February 6, 1911: Strike at Kenilworth Mine

Heidi Steed History, News and Events, Research

My macabre curiosity always gets the best of me, and I couldn’t help but thumb through the pages of the Huntington City Register of Deaths, a compilation of death certificates, local duplicates of the official records that get filed with the state.  They came to the State Archives during a transfer of records from Huntington City. I read each page, examining the cause of death for each person listed. A few pages into the register, I came across an entry for Thomas Elias Jackson. Date of death: February 6, 1911. His contributory cause of death: homicide. As I set out to learn about this tragic event I was surprised to find out what else I would discover including a story of a Utah labor movement and not one, but two untimely deaths on February 6, 1911. 

Pictured is a death certificate from the Huntington City Register of Deaths for Thomas Elias Jackson. Date of death February 6, 1911, showing the chief cause of death as “a bullet wound of heart”.
Pictured is a death certificate from the Huntington City Register of Deaths for Thomas Elias Jackson. Date of death February 6, 1911, showing the chief cause of death as “a bullet wound of heart”.

I first turned to local newspapers in hopes that they had covered Thomas Elias Jackson’s homicide in Huntington, expecting it might have been mentioned in a brief section of Emery County news. To my surprise, news of Jackson’s death was relatively easy to find, as it had made the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune on February 7, 1911.  As it turns out Thomas Jackson wasn’t killed in Huntington, but rather 30 miles away in nearby Carbon County, in Kenilworth, a coal mining town owned and operated by the Independent Coal and Coke Company. Thomas Jackson’s official death certificate filed with the State of Utah was a little more telling of the circumstances, stating he was “killed in Kenilworth strike riot”. 

Thomas Jackson’s death certificate lists his occupation as miner and mechanic, but when reporting his death the newspapers identified Jackson as a Sheriff’s deputy, suggesting he may have been deputized as a watchman in anticipation of the strike that led to his death. It was common in some coal towns owned and operated by mining companies to deputize local miners to act as watchmen. The role of watchman was less about keeping out trouble, and more often about keeping fellow miners in check. 

The owners of the Independent Coal and Coke company had reason to anticipate a workers strike. The company, like many of its day, paid workers wages based on the weight of the coal they were able to extract. On February 4, 1911,  the Greek miners of Kenilworth complained to Thomas Bell, superintendent of the mine, that they were being cheated out of their fair pay. They claimed the scales had not been reading correctly, the weight of the cars nowhere near what they had been weighing in the prior months. The workers were agitated and demanded to be repaid. Management and the Greek miners quarreled over possible resolutions, escalating to the point that a large number of workers were dismissed and escorted from town. 

In 1911, like many Utah coal mining  towns, Kenilworth was populated with a diverse group of workers from a variety of countries and backgrounds. Language disparities in mining communities, especially between American management and the immigrant workforce, often made communication difficult. The differing languages spoken by the miners made it hard for the disparate groups to settle disputes and disagreements, and collectively organize against unfair labor practices, something management took advantage of. Like many other mining towns in the Carbon County area, the majority of Kenilworth residents and miners were immigrants from Greece. At the time of the strike reports from the state indicate that 160 of the 254 miners employed at the Independent Coke and Coal mine were Greek

On February 1, 1911, a few days prior the strike, J.E. Petitt, the State Coal Mine Inspector, paid a visit to Kenilworth and inspected the scales. In a report filed with Governor Spry, Petitt found that the track in which the coal car was placed on the scale had “worked down,” and that weights of the coal cars had indeed been inaccurate. But the mining company claimed it had only been a day or so that the cars had been working improperly and that it had been promptly fixed. The Greek miners at Kenilworth remained distrustful of the management’s response and continued to be wary of the reliability of the mine’s scales. Exacerbated by mistrust and poor communication, frustrations boiled over culminating in a gunfight in the hills surrounding the mine on the morning of February 6, 1911. 

Residents of Kenilworth reported hearing gun fire early in the morning, about 5:45am, the time that workers would begin arriving at the mines. Greek workers had taken to hills above the town in an effort to stall work for the day and gain leverage in negotiations with mine management. Gun fire broke out between the striking workers and the local deputies. It was in this foray that Thomas Jackson, responding to the event as a deputy, was shot and killed. However striking workers were quickly out-gunned by the responding deputies, and they retreated deeper into the nearby hills. A Greek miner named Joseph “Steve” Kulizakis was shot and killed along the hillside during the ensuing fight. Kulizakis’ official death certificate was light on details about his life, suggesting he was about 20 or 21 years old at the time of his death, but much was left unknown

Workers taken into custody by responding deputies provided the mine’s management with a list of requests that would ensure that striking miners would return to work. Their requests included having the ability to select a weighman of their choosing to manage the weighing of coal cars and the reinstatement of the men who had been dismissed days earlier for disputing the weights of the coal cars. Outnumbered by incoming law enforcement from nearby Price and Salt Lake City,  the striking workers didn’t manage to maintain any bargaining power. 

Within a day of the initial strike the fighting ceased at Kenilworth, and within the week work resumed at the mine without any sign that the mining company intended to comply with the miners’ requests. Despite consistent demands from the Greek strikers that their complaints were about fair pay and treatment, the newspapers ran rampant with stories pitting Greek and American miners against each other. Even official reports sent to Governor Spry from the State’s Mining Inspector sent to investigate the cause of the strike reinforced the idea that it was the intent of the Greek miners to riot and kill their American counterparts. Despite official reports from the State Mine inspector stating the mine only employed 160 total Greek workers, newspaper headlines over-exaggerated suggesting the town was under siege by over 200 Greek miners. Additional law enforcement officials were dispatched from Salt Lake City and Price to guard the town, and at the suggestion of Inspector J.E. Pettit and law enforcement remained at the mine until the company could be sure workers wouldn’t strike again. 

The Kenilworth miners who were not arrested or dismissed during the dispute returned to work in the mines immediately, returning to a workplace  that was ultimately unchanged. Although evidence suggests that the Greek miners were justified in their suspicion of mistreatment, in an effort to ensure the protection of the Greek miners returning to work, the Greek Consulate of Salt Lake worked to smooth relationships between the returning workers and the Independent Coal and Coke Company. The Consulate assured all involved that the ordeal was simply the act of a small number of discontents, and not an organized effort of the Greek population of Kenilworth. 

In relation to other labor strikes in Utah’s mining history, the strike of Greek miners in Kenilworth in February of 1911 is relatively small. The strike only lasted a few short days, and the striking Greek miners were unsuccessful in bargaining for better treatment. But it is, on a small scale, an example of the often frenzied efforts of the immigrant mine workers to do what they could to improve their working conditions.