The filming location for the popular TV series Northern Exposure, Roslyn, Washington, might not be as eccentric as its fictional counterpart. But the seemingly sleepy little town does have a dramatic past and lingering bitter sentiments that some residents didn’t want exposed.
With family roots that lead directly to Roslyn, David Bullock, the author of Coal Wars: Unions, Strikes, and Violence in Depression-Era Central Washington, spent considerable time there—but all of it was long after a 1934 incident prompted a New Republic writer to dub the town a “little nest of Fascists.” Bullock wanted to understand why, at that moment, the community was such a tinderbox, and he made some surprising discoveries along the way. In the 1930s, members of radical labor movements often opposed each other, yet he unearthed attempts at cooperative efforts between Communists, Socialists, and the Industrial Workers of the World. He also found elements of a David and Goliath story, with fierce local leaders pitted against powerful national interests.
Some Central Washington residents warned Bullock to avoid the topic. Even decades later, they consider the region’s labor history to be controversial and many have intense reactions when interviewed. One source refused to provide a college paper he wrote in the 1970s, asserting individuals within the community could still be hurt by its contents.
Roslyn had always been a coal town, ever since a railway company opened the first mine in 1886. On a normal shift, the miners spent ten or more hours at the workplace. Bullock’s grandfather, an immigrant, was one of many who dressed, prepared lights and equipment, and traveled in and out of the mine shaft on his own time. Some trips took nearly an hour each way.
In the early 1930s, concerned about safety, locals demonstrated at the state capital. Their success prompted additional dreams of better working conditions, fair wages, and a six-hour workday. They expected their national labor union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), to remain strong during contract negotiations. Instead, UMWA leaders aligned with the coal company, setting the stage for the rise of a new local organization, the Western Miners Union of America.
With the United States in the midst of a severe national economic depression, the fledgling group faced opposition from their old union, a powerful railroad empire, and even their own government. The conflict between the Western Miners and the UMWA intensified, leading to murder on a Roslyn street corner. When the killer was acquitted, community outrage rose, and Communist activists and other radical labor groups offered to back the Western Miners.
The Western Miners called for a strike on April 3, 1934, but this time the unions themselves were rivals—dividing families, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and turning residents of Roslyn, Cle Elem, and Ronald against each other. At the picket lines, ordinary wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters pelted cars with rocks, rotten eggs, pine cones, and cow pies. They cursed and shrieked insults as they fought on behalf of their men. As the morning wore on, the taunts and assaults escalated. Officials called in the state police.
David Bullock made a concerted effort to keep his account balanced. He conducted interviews with local residents and reviewed newspapers, court documents, and corporate archives. Capturing the details surrounding a dual union movement in the 1930s American West, his narrative also describes the region’s melting pot of working families and the socio-political impacts of New Deal policies on their lives.
Now that it has been uncovered, perhaps Roslyn’s real history will inspire a new TV show.