ON APRIL 21, 1914, in the quiet afternoon, a telephone linesman was
making his way through the charred ruins of a miners' tent colony in southern
Colorado. He lifted an iron cot covering a pit under one of the tents, and there
he found the blackened, swollen bodies of eleven children and two women.
The news was flashed swiftly to the world. The tragedy was given a name:
the Ludlow Massacre.
Some Americans know about the Ludlow Massacre, though it does not
appear in most of the history texts used in our schools and colleges. Woody
Guthrie wrote a song about it, a dark, brooding song. But few know that the
Ludlow Massacre was the central event in a fourteen-month strike of coal
miners that took a toll of at least sixty-six lives—a strike which is one of the
most dramatic and violent events in the history of this country.
Two governmental committees subsequently recorded over five thousand
pages of firsthand testimony by participants in the Colorado coal strike.
Thousands of newspaper stories and hundreds of magazine articles dealt
with the conflict. Some of the most fascinating figures in American history
were involved in some way in that event: Mother Jones and Eugene Debs,
Woodrow Wilson, John D. Rockefeller and Ivy Lee, Upton Sinclair and John
Yet that story has been buried, in the way that labor struggles in general
have been omitted or given brief mention in most mainstream accounts of the
history of the United States. It deserves to be recalled, because embedded in
the events of the Colorado strike are issues still alive today: the class
struggle between owners of large enterprises and their workers, the special
treatment of immigrant workers, the relationship between economic power
and political power, the role of the press, and the way in which the culture
censors out certain historical events.
The Colorado strike took place in a physical setting of vast proportions and
staggering beauty. Down the center of the rectangle that is Colorado, from
north to south, march an array of huge, breathtaking mountains—the
Rockies—whose naked cliffs merge, on their eastern edge, with low hills
covered with cedar and yellow pine. To the east of that is the plain—really a
mile-high plateau—a tawny expanse of pasture grass sprinkled with prairie
flowers in the spring and summer, and gleaming here and there with yellow-
Beneath the tremendous weight of the Rockies, in the course of countless
centuries, decaying vegetation gradually mineralized into the black rock
known as coal. The constantly increasing proportion of carbon in this rock
transformed it from vegetable matter to peat, then to lignite and bituminous
coal, and finally to anthracite.
Three great coalfields, consisting chiefly of bituminous coal, were formed
in Colorado. One of them was contained within two counties in southern
Colorado, Las Animas and Huerfano counties, just east of the mountains.
This field was made up of about forty discontinuous seams, ranging from a
few inches to fourteen feet thick. These seams were from two hundred and
fifty to about five hundred feet deep.
The mining of these fields became possible on a large scale only in the
1870s, when the railroads moving west from Kansas City, south from Denver,
and north from New Mexico, converged on the region. At about this time,
settlers moving down the old Santa Fe trail built a town on the banks of the
Purgatory River (el Rio de las Animas Perdidas Purgatorio—the river of lost
souls), just east of the Sangre de Cristo (blood of Christ) mountains and
about fifteen miles north of the New Mexican border.
The town was called Trinidad, and it became the center of the southern
mining area. By 1913 it had about ten thousand people—miners, ranchers,
farmers, and businessmen. From the main highways and railroad lines
leading north out of Trinidad, branch railways and old wagon roads cut
sharply west into the foothills of the mountains, into the steep-walled
canyons where the mining camps lay. Scattered in these narrow canyons, on
the flat bands of earth running along the canyon bottoms, were the huts of
the miners, the mine buildings, and the mine entries.
It was a shocking contrast: the wild beauty of the Colorado countryside
against the unspeakable squalor of these mining camps. The miners' huts,
usually shared by several families, were made of clapboard walls and thin-
planked floors, with leaking roofs, sagging doors, broken windows, and layers
of old newspapers nailed to the walls to keep out the cold. Some families,
particularly Negro families, were forced to live in tiny squares not much bigger
than chicken coops.
Within sight of the huts were the coke ovens and the mine tipple, where
coal was emptied from the cars that carried it to the surface. Thick clouds of
soot clogged the air and settled on the ground, strangling any shoots of
grass or flowers that tried to grow there. Wriggling along the canyon wall,
behind the huts, was a now sluggish creek, dirty yellow and laden with the
slag of the mine and the refuse of the camp. Alongside the creek the children
played, barefoot, ragged, and often hungry.
Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as
lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid
by the company. The "laws" were the company's rules. Curfews were
imposed, "suspicious" strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the
company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp. The doctor was a
company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company.
In the early dawn, cages carried the men down into the blackness of the
mine. There was usually a main tunnel, with dozens of branch tunnels
leading into the "rooms," held up by timbers, where the miners hacked away
at the face of the coal seam with hand picks and their helpers shoveled the
coal into waiting railroad cars. The loaded cars were drawn along their tracks
by mules to the main shaft, where they were lifted to the surface, and then to
the top of the tipple, and then the coal showered down through the sorting
screens into flatcars.
Since the average coal seam was about three feet high, the miners would
often work on their knees or on their sides, never able to straighten up. The
ventilation system was a crude affair that depended on the manipulation of
tunnel doors by "trapper boys"—often thirteen or fourteen years old—who
were being initiated into the work.
The first to labor in the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company's mines were
Welshmen and Englishmen who had gained their experience in their mother
countries. But with the great waves of immigration from southern Europe in
the 1880s and 1890s, these were joined by Italians, Greeks, Poles,
Hungarians, Montenegrins, and Serbs. There was also a large proportion of
Mexicans and Negroes.
It was a man in charge of the "Sociological Department" of Colorado Fuel
& Iron who described the mine bosses and camp officials this way: "At the
bottom of the pit with pick and shovel the miner frequently found a grafting pit
boss on his back. The camp superintendents as a whole impress me as
most uncouth, ignorant, immoral, and in many instances the most brutal set
of men that we have ever met. Blasphemous bullies."
Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held
economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and
the other mine operators was virtually supreme. A letter from company
manager L. M. Bowers to the secretary of John D. Rockefeller Jr., written in
May of 1913, describes the situation:
The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company for many years was accused of being the
political dictator of southern Colorado, and in fact was a mighty power in the
whole state. When I came here it was said that the C. F. & I. voted every
man and woman in their employ without any regard to their being naturalized
or not; and even their mules, it used to be remarked, were registered, if they
were fortunate enough to possess names.... The company became notorious
in many sections for their support of the liquor interests. They established
saloons everywhere they possibly could.... A sheriff, elected by the votes of
the C. F. & I. Co. employees ... established himself or became a partner in
sixteen liquor stores in our coal mines.
The Colorado attorney general who conducted an investigation in Huerfano
County in the fall of 1913, on the eve of the strike, said, "I found a very perfect
political machine, just as much a machine as Tammany in New York."
Another letter, from Superintendent Bowers to Rockefeller shortly after the
strike began, describes the cooperation of the bankers and the governor
against the strike, and refers to Governor Ammons (a Democrat and a
supporter of President Woodrow Wilson) as "our little cowboy governor."
Colorado's deputy labor commissioner, Edwin Brake, later testified before
the House Mines and Mining subcommittee that investigated the strike, "It's
very seldom you can convict anyone in Huerfano County if he's got any
friends. Jeff Farr, the sheriff, selects the jury and they're picked to convict or
acquit as the case may be."
A Reverend Atkinson, who interviewed Governor Ammons during the
strike, asked the governor if there was constitutional law and government in
Colorado, to which Ammons replied, "Not a bit in those counties where the
coal mines are located."
Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated
coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages.
Polling places were often on company property. J. C. Baldwin, gambler and
bartender, was jury foreman in 80 percent of the cases tried in his county.
Much of the land on which these camps stood had been acquired under
dubious circumstances under the provisions of the Desert Land Act,
according to a report made in 1885 by the federal Land Commissioner.
In 1902, John D. Rockefeller Sr. bought control of the Colorado Fuel & Iron
Corporation, the largest steel and coal producer in the West. The company
produced 40 percent of the coal dug in Colorado. In 1911 he turned his
interests in the corporation over to his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who
decided major policy questions from his office at 26 Broadway in New York
City. Actual management was handled in the Denver office of Jesse F.
Welborn, chairman of the board of directors. By 1914 the company owned all
the land in twenty-seven camps, including the houses, the saloons, the
schools, the churches, and any other buildings within the camp environs.
From the very beginnings of the coal mine industry in Colorado, there was
conflict between workers and management: an unsuccessful strike in 1876
(the very year Colorado was admitted to the Union), a successful strike in
1884 against a wage reduction. But the workday was still ten hours long, and
in 1894 a strike for the eight-hour day failed.
The United Mine Workers of America was formed in 1890, "to unite in one
organization, regardless of creed, color, or nationality, all workmen ...
employed in and around coal mines." The first United Mine Workers local in
Colorado was formed in 1900, and three years later there was an eleven-
month strike, broken by strikebreakers and the National Guard. Some of
those strikebreakers became the strikers of 1913.
The top leadership of the U.M.W. was often criticized by more militant
elements of the labor movement as being too conservative. And while it was
the United Mine Workers who led the strike in 1913-14, members of two
other organizations were on the scene and had varying degrees of influence
over the miners. These were the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) and
the Socialist Party, which had locals in Trinidad and other Colorado cities.
The I.W.W. was formed in Chicago, in June of 1905, as a trade union
organization with a revolutionary goal. "The working class and the employing
class have nothing in common" was the first sentence in its preamble. It
reached the peak of its power in the successful Lawrence, Massachusetts,
textile strike of 1912. During the period 1910-13, some 60,000 workers held
membership cards at various times, but the influence of the organization was
far greater than its numbers. It was an incessant prod to the regular trade
unions for more militant action.
Despite the fact that many miners voted either Progressive (for Theodore
Roosevelt) or Socialist (for Eugene Debs) in the presidential election of 1912,
most of the United Mine Workers leadership, including the union officials in
Colorado, supported the Democratic Party. The biographer of John Lawson,
who represented the union in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, wrote, "John
Lawson and his miners were naïve on the subject of politics. They invariably,
regarded the Democratic Party as the champion of the downtrodden, a
position that could not have been sustained had they had the experience to
draw obvious conclusions from the party's record in the state."
In December of 1912, Lawson reported to the national executive board of
the union on the necessity of organizing the southern field. Lawson and
Frank Hayes, vice president of the union, set up headquarters in Trinidad in
early 1913. They asked Governor Ammons to arrange a conference with the
mine operators. The operators refused. They would do nothing to indicate a
recognition of the union. Lawson and Hayes sent out a letter addressed to all
miners in southern Colorado:
Greetings. This is the day of your emancipation. This is the day when liberty
and progress come to abide in your midst. We call upon you this day to
enroll as a member of the greatest and most powerful labor organization in
the world, the United Mine Workers of America.
Organizers worked quietly in pairs, one outside the mines, one inside, and
support for the union grew. Clandestine meetings were held in the
countryside; picnics became an occasion for enlisting members. And on
August 16, 1913, there took place the incident that heated the atmosphere
dramatically and inexorably led to the strike.