Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Mines: Wobblies, Property Rights, and Environmental Consciousness in Nevada’s “High-Grading” Controversy, 1905–07

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Thai Jones, Bard College
In a 1907 labor agreement between owners and miners in Goldfield, Nevada, the most-divisive provision was not a raise in salary – as one might have expected – but the construction of “well designed and properly heated” changing rooms to be located near the shaft entrances. Miners had fought tenaciously against this improvement, which they argued would increase the operators’ control over the workforce. In the new chambers, the bosses’ deputies would watch the workers change from work-clothes into street attire. 

At issue in all this was the controversial practice of “High-Grading,” by which miners illicitly filled their boots and pockets with valuable gold-laden ore. Rich earth in Goldfield could be worth $10 a pound, and much of it went missing; more than a million dollars a year vanished from the mines. Asserting that “‘High-Grading’ is larceny,” owners saw surveillance of the changing rooms as a crucial means to stop it. Others joined the fight. U.S. marshals chased suspected high-graders across the state, legislators raced to tighten restrictions, journalists denounced the practice, and even union leaders tried to rein in their members. But the miners saw it differently. Laboring in perilous working environments, living in brutal conditions, they understood the theft of high-grade ore to be a just perquisite of the job.

Scholars have explored the impact of mining labor on workers’ bodies and their consciousness, but an examination of the ritual of High-Grading offers a new perspective on the ways in which workers fashioned a distinct class-based vision of the natural world. Defying owners’ assertions of property rights, refusing to collaborate in the vision promoted by middle-class publicists and boosters that the mining camp was a unified community, the workers of Goldfield staked their own claims to the wealth of nature.

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