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Rosalea Barker: Utah


by Rosalea Barker

What were the famous last words of the most sung-about man to die in Utah? Trick question! There was only one word, and it was “Fire!” Perhaps you dreamt you saw him last night, and you had a bit of a natter. “I didn’t die,” said he.

Joel Hagglund was born in Gavle, Sweden, and arrived at Ellis Island as an immigrant in 1902 at the age of 23, drawn by the great American Dream. As the Utah government’s website says:

“His naive idealism about American society was soon shattered by the harsh conditions and exploitation of immigrant workers that he witnessed. He became an itinerant laborer, working in mines, the lumber industry, and as a longshoreman. He also developed skills as a hobo, traveling on freight trains and living off the land.”

Joe Hill, as we know him, joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) in 1910, and many of his songs were published in the IWW’s Little Red Song Book. In 1913, Hill moved to Utah to work in the Park City mines, but a year later was convicted of the murder of a shopkeeper on very shaky evidence. Initially, one eye-witness declared straight out that Hill wasn’t the killer, but the zeitgeist of the times was very anti- anyone with IWW connections. Even the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson (twice) was not sufficient to prevent Hill’s execution by firing squad in Utah’s Sugar House state prison on November 19, 1915.

Hill protested his innocence until the end, and his legendary giving of the command to Fire! himself was a big morale boost to workers who seemed never to have the last word when it came to pay and working conditions. The song written about the martyred Joe Hill has been recorded many times; perhaps the most famous rendition is the one Joan Baez sang at Woodstock. “From San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill, where working men defend their rights, it’s there you find Joe Hill.”

The miners in Utah were in sore need of organizing. President Lincoln had described the vast territory of which Utah was once part as the nation’s “treasure house” because of the vast mineral resources buried there. Amongst that treasure was coal. The first small coalmining companies were set up because the Governor of then Utah Territory, Brigham Young, restricted the use of timber to building purposes only, anticipating a huge influx of settlers.

The coal was to be used as household fuel instead of wood, but as railroads became more common, trees were taken for railroad ties (sleepers), and huge railroad companies soon bought out the local mine owners, as much of the coal was ideal for powering steam locomotives. The Golden Spike linking the east and west sections of the Transcontinental Railroad was driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, but smaller railroads were the backbone of settlement over vast areas of territory.

Some of the coal deposits turned out to be particularly suitable for coking and use in the manufacture of steel. As with all coal deposits of that type, methane gas was an ever-present danger—especially in an era when miners’ lamps consisted of a bare flame. In 1923, in Carbon County, Utah, at the Castle Gate mine, an explosion of such force that it blew the cast-iron doors of the mine’s ventilator shaft clear over a mountaintop killed 173 miners and many were injured.

In his reminiscences at, Eugene Halverson—who is of Finnish heritage—recalls the battles that took place between miners, mine-owners, and scab labor. “The State Militia would be called to establish martial law and sharpshooters hiding in the hills would shoot at the strikers. I can still remember the metal tank on rails that protected the Company gunmen while they shot at the strikers.” “When their husbands were locked into box-cars, pest houses or jail,” Halverston writes, “the wives and daughters would march in the streets and man the picket lines.”

Utah mines have a reputation for being dangerous—“4 times more dangerous in 1996” according to Halverson—and miners have to rely on federal laws and court cases to address their concerns because state law is non-existent in this area. On its website, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining states:

“Oil Gas and Mining is not charged by statute with worker safety nor is it staffed or funded to conduct such work. In Utah, the 2008 Legislature created the Utah office of Coal Mine Safety within the Labor Commission, with the primary duties to promote coal mine safety in Utah and to participate with MSHA in an investigation of a major coal mine accident.” (MSHA is the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in the US Department of Labor. For a discussion of who owns mineral rights in the US, see this article on

A membership-based, non-profit organization called the Utah Safety Council provides links to video training materials for miners and helps the MHSA to coordinate in-person training for miners. Safety issues seem still to be given short shrift by Utah mine owners. A description of the Willow Creek coalmine explosion and fire which killed two miners in July, 2000, posted on the United States Mine Rescue Association website, is a sad tale of mechanical problems, broken equipment, lack of fire extinguishers, and a washdown hose that wasn’t long enough for water to reach the fire.

Utah was admitted as the 45th state in the Union on January 4, 1896, on its seventh attempt. Brigham Young had tried to have a state created that included just about all the West that didn’t yet have Yankee settlers in it as early as 1848, once the treaty between the US and Mexico had been completed. Other attempts included one in the years leading up to the Civil War, but Lincoln feared Young’s insistence on polygamy being allowed even though slavery wouldn’t be, would confuse the two issues in people’s minds.

It wasn’t until Utah Territory outlawed polygamy and—more importantly—gave up its two-party political system (one for Mormons, and one for everyone else) in favor of the two-party system of the Republicans and Democrats, that the territory became a state. It was the last to be admitted in the nineteenth century.



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