Colorado has significant reserves of coal. Over millions of years, as the Rocky Mountains uplifted, powerful tectonic forces heaved veins of coal close to the surface of the land. In 1867, these coal deposits caught the attention of William Jackson Palmer, who was then leading a survey team planning the route of the Kansas Pacific Railway. The rapid expansion of rail transport in the United States made coal a highly-valued commodity, and it was rapidly commercialized. At its peak in 1910, the coal mining industry of Colorado employed 15,864 people, accounting for 10 percent of those employed in the state. Colorado's coal industry was dominated by a handful of operators. The largest, Colorado Fuel and Iron, was the largest coal operator in the west, as well as one of the nation's most powerful corporations, at one point employing 7,050 individuals and controlling 71,837 acres of coal land.
Mining was dangerous and difficult work. Colliers in Colorado were at constant risk for explosion, suffocation, and collapsing mine walls. In 1912, the death rate in Colorado's mines was 7.055 per 1,000 employees, compared to a national rate of 3.15. The high death was due in part to Colorado's unique geology, but also due to poor enforcement of safety regulations. In 1914, the United States House Committee on Mines and Mining reported that "Colorado has good mining laws and such that ought to afford protection to the miners as to safety in the mine if they were enforced, yet in this State the percentage of fatalities is larger than any other, showing there is undoubtedly something wrong in reference to the management of its coal mines." Miners were generally paid according to tonnage of coal produced, while so-called "dead work", such as shoring up unstable roofs, was often unpaid. According to historian Thomas G. Andrews, the tonnage system drove many poor and ambitious colliers to gamble with their lives by neglecting precautions and taking on risk, with consequences that were often fatal.
Colliers had little opportunity to air their grievances. Many colliers resided in company towns, in which all land, real estate, and amenities were owned by the mine operator, and which were expressly designed to inculcate loyalty and squelch dissent.. Welfare Capitalists believed that anger and unrest among the workers could be placated by raising colliers' standard of living, while subsuming it under company management. Company towns indeed brought tangible improvements to the lives of many colliers and their families, including larger houses, better medical care, and broader access to education. However, ownership of the towns provided companies considerable control over all aspects of workers' lives, and this power was not always used to augment public welfare. Historian Philip S. Foner has described company towns as "feudal domain[s], with the company acting as lord and master. ... The 'law' consisted of the company rules. Curfews were imposed. Company guards-brutal thugs armed with machine guns and rifles loaded with explosive bullets-would not admit any 'suspicious' stranger into the camp and would not permit any miner to leave." What more, miners who raised the ire of the company were liable to find themselves and their families summarily evicted from their homes.
Frustrated by working conditions which they felt were unsafe and unjust, colliers increasingly turned to unionism. Nationwide, organized mines boasted 40 percent fewer fatalities than nonunion mines. Colorado miners had repeatedly attempted to unionize since the state's first strike in 1883. The Western Federation of Miners organized primarily hard rock miners in the gold and silver camps during the 1890s. Beginning in 1900, the UMWA began organizing coal miners in the western states, including southern Colorado. The UMWA decided to focus on the CF&I because of the company's harsh management tactics under the conservative and distant Rockefellers and other investors. To break or prevent strikes, the coal companies hired immigrants, mainly from Mexico and southern and eastern Europe. CF&I's management mixed immigrants of different nationalities in the mines, a practice which discouraged communication that might lead to organization.
Despite attempts to suppress union activity, secret organizing by the UMWA continued in the years leading up to 1913. Eventually, the union presented a list of seven demands on behalf of the miners:
The major coal companies rejected the demands and in September 1913, the UMWA called a strike. Those who went on strike were promptly evicted from their company homes, and they moved to tent villages prepared by the UMWA. The tents were built on wood platforms and furnished with cast iron stoves on land leased by the union in preparation for a strike.
When leasing the sites, the union had strategically selected locations near the mouths of canyons that led to the coal camps, for the purpose of monitoring traffic and harassing replacement workers. Confrontations between striking miners and working miners, referred to as "scabs" by the union, sometimes resulted in deaths. The company hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to protect the new workers and harass the strikers.
Baldwin-Felts had a reputation for aggressive strike breaking. Agents shone searchlights on the tent villages at night and fired bullets into the tents at random, occasionally killing and maiming people. They used an improvised armored car, mounted with a machine gun the union called the "Death Special," to patrol the camp's perimeters. The steel-covered car was built in the CF&I plant in Pueblo, Colorado from the chassis of a large touring sedan. Frequent sniper attacks on the tent colonies drove the miners to dig pits beneath the tents where they and their families could be better protected.
As strike-related violence mounted, Colorado governor Elias M. Ammons called in the Colorado National Guard on October 28. At first, the Guard's appearance calmed the situation, but the sympathies of Guard leaders lay with company management. Guard Adjutant-General John Chase, who had served during the violent Cripple Creek strike 10 years earlier, imposed a harsh regime. On March 10, 1914, the body of a replacement worker was found on the railroad tracks near Forbes, Colorado. The National Guard said that the man had been murdered by the strikers. In retaliation, Chase ordered the Forbes tent colony destroyed. The attack was launched while the inhabitants were attending a funeral of infants who had died a few days earlier. The attack was witnessed by photographer Lou Dold, whose images of the destruction appear often in accounts of the strike.
The strikers persevered until the spring of 1914. By then, the state had run out of money to maintain the Guard, and was forced to recall them. The governor and the mining companies, fearing a breakdown in order, left two Guard units in southern Colorado and allowed the coal companies to finance a residual militia consisting largely of CF&I camp guards in National Guard uniforms.
|1. John Bartolotti, 45|
|2. Charlie Costa, 31|
|3. Fedelina Costa, 27|
|4. Lucy Costa, 4|
|5. Onofrio Costa, 6|
|6. James Fyler, 43|
|7. Cloriva Pedregon, 4|
|8. Rodgerlo Pedregon, 6|
|9. Frank Petrucci, 4 mo.|
|10. Joe Petrucci, 4|
|11. Lucy Petrucci, 2|
|12. Frank Rubino, 23|
|13. William Snyder Jr., 11|
|14. Louis Tikas, 30|
|15. George Ullman, 56|
|16. Elvira Valdez, 3 mo.|
|17. Eulala Valdez, 8|
|18. Mary Valdez, 7|
|19. Patria Valdez, 37|
On the morning of April 20, the day after Easter was celebrated by the many Greek immigrants at Ludlow, three Guardsmen appeared at the camp ordering the release of a man they claimed was being held against his will. This request prompted the camp leader, Louis Tikas, to meet with a local militia commander at the train station in Ludlow village, a half mile (0.8 km) from the colony. While this meeting was progressing, two companies of militia installed a machine gun on a ridge near the camp and took a position along a rail route about half a mile south of Ludlow. Anticipating trouble, Tikas ran back to the camp. The miners, fearing for the safety of their families, set out to flank the militia positions. A firefight soon broke out.
The fighting raged for the entire day. The militia was reinforced by non-uniformed mine guards later in the afternoon. At dusk, a passing freight train stopped on the tracks in front of the Guards' machine gun placements, allowing many of the miners and their families to escape to an outcrop of hills to the east called the "Black Hills." By 7:00 p.m., the camp was in flames, and the militia descended on it and began to search and loot the camp. Louis Tikas had remained in the camp the entire day and was still there when the fire started. Tikas and two other men were captured by the militia. Tikas and Lt. Karl Linderfelt, commander of one of two Guard companies, had confronted each other several times in the previous months. While two militiamen held Tikas, Linderfelt broke a rifle butt over his head. Tikas and the other two captured miners were later found shot dead. Their bodies lay along the Colorado and Southern tracks for three days in full view of passing trains. The militia officers refused to allow them to be moved until a local of a railway union demanded the bodies be taken away for burial.
During the battle, four women and eleven children had been hiding in a pit beneath one tent, where they were trapped when the tent above them was set on fire. Two of the women and all of the children suffocated. These deaths became a rallying cry for the UMWA, who called the incident the "Ludlow Massacre."
In addition to the fire victims, Louis Tikas and the other men who were shot to death, three company guards and one militiaman were killed in the day's fighting.
In response to the Ludlow massacre, the leaders of organized labor in Colorado issued a call to arms, urging union members to acquire "all the arms and ammunition legally available," and a large-scale guerrilla war ensued, lasting ten days. In Trinidad, Colorado, UMWA officials openly distributed arms and ammunition to strikers at union headquarters. 700 to 1,000 strikers "attacked mine after mine, driving off or killing the guards and setting fire to the buildings." At least fifty people, including those at Ludlow, were killed in ten days of fighting against mine guards and hundreds of militia reinforcements rushed back into the strike zone. The fighting ended only when US President Woodrow Wilson sent in Federal troops. The troops, who reported directly to Washington, DC, disarmed both sides, displacing and often arresting the militia in the process.
This conflict, called the Colorado Coalfield War, was the most violent labor conflict in US history; the reported death toll ranged from 69 in the Colorado government report to 199 in an investigation ordered by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
The UMWA finally ran out of money, and called off the strike on December 10, 1914.
In the end, the strikers failed to obtain their demands, the union did not obtain recognition, and many striking workers were replaced by new workers. Over 400 strikers were arrested, 332 of whom were indicted for murder. Only one man, John Lawson, leader of the strike, was convicted of murder, and that verdict was eventually overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Twenty-two National Guardsmen, including 10 officers, were court martialed. All were acquitted, except Lt. Linderfelt, who was found guilty of assault for his attack on Louis Tikas. However, he was given only a light reprimand.
Rev. Cook pastored the local church in Trinidad, Colorado. He was one of the few Pastors in Trinidad who tried to provide Christian burials to the deceased victims of the Ludlow Massacre. Cook died in 1938.
Although the UMWA failed to win recognition by the company, the strike had a lasting impact both on conditions at the Colorado mines and on labor relations nationally. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. engaged labor relations experts and future Canadian Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King to help him develop reforms for the mines and towns, which included paved roads and recreational facilities, as well as worker representation on committees dealing with working conditions, safety, health, and recreation. There was to be no discrimination against workers who had belonged to unions, and the establishment of a company union. The Rockefeller plan was accepted by the miners in a vote.
The novel King Coal by Upton Sinclair is loosely based on the origin and aftermath of The Ludlow Massacre.
A United States Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR), headed by labor lawyer Frank Walsh, conducted hearings in Washington, collecting information and taking testimony from all the principals, including John D. Rockefeller, Sr., who testified that, even after knowing that guards in his pay had committed atrocities against the strikers, he "would have taken no action" to prevent his hirelings from attacking them. The commission's report suggested many reforms sought by the unions, and provided support for bills establishing a national eight-hour work day and a ban on child labor.
The UMWA eventually bought the site of the Ludlow tent colony in 1916. Two years later, they erected the Ludlow Monument to commemorate those who had died during the strike. The monument was damaged in May 2003 by unknown vandals. The repaired monument was unveiled on June 5, 2005, with slightly altered faces on the statues.
Several popular songs have been written and recorded about the events at Ludlow. Among them is "Ludlow Massacre" by American folk singer Woody Guthrie, and "The Monument (Lest We Forget)" by Irish musician Andy Irvine.
The last survivor of the Ludlow Massacre, Mary Benich-McCleary, died of a stroke at the age of 94 on June 28, 2007. She was 18 months old when the massacre occurred. McCleary's parents and her two brothers narrowly escaped death when the conductor of the train that brought the militia to the tent colony stopped the train to shield the family and others trying to flee, but Mary had been left behind. A 16-year-old boy heard her screams, gathered her up into his coat and then ran into the woods. Mary and the boy were found several days later, still hiding. McCleary's daughter said family members didn't speak of the massacre.
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