Gage McKinney: To gold miners, World War I was never far away
Special to The Union
The men of the Empire mine, the workers no less than the owners, participated in a global mining economy.
In August 1914, Grass Valley was a continent and ocean away from the roar of the guns in Europe. Yet, given the international orientation of mines and miners, the war was never far from their thoughts.
William Bourn saw the war as an abrogation of Western culture, of the values derived from the Hebrew prophets and Socratic philosophers. For him, the brutal subjugation of Belgium and the starving of its once free people was a sufficient indictment of Germany and her partners in war. Bourn lent his considerable fortune and influence to help bring America into the war on the side of Britain and France. His workforce in Grass Valley – largely European-born miners and their sons – stood should-to-shoulder behind him.
In San Francisco, Bourn organized the Friends of France to promote America’s entry into the war, drawing support from his friends in the Pacific Union Club. He raised money to send ambulances to the Western front and recruited university students from Stanford and Berkeley to drive them. With his friend Charles Mills Gayley, an Anglo-Irish professor at Berkeley, he organized the American League to promote his aims. The League had chapters throughout California, with its strongest chapter in Grass Valley.
Empire miners and their families contributed to humanitarian efforts throughout the war, beginning with a drive for Belgian relief in 1916. General manager George Starr made a large contribution and the workers contributed as they could. After America entered the war in April 1917, the mine hosted a gala fundraising event for the Red Cross, supported by the workers and attended by 1,500 people from Grass Valley and Nevada City. The county, led by its miners, exceeded its quota for buying war bonds.
By the fall of 1917, the Empire mine was hoisting a flag each morning with 49 stars – the number of its workers who had joined the U.S. military. Others, especially Cornishmen, traveled north to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Richard Trathen, a 30-year old native of Pendeen, Cornwall, was one who served. He had a brother, James, who died early in 1917 while fighting with a Devonshire regiment in France. After learning of his brother’s death, and though he was still a British citizen, Trathen joined the U.S. Army. He trained with the 91st Division at Fort Lewis, Washington and saw action in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and Battle of Flanders. He was awarded a Purple Heart. After the war he returned to Grass Valley, where he raised a family. He was lucky.
In Grass Valley’s Memorial Park a plaque honors nurse Elina Hill and 18 elms represent 18 men, none of whom came home.
Cheers and parades marked the signing of the armistice 100 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918. But following a punitive peace settlement, and the collapse of President Wilson’s dream of an America-led League of Nations, disillusionment replaced the cheers. The slogans which once prompted men to enter the fight sounded hollow after the fight had ended.
Already, the seeds of another war were in the ground.
Gage McKinney, who lives in Grass Valley, is the author of “The 1930s: No Depression Here,” “MacBoyle’s Gold” and other books. Visit http://www.gagemckinney.com for information.
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