In Western American history, there’s no topic that’s more dynamite than labor, especially mining.
Puns aside, the repercussions of the mining strikes and labor wars that raged throughout the West in the late 1800s and early 1900s are essential for understanding the region—where it came from and where it’s going. And it’s still a source of fascination, for residents and foreigners alike. Indeed, it’s the focus of a new novel by Jack H. Bailey—Orchard.
Bailey (1923-2010) was born in Grants Pass, Oregon, and worked mainly for North American Aviation as a technical writer. He published two novels based on his experience, 1968’s The Number Two Man and 1972’s The Icarus Complex. He later became a screenwriter, penning scripts for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicoll Fellowship screenwriting competition. Orchard is his last novel, published posthumously, and centers on one of the most enigmatic figures in labor conflict history: Harry Orchard.
Orchard—born Albert Edward Horsley in Wooler, Ontario, Canada—worked various jobs before he got involved in mining: a farmhand in his youth, a logger in Saginaw, Michigan at the age of 22; he was briefly a cheesemaker, although he later burned it down for the insurance money, and later drove a milk wagon in Wallace, Idaho, investing in the Hercules silver mines before losing his 1/16 share as gambling arrears—which led him into the mines themselves.
You don’t get much sense of Orchard’s long, circuitous backstory from Bailey’s narration, who’s principally concerned with portraying him as a swaggering man of action, “well liked by the ladies,” caught up in a regional labor war. Bailey’s Orchard, in fact, is a pretty flat character, when you consider the historical Orchard Bailey bases him off.
At the heart of Orchard’s tangle of alliances and warfare is a set of real characters: Pinkerton detectives Charles Siringo and James McParland, former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, Industrial Workers of the World leader William “Big Bill” Haywood, Western Federation of Miners president Charles Moyer, fellow WFM member Steve Adams, and miner George Pettibone.
One event is of particular interest: the 1899 “labor confrontation” at Coeur d’Alene, where Governor Steunenberg (elected to office with union support) declared martial law after members of the still incipient WFM destroyed a Bunker Hill Mining Company mill at Wardner. Although Steunenberg left office shortly afterward, his actions were seen as a betrayal in the labor community. And that’s where Orchard comes in.
Owing to the book’s basis in historical fact, the events of Orchard are fixed, with the climax coming when Orchard blows up Steunenberg with a bomb fixed to the gate of his residence in Caldwell, Idaho December 30, 1905. Orchard is blasé about the whole thing afterward, per Bailey’s narration: “He’d killed the governor and now his union career was finally over. A feeling of great relief swept over him as he drifted off to sleep.”
Interestingly, both in fact and in fiction, Orchard makes no attempt to escape. Bailey offers no overt comment on it, but some labor historians have puzzled over this fact. Per Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph Anthony McCartin, writing in We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, “Perhaps a psychotic personality disorder led Orchard into a life of violence, and perhaps that same disorder eventually caused him to seek penance for his (mis)deeds.” You can see a photo of Orchard shortly after his arrest above.
The book ends shortly afterward, with Orchard confessing to his crimes to McParland and Siringo. The crimes he divulges are riveting, to say the least:
Orchard took a deep breath. There wasn’t a sound in the room but the ticking of the clock on the wall behind the warden’s desk.
“In Burke, Idaho, in 1889, I dynamited the tramway at the Imogene mine. That was my first job. Bill Haywood paid me forty dollars. In Telluride, Colorado, in 1892…”
A short epilogue following Orchard’s confession explains how Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone were subsequently whisked away to Idaho to stand charges for conspiracy in the assassination of Steunenberg. It’s worth noting: none of them were in Idaho at the time; they were picked up in Denver—and kept away from Orchard. Adams was arrested near Baker, Oregon, and confessed once he learned of Orchard’s testimony. The trial that follows is perhaps the most interesting part of the Orchard assassination—and it’s precisely what the book leaves out.
In the end, the omission of the Haywood Trail undercuts Bailey’s work at establishing Orchard’s character and does a disservice to the complexities of the West’s labor history, particularly Idaho’s, and muddles Orchard‘s dramatic thrust.
Further, the suggestion made in Orchard’s epilogue that Haywood, Pettibone, and Adams’ acquittals, along with dropped charges against Moyer, were a “startling finale” is disingenuous at best, given that their defense was headed by legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow, who, along with attorney Edmund F. Richardson, eviscerated Orchard’s testimony implicating Haywood and co. in Steunenberg’s assassination. Orchard was eventually sentenced to death, but ended up serving a commuted sentence—a life sentence at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary.
On the whole, Orchard flits between two modes—historical recounting and “man of action” swagger—and doesn’t succeed in either balancing or synthesizing the two. Orchard is mostly swagger—some of it quite thrilling—but the setting seems almost incidental instead of central.