tell the story of conquest, class struggle, and the role of government in the labor disputes of a century ago. The cartridges found at the site speak volumes of a time when the Colorado National Guard could be sold to businessmen and used to oppress citizens, and to gain control of legal, political, and economic authority.
Stone walls made of semi-coursed, dry-laid native rock encase a 6-by-8-foot wood structure once referred to as a "redoubt" by the state militia. The National Register of Historic Places accepted the site in spring 2005 as significant to the state's history. It is also a site vital to the nation's labor history.
The story of Fort Peabody begins with the first Telluride Miners' Union strike in 1901, when accusations of murder were leveled against the union leaders. The union's first victim was said to be William J. Barney, an employee of the Smuggler Mining Company.
Barney was the perfect victim: no one knew anything about him. Once he was gone, anything could be said. He had worked only a few months at the Smuggler-Union Mine as a stonemason, and just a week as a full time company guard during the strike, when he vanished on June 22, 1901.
The first hint that he was murdered and that the union did the killing came from the editor of the Telluride Journal, Eddie Curry, despite no evidence, no motive, and no corpse.
Curry listed the possible places the body was dumped, favoring the river in most of his early reports. He invented a motive, fleshing out the details as time went by, always boldly printing the stories as genuine news. He invented witnesses and evidence, eventually spinning a tale so gruesome that people felt compelled to believe it.
In a short time, Curry had it on authority that the Telluride Miners' Union President Vincent St. John and Secretary-Treasurer Oscar Carpenter had brutally murdered Barney in town and took his body up Boomerang Hill to a spot not far from Alta (about 8 miles from where he was shot). Curry's certainty and details could have been true only if Curry himself had carried out the crime: Barney was shot 11 times and his remains left rotting along the road for blowflies and other gourmets.
Two years later, according to Curry, St. John suddenly became worried that Barney's unburied body would be discovered. St. John hired a drunken miner named Steve Adams to strip Barney's corpse, dismember it, and bury the bits out of sight.
The trouble with the entire story was this: the victim was quite alive a year after his brutal murder, getting a divorce in the San Miguel County Courthouse.
Barney was merely the beginning of the persecution of the union that culminated in the erection of Fort Peabody. At the heart of the accusations was one goal: to destroy Vincent St. John and the Telluride WFM local. In the end this malicious propaganda was better than bullets for it stood as fact for a hundred years.
Picking up on Curry's tale, the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Mine Owners Association of Colorado claimed Barney was merely the first victim of the Telluride Miners' Union. No one needed bodies or evidence to condemn the union as assassins and anarchists. The stories of union butchery were broadcast across the country, with newspapers repeating them so often that they appeared to be true.
Despite the awesome beauty and majesty of the San Juan Mountains, something dark and dangerous rose like a specter from the bowels of the Smuggler-Union Mine in 1901. And it wasn't the Miners' Union. The New England Exploration Company of Boston took control of the mining property in late 1899. They replaced the manager with an Englishman named Arthur Collins. In order to make better dividends for the stockholders, Collins cut corners. He abolished fireguards and other safety measures. He reduced miners' wages through the implementation of the fathom system, making piecework of mining. He required employees to live at the mine boarding house, charging them a third of their wages. And he no longer let them hold union meetings on the property. He thought he could make the WFM disappear.
Despite Barney's "murder," the Telluride Miners' Union, under the guidance of St. John, won its strike in 1901. Incensed, Collins and the mining company hired the Pinkertons to crush the union. When Collins was assassinated in his own house on November 19, 1902, no one ever looked for the killer. The union was immediately condemned as guilty. Indictments - without evidence - were handed to the district attorney.
False prosecution failed when the judge quashed the indictments. Thus the persecution of Vincent St. John and the union began in earnest. The Smuggler Mining Company replaced Collins with Bulkeley Wells, a man determined to prove St. John guilty of not only the Collins assassination, but also the brutal murder of Barney.
Wells used the law to harass St. John, but when that failed, he and his cohorts hired Wyoming gunman Bob Meldrum to take St. John on a false warrant, preferably dead. With a price on his head, St. John left Telluride.
Before he departed he had organized the mill workers who were the only men on ten and 12-hour shifts in 1903. Miners and other employees had an eight-hour shift. The mill workers requested the same. The Smuggler Company refused.
In September the mill workers called a strike at the Smuggler.
This strike began with the mill men only, but soon developed into a strike for the very existence of the union. Union men were being systematically blacklisted at the Smuggler, Liberty Bell, and Tomboy in violation of the contract these companies signed in 1901.
Because the miners joined the strike with the mill men, Bulkeley Wells and his allies stirred up fear in Telluride that the strikers would descend as a body and shoot all that opposed them in town.
Wells and his associates petitioned the new governor, James Peabody, for the state militia, claiming the union had inaugurated a "reign of terror" in 1901 (Barney's murder was the reign) and would be far more violent now if the mine opened with nonunion men. The petition had a staggering twenty-three signatures out of a town of 4,500 - or more accurately, only 20: Cooper Anderson signed three times - as an officer in the militia, as the manager of the Nellie and as the superintendent of the power company.
The Colorado National Guard (CNG) arrived November 24, 1903. Union men were rounded up and forcibly removed from the county. Under Major Zeph Hill martial law was declared January 3, 1904, despite completely peaceful conditions. Hill's daily reports consistently noted how calm things were. Probably bored with so much tranquility, Hill groomed Wells to take his place. Smuggler Manager Wells, also a captain in the CNG, took command of Telluride on February 21, 1904. His henchmen were now his own Troop A. Troop A, First Squadron Cavalry, was made up of cowboys, Wells's own employees, and a few townsmen who despised the union.
Mass deportations on special trains, false criminal charges, beatings, threats, and arrests without due process were all part of the game plan. No one could enter or leave the county without official permission. One couldn't be out after curfew without a pass. A Citizens Alliance committee, made up of the opponents of labor, assisted the militia in controlling the town, after having confiscated the firearms of any known union man or supporter. The strikers who refused to pay vagrancy fines were pressed into Wells's service: they could work for him or spend time in jail. He also had the more defiant men put on chain gangs, excavating cesspools and stables in search of Barney's corpse . . . which had wandered off to Montana about this time.
Vexed by the influx of deported miners returning "over the range," Capt. Wells ordered a small stone sentry post built on Imogene Pass, to keep the miners and supporters from entering via Ouray County. The redoubt was dubbed Fort Peabody in honor of the governor.
Two or three soldiers, armed with rifles and bayonets and their own sidearms, manned the sentry post. It consisted of three structures: 1) a small wooden sleeping hut surrounded by five-foot thick stone walls and warmed by a tiny recessed stove; 2) a large circular stone flag mount on the high point of the ridge with the US Flag flying on a 20-foot pole and said to be visible from the valley west of Telluride; and 3) a stone foxhole-like "sniper nest" where a sentry hunched with his rifle trained on the road. During the early months of 1904, a Colt rapid-fire machine gun was mounted in the sniper nest (this was later mounted atop the Tomboy Mine's guard tower). Wells had a telephone line installed from the guardhouse direct to the Smuggler office so sentries could notify him when enemies were spotted.
Martial law was finally revoked June 15, 1904, when no one was left to deport. By the end of that year Telluride had been rid of the miners' union, their supporters and their families. Wells hired an employment agent to screen applicants and used the card system as a means of blacklisting union members. In 1908, Fort Peabody was finally abandoned as a sentry post.
What was it all for? After the miners' union was destroyed, Wells granted an eight-hour day to the mill men - the simple demand that started it all. He said he did so only because the state was about to adopt such a law.
In the end, Wells had gained the destruction of the Miners' Union in Telluride, but he lost his integrity. His lifelong obsession with eradicating union influence cost him his wife, his career, and his power. In San Francisco, on May 26, 1931, he shot himself in the head.
Vincent St. John went on to become the general organizer of the WFM. The peak of his success came in Goldfield, Nev., where the entire camp was organized from paperboys on up. Later he became the General Secretary for the Industrial Workers of the World, from 1908-1914.
This is the story hidden in the listing, wind-swept walls of Fort Peabody, a story too long silenced, a story of degradation, of nightmarish abuses of power that seem unreal in a democracy, and yet, also a story of truth's triumph. With the sentry post now on the National Register of Historic Places, Fort Peabody and its dark secrets will find their rightful place in Colorado's dramatic chronicle.

MaryJoy Martin is author of The Corpse on Boomerang Road: Telluride's War on Labor 1899-1908 and other books.

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