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The Smelter Poets – A History Essay (Updated)

June 4, 2012

Worker poetry found in a Canadian trade union newspaper in the “age of the CIO”

Strikers – detail – Colombo Lodge Centennial Mural 2005 – Artist: Maureen A. Travers – Collection: Colombo Lodge, Trail, B.C. Photograph: Leola Jewett-Verzuh – Complete mural may be viewed at www.discoveringthekootenays.ca

When celebrated Wobbly troubadour Joe Hill purportedly visited the Rossland Miners’ Hall in the early 1900s to lend his support to the first Canadian local of the rugged Western Federation of Miners (WFM), he no doubt shared some of his inspired verses with the mine workers who are said to have protected him.[1] Claims of his visit are unsubstantiated, but if he did get to Rossland, British Columbia, he likely would have sung them some of his most popular tunes about struggle, resistance, and the dream of a workers’ paradise, and in so doing he would have been performing the same service that poets and songwriters had rendered working people since the earliest days of the trade union movement. The powerful corporate enemies of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Hill’s union, would succeed in having him executed in Utah in 1915 sometime after  his supposed Rossland stopover.[2] But whether he visited the ore-rich West Kootenay region or not the Wobbly singer’s cunning lyrics would live on in the minds of Rossland miners and in those of the smelter workers of nearby Trail, B.C. Long after his death they would be reminded of his dying comment that workers everywhere should not agonize but organize.[3]Some of them would pen lyrics of their own for their fellow workers, thus joining Hill, Woody Guthrie and other travelling singer-poets who represented the working class across North America in the first decades of the twentieth century. The style and content of their poetry and songs hearkened back to earlier times when working people were creating an alternative culture to the mainstream one that was so often hostile to trade unionism and the struggle for workers’ rights. Part of building that culture was the development of a working-class or proletarian literature. In fact, at least as far back as the eighteenth century, workers were writing poems and reading them aloud or sending them to the local trade union newspaper where they could be shared. They expressed their views and concerns, their anger and frustrations, and they proffered solace to other workers and their families through their rhymes.

The Smelter Poets – full text – BC Studies

[1] Jeremy Mouat, Roaring Days: Rossland’s Mines and the History of British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995), p. 71, notes that Rossland miners formed Local 38 of the Western Federation of Miners in 1895. The WFM was instrumental in the founding of the IWW ten years later.

[2] Hill’s visit may fall under the category of ‘rural legend.’ The only references I could find to it were Rosa Jordan, “The Struggle: A Brief History of Local Labour Movements and the Rossland Miners’ Union Hall,” as an appendix in Al King, Red Bait!: Struggles of a Mine Mill Local (Vancouver: Kingbird Publishing, 1998) p. 170, and Rosa Jordan and Derek Choukalos, Rossland the First 100 Years (Rossland, B.C.: Harry Lefevre, the Rossland Historic Society and the BC Heritage Foundation, 1996). Jordan writes that Hill “met with union organizers here.” She adds that “America’s most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, came to Rossland in search of evidence for the defense of an Idaho miner” and “Labour organizers from throughout western North America, being pursued by the notorious, company-employed Pinkerton detectives, were given refuge in the Hall.” Interestingly, there is a Joe Hill Coffee House now established in Rossland and it regularly features singer-songwriters.

[3] William H. Adler, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Hero (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011) provides a detailed account of the 1915 execution as well as some proof that Hill was innocent of the murder charge.

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