miners heading logo


The young man who, as president of Telluride's WFM Local 63, led the miners to victory in 1901, gaining the everlasting enmity of the mining corporations, was the son of an Irish immigrant, Marian "Mary" Cecilia Magee, and New York native, Silas St. John. Vincent was born in Newport, Kentucky, 6 July 1876. He was the couple's first surviving son, following on the deaths of their first three children. Vincent had a sister two years younger named Helen and one seven years younger named Mary. The family moved frequently, eventually settling in San Jose, California.
Vincent grew up working hard to supplement the family's income, dropping out of school at thirteen to support his deserted mother and sisters (Silas no longer acknowledged his children). At seventeen, Vincent found work as a miner, a profession that led him into the arms of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). At eighteen he found work in the Cripple Creek mines. At twenty he moved to Telluride and was hired at the Smuggler-Union in early 1897. With nearly a hundred other miners, he lived near the Bullion Tunnel in a drafty bunkhouse. His free hours were spent with books, music, chess, and camaraderie. His fellow miners loved him. His deep sense of purpose, passion for justice, and unflagging energy were contagious to them. They were captivated by his naïve idealism and the Irish wit and sarcasm inherited from his mother, now honed to an art form.

St. John spoke to the hearts of young and old alike. He believed in political action and direct action to bring labor out of the pit of wage slavery, but abhorred violence, always stressing the principles of the WFM constitution, "to use all honorable means to maintain and promote friendly relations between ourselves and our employers." His oft-repeated line was, "Violence never solves anything."

The baby-faced, twenty-four-year-old Vincent St. John was elected as president of Telluride Local 63 in September 1900. His comrades affectionately called him "Vint" or "Saint"– the latter nickname having nothing to do with piety or Vatican proclamations, but merely derived from his surname. His leadership was put to the test in early 1901 when the new manager of the Smuggler-Union Mining Company cut the wages of most of the company's miners. Local 63 unanimously voted to strike.

Bullion Tunnel, Smuggler Mine

Despite harassment and mounting tension, St. John kept the striking miners peaceful, urging them on to see the strike through. When hired gunmen shot an unarmed striker, a riot erupted in Marshall Basin, where pickets were posted. St. John almost single-handedly brought the riot to an end within a few hours, and finally brought the strike to a successful conclusion. The mine manager signed an agreement with the union to restore living wages and other demands.
The majority of Telluride's citizens viewed St. John's efforts as heroic and he was held in high regard by miners and townsfolk alike. He was nominated to run for sheriff in the fall of 1901, losing by only 36 votes. A handful of local businessmen and the Smuggler-Union Company ran an ugly campaign to discredit and vilify St. John before the election, but after his selfless work to save his comrades and to recover their bodies during the nightmare fire of 20 November 1901, at the Smuggler, this group set out to destroy the man. They didn't fear St. John as a man; they feared his power to unite large bodies of laboring men.

And unite them, he did. Union membership swelled to 1,300, the largest in the state. Reelected time and again as president of the local union and the San Juan District Union, St. John ignored the bitter and threatening clique, dedicating himself to improving the lot of his fellow miners. He organized a reading room, insisted that union literature be in several languages to reach the numerous immigrant miners, and inspired the membership to strive for great things, such as the construction of a three-story brick hospital that would house also a library and union offices.

Along with his best friend and fellow union officer, Secretary/Treasurer Oscar M. Carpenter, St. John motivated the membership to donate funds for the project, a project that was met with enthusiasm throughout the district. Businessmen donated funds and equipment and in November of 1902 the Telluride Miners' Union Hospital opened its doors. It was an astounding achievement, and is one of the finest original buildings still standing in Telluride, a mute reminder of the solidarity of a once vibrant union.

St. John and Carpenter were hailed as champions, thus becoming targets of an unceasing persecution. A hired gunman was sent after St. John and he never could safely return to Telluride. During the millmen strike in 1903-04 for an eight-hour day and nondiscrimination, Oscar Carpenter was also brutally run out of town. The two were accused of murdering Will Barney and condemned by the anti-labor press for butchering this one-time Smuggler Mine guard. Documents since have proven Barney was never murdered; he was quite alive a year and eight years after his date with death.
Miners' Hospital
Vincent St. John went on to organize the miners in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho. Wherever he went he was persecuted, arrested on false charges, incarcerated without due process and eventually let out if he promised to leave town. In November 1907 Paddy Mullaney attempted to assassinate him on the streets of Goldfield, Nevada. The bullets shattered his bones, permanently crippling his right arm. Mullaney was never charged.
In 1907, St. John was elected as General Secretary of the Industrial Workers of the World. He served in this capacity until 1914, when he retired to a small mining claim in New Mexico. He worked the claim with his old friend, Oscar Carpenter, but was again arrested on trumped-up charges, this time by the federal government. Hundreds of members of the Industrial Workers of the World were charged under blanket indictments that produced blanket convictions. Today the government admits these men and women were political prisoners. The sweep was meant to destroy what had become one of the most powerful unions in the country.
St. John served thirteen months of a 10-year sentence that was designed to leave him a broken old man. On 23 June 1923, President Warren G. Harding signed a document stating, "Vincent St. John is a fit object of executive clemency," and the Saint walked free.

Due to his arrest and time fighting his unjust indictment, appeal and incarceration, St. John had lost his small claim in New Mexico and came out of Leavenworth impoverished. His health was shattered by tuberculosis contracted in prison and he died only six years later on 21 June 1929, at the age of 52. He was buried in Oakland, California's Mountain View Cemetery, without a stone to mark his passing. In 1992 a group of Bay Area labor activists were granted permission to place a memorial at The Saint's final resting place. The simple red-granite stone honors his life-long commitment to the cause of labor.
To read the story of Vincent St. John and Oscar M.Carpenter
in the context of Telluride's labor history, see the book
The Corpse on Boomerang Road: Telluride's War on Labor 1899-1908
Corpse on Boomerang Road
Western Reflections Publishing Company
P.O. Box 1149
Lake City, CO 81235
Fax: 970-944-0273
Email: publisher@westernreflectionspublishing.com
For a preview of the book, visit these links:
Preview the bookTMM logoRead excerpts

Copyright by TMM 2005
[From the book, The Corpse on Boomerang Road: Telluride's War on Labor 1899-1908, Western Reflections Publishing 2004. No part of this material may be used without permission of TMM]
"Let truth light our way"
The Memorial Telluride The Artist The Miners Vincent St. John The Dead Ft. Peabody Donate Adopt a Miner Contact Links
Website designed by Grasshopper. © TMM 2005. All rights reserved.