Living History: The making of labor radical ‘Big Bill’ Haywood

By Eileen Hallet Stone

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: March 16, 2014 02:05PM
Updated: March 16, 2014 01:01AM
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Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Eileen Hallet Stone poses for a portrait in the Tribune studio Thursday March 8, 2012.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts

A youthful scrapper born in Salt Lake City in 1869, William “Big Bill” Haywood grew into a pugilist for the Western Federation of Miners and a founding member and voice of the Industrial Workers of the World — the Wobblies. Haywood organized strikes. He agitated for industrial unionism, fair wages, and an end to child labor. He was arrested, often jailed, and accused of sedition. In 1917, The New York Times vilified him as “the most hated and feared figure in America.”

“Big Bill” didn’t start life as a radical. His father, Bill Sr., was a Pony Express rider and prospector who, in 1869, heeded the call for industrialized mining. Working away from home for long stretches, the miner returned to celebrate his son’s third birthday with a fashionable velvet suit and pants. Shortly after, the miner was working in the Camp Floyd Mining District when he succumbed to pneumonia, leaving his child inconsolable.

In time, the widow Haywood remarried and moved the family to Ophir, a remote mining town in the Oquirrh Mountains’ East Canyon. While Haywood’s stepfather worked in silver mining, young Haywood relished exploring canyon trails, collecting fool’s gold and investigating shuttered mineshafts.

Once, while whittling a slingshot, the 9-year-old’s knife slipped and injured his right eye. According to author Peter Carlson, in “Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood,” the boy “spent months lying in a darkened room, waiting for the eye to heal. It never did.” Returning to school, Haywood trounced any classmate daring to call him, “Deadeye Dick.”

Ophir’s boom quickly went bust, and the family moved back to Salt Lake City, where Haywood quit school. Indentured to a farmer for six months — a miserable experience that led to a youthful and unsuccessful strike — Haywood next bellhopped at Walker House Hotel and ushered at Salt Lake Theatre, where Oscar Wilde had recently lectured.

Tending a fruit stand in 1883, the 14-year-old saw a frenzied mob lynch Sam Joe Harvey, a black man accused of murder, and drag his corpse in front of a cheering crowd. Horrified by such depravity, Haywood feared his presence alone may have contributed to the mob murder.

The following year, the youth left home. Boarding a train for Winnemucca, Nev., he made his way to Eagle Canyon and the Ohio mine where his stepfather, a superintendent, got him a job.

Hard-rock mining was backbreaking, primitive work. But Haywood was taken under the wing of mine assayer John Kane as an apprentice and found camaraderie among the miners. A voracious reader, he followed reports of the 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago. He gleaned lessons on class struggle and labor.

When the Ohio mine closed, Haywood remained as a guard. He met and married Nevada Jane Minor, became a homesteader (working the mines to prove up his land) and proudly moved in his family.

Feeling secure while building their future, Haywood received an alarming form letter from the U.S. government in late 1893. Their 160-acre homestead had been repossessed and reassigned to Indian land. No compensation was provided. The family lost everything. Haywood was devastated, angry and broke. Not until 1896 did he regain steady work; and that, too, was short-lived.

Cutting rock deep inside Blaine tunnel in Silver City, Idaho, Haywood was riding an ore car when a large rock hit a vertical chute and upended the car, crushing his right hand.

Haywood staved off amputation but learned a miner’s lot was transient. Most mine owners offered nothing but pay for a day’s work done. There was no health insurance, sick leave pay or workman’s compensation. Unable to work, his fellow miners collected funds to help the family survive.

Haywood never forgot their solidarity.

“Tall, broad-shouldered and strong, with one dead eye and a black Stetson cowboy hat perched atop his scarred and scowling face,” Carlson wrote, “[by 1917] Haywood seemed the very personification of proletarian rage, a capitalist’s nightmare come to life.”

Historian Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of “Hidden History of Utah,” a compilation of her Salt Lake Tribune columns. She may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com.