Fire in the Hole

Original Airdate: 
May 2000

At one time in the dark reaches of American mining history, determined forces were locked in battle for the very soul of the nation. It was a time when the fuse was lit, the blast was imminent, and the warning cry was offered: "fire in the hole."

At the turn of the 20th century the West was poised on the brink of an industrial showdown. The conflict raged from the Canadian to the Mexican borders, destroyed thousands of lives, and challenged the nation's core values of justice and hard work.

KUED presents Fire in the Hole, an examination of the mining labor conflicts that shaped the West during the early 1900s. The two-hour documentary premiered in May 2000.

Using archival photographs, written documents, dramatic re-creations, and interviews with historians, Fire in the Hole was produced, written, and directed by the Emmy Award-winning team of Ken Verdoia and Nancy Green, creators of Utah: The Struggle for Statehood, Brigham Young, and Joe Hill.

Shot in seven states, the documentary takes viewers from the mountains of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho to the open windswept deserts of Arizona, from the Utah prison courtyard where Joe Hill was executed to the killing fields of Ludlow, Colorado, where men, women, and children were gunned down by the national guard.

"Fire in the Hole tackles the timeless ideals of justice, equality, and freedom," says Green. "It is the most American of stories."

The documentary couches the labor conflicts in social and historical context, at a time when industrialists surged forward to form an unchecked elite. Names like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie symbolized unquestioned dominance in their fields and staggering personal fortune.

European immigration was reaching its peak; foreign workers formed an endless pool of unskilled labor, taking work that often involved low pay and high danger. Tens of thousands of the new immigrants made their way West, where mines ground out the natural resources to drive industry forward.

The era of the strike-it-rich prospector had evaporated. Now the mines were part of giant corporations, often owned by interests in the East that employed hundreds of men who worked 10-hour shifts thirteen out of every fourteen days. Cave-ins and explosions would punctuate the terror of miners.

Adding to the despair was the reminder that there was always another immigrant in line to take the job of a complaining miner. Protests over working conditions or safety could be dealt with harshly. A common saying reminded workers that it was better to hold your tongue so you could hold your job.

"The 40-hour work week, worker's compensation, minimum wage – all the things we take for granted in our daily work were ideals of these unionists. People were willing to die and, sadly, to kill for those principles," says Verdoia.

The lost chapter in the pages of American history, Fire in the Hole is filled with near-mythic characters. The program tells the story of Big Bill Haywood, the one-eyed miner from Bingham Canyon who ruthlessly fought for change in labor rights; Mother Jones, a fiery orator who urged men to join unions and empowered women to raise their voices in support; and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who owned the one of the largest coal mines in Colorado, and claimed he would rather spend a million dollars and lose all his mining operation than recognize a union.

"Working on the project, I was struck by the lack of cynicism among these dynamic figures," says Green. "Back then, people passionately debated politics and philosophy and honestly believed they could shape the world in which they lived."

The turbulent times facing American workers on the edge of a new industrial era resonate today, according to Verdoia. "It was the turn of a new century, when optimism and fear existed in equal measure...A time when new technology was revolutionizing the way America worked and did business. That's why this story is a direct parallel to where we are in the year 2000, as the explosion of information technology leaves us on the brink of the unknown," he says.

Fire in the Hole was photographed by Bill Brussard and features original music by Frank Jarvis, Carol Dalrymple, and Dan Waldis, who capture the musical themes, passions, and folk life of the bygone era. Fire in the Hole was made possible by US WEST, the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation, the R. Harold Burton Foundation, and NETA.