Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning
A dramatic fictional account of early 20 th century mine workers and their oppressive overlords, peppered with social commentary and a history of union struggles.
This novelized account of early 20th century labor troubles in the Colorado mountains centers on a marble quarry in the high country that supplied most of the material for numerous national monuments and public buildings. Anyone viewing the excavation will come away awed and likely profoundly frightened. It’s an enormous perfectly squared hole in the ground the depths which are now in complete darkness: it’s a scary sight. The notion that hundreds of men descended every day into this cavernous space and hauled out gigantic blocks of perfectly white marble is impressive. It is no surprise that given the technology of the time and the attitudes of corporations towards the workers that many died and were maimed in the extraction of that valuable commodity. It was also the site of early unionization efforts which were going on all over our country at the time. That’s where this story comes in.
Silvie Pelletier is the teenaged daughter of a miner tasked with operating one of the large machines cutting stone into transportable blocks for the enrichment of an owner who can only be characterized as a robber baron. Worker safety is lowest on the list of priorities for the management. They are housed in substandard conditions, paid in scrip worthless outside the company stores and forced to work unpaid hours under harsh conditions. Eventually Sylvie’s father is killed by a faulty machine leaving the family without a source of income or the comfort of a father. She becomes involved with a union organizer who travels with the famous Mother Jones who migrated from camp to camp stirring up the laborers and promoting union formation. She is simultaneously working for the local independent newspaper and doing secretarial work for the wife of the mine owner in his palatial mansion. Her motives are conflicted, her feelings equally so as she becomes enamored with the wayward son of that wealthy family. Justice is good: money is desirable: luxury is alluring but the surrounding poverty and iniquity is heartbreaking. Her way is fraught with warring imperatives, and she agonizes about what is right and wrong, having been raised in a strictly moral Catholic tradition with clear lines between good and evil. Is she an instrument of the devil or simply a human looking for the best way?
This lively tale is written with verve and skill and seldom lags, featuring plenty of action, drama and romance. The healthy dose of history and social reportage is at the same time enlightening and appalling, as a chronicle of the maltreatment of workers in the early 20th century. In other words, there’s plenty of story but a core of truth that gives the whole considerable punch.