Butte’s labor powder keg exploded 93 years ago today.
It happened on Anaconda Road — just a few blocks east of the Butte courthouse — when shots rang out and bullets cut through a crowd of picketers leaving more than a dozen wounded and at least one man dead.
The incident has been called the “Anaconda Road Massacre” or “Bloody Wednesday.” Nearly a century later, it’s still not certain what caused the bloodshed on that violent evening.
Newspaper accounts at the time seem to put the blame squarely on “agitators” from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Others claim it was mining company “goons” who maliciously fired on striking workers.
Butte native Julie Crowley’s childhood home was located on Anaconda Road. She lived there until 1974, when the company bought the houses along the road and tore them down.
“Growing up on the Anaconda Road, I’ve always heard stories about the Anaconda Road Massacre,” Crowley said.
Crowley is leading an effort to set up a memorial to the men who were shot near the site of the disturbance. She believes historical evidence shows that these men were shot by “paid Anaconda Co. goons” while picketing working conditions at the Neversweat Mine.
“These men risked their lives fighting for safer working conditions,” Crowley said.
The incident began about 4 p.m. on April 21, 1920. Hundreds of striking picketers led by the IWW gathered outside the Neversweat Mine Yard on Anaconda Road. Newspaper accounts gathered from the Butte Public Archives say this incident followed several days of disturbances and reports of violence from striking workers and miners.
Silver Bow County Sheriff John O’Rourke reported being too understaffed to handle the crowd of about 400 people. The sheriff enlisted the help of deputized citizens and “mine watchmen” to try to disburse the picketers, according to news accounts. Picketers were threatening and beating on miners trying to go to work at the mine, the sheriff reported.
O’Rourke claims law enforcement was able to get the picketers to begin leaving the scene on at least two occasions, but IWW “agitators” convinced the “mob” to return.
It was then that a shot was fired into the crowd. This was followed by several more shots (one news account reported more than 100 shots) and mayhem ensued. People fled from the area in panic. When it was over, 16 people were injured with bullet wounds. A motorcycle officer from Butte police department was slightly wounded in the head by either a thrown rock or the butt of a pistol.
The source of the first shot has never been confirmed. Published reports at the time claim witnesses saw the shot being fired from a man in the second story window of the Simon’s boarding house on Anaconda Road. That boarding house was occupied by IWW members.
However, an FBI report on the incident at the time says law enforcement searched the boarding house and found no arms.
What makes published reports about this incident at the time suspicious was the obvious bias from the local newspapers. Some of major newspapers at the time were owned or in the pockets of Anaconda Co.
The headline of the Butte Daily Post on the day after the shooting was “Mines Re-open Tomorrow,” after what the article referred to as “last night’s regrettable affair.”
The Anaconda Co.-owned Anaconda Standard had already placed the blame for the shooting on the IWW. In the story on the day after the shooting the paper called the IWW “trouble breeders” who were on a “reign of terror.”
Both newspapers pointed out that most of the picketers wounded by gunfire were not U.S. citizens, even though they had worked in lived in Butte for several years. The articles also noted that at least seven of the victims — even though they were U.S. citizens — were “foreign born.”
One of the “foreign born” victims was Thomas Manning. Manning, 25, was born in Ireland, but lived in Butte and worked as a miner for five years.
He was shot in the abdomen by a .32-caliber bullet that had pierced his bladder. He died a few days later at St. James Hospital. The coroner’s report noted that Manning’s shooter was unknown.
Federal troops arrived in Butte the day after the Anaconda Road shootings and tensions soon calmed down.
A memo from the U.S. Department of Defense about the shooting noted an FBI report that stated all the victims were “shot in the back.” The memo also pointed out that there were several armed mine guards present during the picket, and that the first shot was fired while picketers were negotiating with law enforcement.
What really happened on Bloody Wednesday may never been known. However, Crowley says this significant moment in Butte’s labor history shouldn’t ever be forgotten. She hopes to encourage city leaders and the community to support a memorial to those wounded and killed on that day.
“Hopefully we can have the memorial ready by the 100th anniversary of the massacre,” she said.