Over 200 Swedish Ostrobothnian Immigrants lived in Telluride of the Gold Rush
The first vein of silver in the San Miguel District of Colorado was discovered in 1875. The deposits quickly lured mining companies and miners, and a little tent city grew up in the shallow valley where Telluride lies today. But only when the mines began to yield gold instead of silver in the 1890's did the real rush set in. Telluride also received a strong push forward
in 1890 when the city was reached by the railroad for the first time.
The mining town grew up very quickly, along with everything that comes with easy money and hard living. Telluride experienced its era of greatness around the turn of the century when the population rose to about 5,000 people. Surprisingly enough, many of them were Swedish Finns and nearly all of them came from Swedish Ostrobothnia.
How it happened that so many Ostrobothnian immigrants found their way to this remote mining area is not known. Anders Myhrman suggested in his standard work, Finland Swedes in America, that John Frank Kamb from Korsnäs together with five other Ostrobothnians came traveling to Telluride in 1888. Kamb went into partnership with two other newcomers, Andrew Berg and John
Franzén from Närpes. Together, the three pioneers began to work a small mine a good distance from the city. A directory which is exhibited in the museum in Telluride relates, however, that there was one Finn among the very first residents in the area. In the directory, which is from 1885, he is listed as John Nicholson, white male, 31 years of age, and unmarried. Nicholson was
accompanied by two Swedes of the same age, according to the directory. At the maximum, according to Myhrman, 250 Swede Finns lived in Telluride. Most of them appeared to have come from the area between Kronoby and Vörå. The number of Finnish Finns in Telluride grew to around 200.
In Telluride, 40 different language groups lived in their own neighborhoods. The Swede Finns were mainly located on Oak Street. Only a little bit away, Finn Town was located, where the Finnish-speaking people lived. The relations between the two groups from the same country were relatively good, even if they generally didn't mix socially. The children, on the other hand,
often played together, and it was common that they knew both languages. But, of course, there occurred a number of tensions and even fights between children and young people from different ethnic groups.
Elvira Wunderlich, one of Telluride's oldest residents, tells about when she was little and the children stole donkeys from each other. In Telluride there were, of course, a number of more or less ownerless donkeys which the children competed to catch and ride. When the Italian, Irish and German children had caught the donkeys, the Finnish children would steal one. But
then the other children stole the donkeys back and so it went... It was, when all is said and done, a pretty innocent game.
The Order of Runeberg
The Swedish Finns in Telluride organized themselves in 1898 into a temperance organization which was called "Forward". Under the association's management a social hall was constructed called "Swede-Finn Hall". The hall was incorporated some years later by a group which went by the name of "Österbotten Brothers". The interest in temperance
was not especially big among the miners, and the association died out. However, it soon revived under the name "Aurora". At the most, the association had up to 50 members and, in addition, a special youth group. In 1917, a medical aid association was established which included the Swede Finns in Telluride. Later it was combined with the temperance group nto the Swedish-speaking
Finnish American immigrants' organization, "The Order of Runeberg".
Even if the temperance association had a certain success, alcohol was commonly found among the Ostrobothnian bachelors. According to emigrant August Kock from Pedersöre at the time, most of the men who married became well-behaved. But there were also Ostrobothnians who ran saloons, for example Ed Beck and C. N. Nylund.
The Finns in Telluride founded a cooperative store too, which went by the name "Finn Store". It was managed by John Simons from Oravais. There were also four steam baths located in the Finnish neighborhood which were open to the public.
A number of the Ostrobothnians earned a living as construction workers, as well as miners. Widows of the mine workers usually made their living as laundry women. There were also many who boarded miners. That meant in practice that the miner had a room during the weekend when he came into town. During the week the workers lived in barracks in connection with the mines.
The Wild West
During the weekend Telluride swarmed with life. The nearly two thousand miners who came into town lived a fast life which was just as rough as their work. The money was spent in any of the city's 36 saloons, was lost at the gaming tables, or ended up with some of the city's many prostitutes. Fistfights and shootouts were more the rule than the exception during these happy
gold rush weekends.
Telluride can also boast about being the town where the legendary bank robber Butch Cassidy made his debut. It happened in June 1899, when Cassidy together with two companions robbed the San Miguel National Bank and got away with over $30,000. The bank never recovered its money.
Gunman Jim Clarke was appointed on another occasion as deputy sheriff by the Telluride townsfolk. Clarke, who had made his name as a member of the Jesse James gang, was given the job of driving out a gang of gunmen who were terrorizing the city. Clarke did a good job, but outside of Telluride's borders he continued his career on the wrong side of the law.
Fighting Gunfirein the Mine
Down in the mines it could also get hot. In September 1919, three Ostrobothnians were killed by Italians down in Tomboy Shaft. The three who were murdered were Alfred Sund from Munsala, Gus Danielson from Jeppo, and Eric Smith from Malax. The reason for the shootout was never determined. They suspected that the Ostrobothnians had found gold, which led to the Italians'
envy. The perpetrators were sentenced to life in the penitentiary.
The miner's life was rough. Accidents in the mines were not unusual. Pneumonia and blacklung took many casualties. In the beginning of the 1940's they estimated that about 100 Swede Finns had died either in or after being in Telluride. Of those, 70 were buried in the Lone Tree Cemetery. The rest had moved away and died in other areas.
Much of the Swede Finns' social life revolved around the Swede-Finn Hall. It functioned as the gathering place for all of life's events. Baptisms, weddings, meetings, dances, masquerades, Christmas parties, yes even funerals were held in the hall. Dancing parties were arranged in both Swede-Finn Hall and Finn Hall Fridays and Saturdays, and it was natural, therefore, that they
competed as to who had drawn the largest crowd.
For natural reasons there was a big surplus of bachelors in the Swede Finn colony. Unmarried women who arrived in the city had no difficulty finding a mate. The lack of women meant there was also a big market in prostitution. The southern part of the city where the whorehouses were located were forbidden territory for children and proper ladies. At one time there were 175
prostitutes in Telluride. The last bordello was closed as late as the 1950's.
In the old days it was also forbidden for respectable women to go into the saloons. The Finnish halls and associations thereby came to have a very great importance for the social intercourse between men and women. One time all the bachelors over 27 years of age invited all the Swede Finns to an elegant dinner with a dance following in the hall. They had provided
themselves with white membership tags where their ages were printed together with the question, "How old are you?".
During Christmas, the Swede Finns gathered for a community-wide Christmas party in the hall. They seated themselves along the long table, ate lutefisk, drank glögg, and were visited by the Jultomten (Santa Claus). Then there was a tremendous dance to the sounds of an Italian accordionist. It was said that the whole hall rocked noticeably when the miners picked up speed
in their heavy shoes during a schottische or polka.
Another important event in the Swede Finn society was the Midsummer picnic. Usually they went to Bear Creek, where the Swede Finns had their picnic on one side of the hill and the Finns on the other. After the picnic, they returned to Telluride for a dance at the hall. The Midsummer was celebrated the whole day long. In fact, community festivals could last for several days.
The mines in Telluride belonged as a rule to the big mining companies, but there were immigrants from Finland who attempted their own mining operations. One group formed a partnership around the mine Musta Karhu or, in English, "Black Bear". It took three years of laborious toil before the mine began to pay off. The Finns had stumbled upon a rich vein, but the
problems were many. The mine was flooded and was plagued by avalanches. Besides that, the gold vein was also being worked in another mine from the other side of the mountain. Finally, the Finns lost their mine as a result of a swindle.
Others lost their savings and even their land in the Crash of 1929. There were many immigrants from Finland who left Telluride during the 1930's Depression. It struck Telluride heavily, and the mining operations were nearly defunct. The savings which were left in the city's bank were saved in an unusual way. The bank director was successful through a swindle in duping the
banks in the East, and the residents of Telluride got to keep their money. With the lack of work in the mines, there were many who threw themselves into the moonshine business. The city's location, with only one road leading to it, made it easy for the Telluride residents to warn one another when the authorities were approaching.
The Last Minein the Seventies
After the depression the mining operations went through a new boom, but with the years one mine after another was closed. Still, as late as the 1970's a certain amount of mining for copper and zinc went on, but the few workers who were needed for the operations then came into the community by bus or lived in a special trailer park. Telluride was already at that time in
the process of being changed into a tourist resort.
Today, it is experiencing a new economic boom, being one of the truly "hot spots" for jet-setters in the USA and attracting film stars and other millionaires. The old Finnish miners have gradually passed away or moved to other areas, but fortunately the old Telluride itself has been declared a National Historic District so that the old buildings and memories of the past can
Vörå Man Martyred at Telluride
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 legaleight-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.
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.