In the pre-dawn hours of a sweltering summer’s day in 1917, some 2,000 deputies began spreading themselves throughout Bisbee and its surrounding communities to lay in wait for the morning shift of pickets.
This was to be the day of the great “drive,” and the men were on high alert, and undoubtedly nerves were on edge. The deputies — though officially inducted by the sheriff, many would call them vigilantes — came armed, most from the greater Bisbee area and some from Douglas.
They had received coded phone messages the night before and knew their roles. The men, whose wives had torn strips of cloth to provide them white arm bands to show their authority — as if the rifles were not enough — moved quietly and stealthily into prescribed positions, secreting themselves in buildings and businesses near gathering points for the union pickets.
Serious business, of unknown risk
None of the men knew how risky their undertaking would be. None knew how successful the organizers of the drive had been in keeping it a secret from its intended prey.
Other than they, and there were some 2,000 of them, loyal Americans all and trustworthy to a fault, few knew of the impending event. The secret even had been entrusted to the paperboys who would soon be delivering the morning news warning those who weren’t part of the day’s events — especially women and (ironically, considering who was delivering the news) children — to keep of the streets.
Nor could anyone guess about its far-ranging implications, that it would lead to polarization in their community for almost a century.
Long series of deportations
This was the Bisbee Deportation. It wasn’t the first time that members of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) — Wobblies — would be run out of a town. It had happened just days earlier at Jerome, in northern Arizona.
The first one of consequence was in San Diego in 1911, when Wobblies, led by none other than Emma Goldman, attempted to assert their rights to free speech.[pullquote]Then there would be investigations of the event, lawsuits against the railroad and an indictment of hundreds of those who took part in the deportation, followed by a trial in Tombstone.[/pullquote]
Between San Diego and Bisbee, there were many other such events around the county, but none would have the impact of the Bisbee Deportation.
It removed more than 1,100 men (and a few women), members of the IWW, other unions and no unions, of numerous nationalities, some of whom had registered for the World War I draft and some who had not. There were a few family men. There were a few property owners.
Many had gone out on strike after the action was called in late June. With the war in full swing, and America recently involved, most of those in power around Cochise County considered the act — which hurt the nation’s ability to wage war — nothing short of treason.
Huge district-wide impact
About 2,000 men were rounded up throughout the district and marched to the Warren Ballpark, which served as a “bullpen.” Sitting next to the park were boxcars and cattle cars of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, which had much the same ownership as the biggest Bisbee mining company.
Each man was to be given the opportunity to go back to work. Some made that choice. Others had it made for them, by family members. Most, however, did not (or perhaps did not have it offered.)
Those who did not were loaded onto the rail cars and began their trek toward New Mexico. As the train pulled out, most in the district believed the worst of the strike was over.
The strike, per se, was indeed over. Yet in the months and years to come, there would be continual repercussions. First came a “mediation commission,” led by the Secretary of Labor and sent by the president, to find out both why labor trouble was happening around Arizona and what could be done, with the foremost concern being a supply of materiel for the war effort.
Then there would be investigations of the event, lawsuits against the railroad and an indictment of hundreds of those who took part in the deportation, followed by a trial in Tombstone.
Nationwide, the federal government was going to war against the IWW as well, raiding many union halls and putting leaders on trial. It was from these raids that many of the documents used in the Tombstone trial originated.
While much about the Deportation is known, much still remains a mystery. Why, for instance, did the strike move from being peaceful (as cast by the local newspaper), to being sufficiently dangerous to merit such drastic action? How were the deportees selected? What were the fates of so many of the men who were deported?
The Bisbee Deportation is certainly one of the most important stories in Arizona’s history, and arguably the most complex.
As its 2017 centennial approaches, it merits further research, further discussion, further understanding. It needs to move far out of the realm of black and white, “us vs. them” and all other simplistic sound bites.
The Bisbee Deportation must be treated as the event that it was, seminal in the creation of modern Bisbee and of modern America.