The lessons of Ludlow, 100 years later
By Allen Best
If April 20 is an informal holiday for celebrants of cannabis, now nicknamed 4/20, members of labor unions observe the day more somberly. That’s especially true this year. One hundred years ago, striking coal miners and their families were killed in what’s now remembered as the Ludlow Massacre. It was the landmark catastrophe in a broader, nearly year-long struggle remembered as “The Great Coalfield War” of Colorado.
Striking miners back then harbored bitter complaints about company “pluck me” stores, and accused company men of cheating them at weigh stations. Worse, they felt mine managers cared nothing for their safety.
Death came easily in those underground mines. Rocks fell from underground ceilings, crushing men. Occasionally, methane or the coal dust itself ignited, killing scores or even hundreds of workers. Explosions were especially frequent in Colorado’s dry climate, partly why the state back then had double the national average of coal-mining deaths. Miners who survived these dangers could look forward to a slow death from black-lung disease.
But it was the miners’ own fault if they weren’t happy; after all, they had voluntarily gone to work. At least, that was the position of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the major owner in Colorado Fuel and Iron, as well as other mine owners, including John Charles Osgood. That blithe assertion was contradicted in September 1913, however, when 80 percent of the miners went out on strike, most of them vacating company-owned houses in the dozens of mining camps and piling their families’ worldly possessions onto wagons.
The United Mine Workers union supported 21,000 men, women and children through that long, snowy winter. Among them were 1,200 sheltered by white tents at Ludlow, near a railroad station of that name in southern Colorado. Occasionally, Mother Jones — the famous labor agitator, who was then in her 70s — passed by on trains between public appearances in Trinidad and Walsenburg. Her free speech came with a cost; she received lengthy jail terms in both towns. Most public officials sided with the wealthy mine owners.
The violence at Ludlow occurred a day after a festive Easter celebration at which some of the striking miners played baseball while their wives hurled insults at the nearby Colorado National Guard.
No one will ever know who fired the first shot the next morning. The strikers were well-armed and perhaps trigger-happy, and the militia was decidedly so, wheeling around a machine gun called the Death Special. Twenty died that day: A boy fell first, and 11 children and two women later suffocated in pits underneath the tents after soldiers set fire to them. Three strikers, including leader Louis Tikas, were summarily executed by the militia, which lost one along with three allied mine guards.
To avenge Ludlow in the following 10 days, enraged strikers roamed from camp to camp, killing mine guards, strike breakers, and others before federal troops arrived to restore uneasy order. For the union, by then near bankruptcy, the struggle was over. The final death toll from eight months of assassinations and reprisals was upwards of 75, losses roughly equal on both sides.
Death continued in the mines, however. Three years later, a nearby mine at Hastings, exploded, killing 121 men and boys. Many more mine disasters followed.
This February, I visited Ludlow. It’s along a dusty road about a mile from Interstate 25, three hours south of Denver. The union has exhibits and a memorial, but the pits of death have been leveled. I found only prickly pear, cholla and a few shards of pink-tinted glass. Up the canyons, at the old camps of Tabasco and Delagua, are old railroad grades, a few foundations and a granite memorial to the 121 victims at the Hastings coal mine.
Rockefeller was cast as the villain then, and judging by the comments at a Ludlow exhibit in Pueblo, Colo., people still blame him. Historians draw a more nuanced portrait of an individual who grew as he aged.
One museum visitor left a comment describing a family tree with roots on both sides of the coalfield war. Perhaps that comment hits closest to the truth. We all have carbon-smudged fingers. Our stories of the West are of horned bison and brown cows, frothy rivers and untamed wilderness, tended gardens and pastoral landscapes. Our art celebrates individual prospectors, brave trailblazers, lonely cowboys, stoic Indians.
We overlook our industrial lunch-pail moorings. As Thomas Andrews points out in “Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War”—arguably the best of many good books about Ludlow—our story is deeply intertwined with fossil fuels, coal being the first major source. The massacre at Ludlow was one outcome.
The late Randy Udall said that even a soccer mom today lives a life of luxury unimaginable to Cleopatra, who had all the slaves of Egypt at her beck and call. Energy is the difference. It’s at our peril that we forget that connection. It’s easy to hop in our cars to protest drilling. Ludlow reminds us of the hidden costs of what we call progress.
A similarly worded version of this column was distributed by Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).
Bibliography: I read six going on eight books before writing this, and will happily guide you to the books, museum exhibits and other resources should you be interested.
El Pueblo History Museum, 301 N. Union, Pueblo, CO. It has an exhibit, “Children of Ludlow: Life in a Battle Zone, 1913-1914. See this description.
George McGovern, after he got back from World War II, a hero who had exhibited courage in combat, went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. There, he earned a Ph.D. in 1953 for his 450-page work “The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913–1914.” It’s hard to find. I got a copy from Colorado State University-Pueblo through an interlibrary loan. You can buy copies, both hard and in PDF formats, from various thesis publishing services. The thesis is notably harder on the capitalists than a later work noted below.
In 1972, as McGovern was running for president, he teamed with Leonard F. Guttridge, who did additional writing and presumably the bulk of the new writing, to create “The Great Coalfield War.” It’s perhaps a better read but has a more restrained bite.
Los Angeles Times correspondent Scott Martelle in 2007 came out with “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”
“Ludlow,” by David Mason, uses the device of a what he calls “verse-novel” to create a fictionalized account not just of Ludlow by of the broader context and the aftermath. Very readable. Published in 2007.
“The Archaeology of Class War: The Colroado Coalfields Strike of 1913-1914,” edited by Karin Larkin and Randall H. McGuire, is the product of academics. It’s at times tedious but has its bright moments, too.
“Coal People: Life in Southern Colroado’s Company Towns, 1890-1930,” by Rick J. Clyne, is very readable.
“Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre,” by Zeese Papanikolas, tells the story and guesses at other places about Louis Tikas, by all accounts an exceptional figure who was hired by the union to help organize and then operate the Ludlow camp. He was, from all available evidence, executed by the Colorado National Guard on the evening of the massacre. This book was published in 1991.
“Helen Ring Robinson: Senator and Suffragist,” by Patricia Hill Pascoe, tells about a Colorado state senator and, at Ludlow, a journalist. She had a minor but interesting role.
I’ll add to this list when I have time.