Ludlow Massacre – southern Colorado
By the turn of the 20th century, coal mining was a booming industry in Colorado, particularly in the Trinidad/Walsenburg area and on into the Culebra Mountain Range of the Rockies. The steel mill in Pueblo, a few miles on north, required coal fuel to run the furnaces. The Trinidad field, as it was called, was host to the much desired, high-grade bituminous, shiny black coal.
ASKING FOR TROUBLE
The miners who worked for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company—CF&I with John D. Rockerfeller Sr. holding controlling interest—were mostly recruits from Eastern Europe. If they spoke English at all, it was rudimentary. This was done with purposeful planning by the CF&I overseers with the idea that by mixing the ethnic and language backgrounds of the workers on individual work teams, they wouldn’t be able to communicate well enough to question their pay, or complain about the working and living conditions. More importantly, the company hoped there wouldn’t be union organizing if they kept the men as strangers to each other.
Over time, miners began to question the honesty of the company men who weighed each miner’s daily ‘haul’ or ‘dig’, which was how it was determined how much a miner earned for the day. In addition, miners were typically paid in camp ‘scrip’ (illegal since 1899 but mining companies conveniently ignored that law. This form of barter was only good at the camp store—think Monopoly money that only has value in the game. Miners were forced to pay whatever price the company set for supplies. They also had to buy their own tools, gunpowder, pay for blacksmithing, and so on. Then there were family needs that cost more money: rent, food, clothing. An honest day’s work didn’t stretch, and CF&I pocketed a pretty penny off the miners.
Living condition were deplorable. CF&I did build company town for the miners and their families, but the typical concrete ‘house’ had four rooms, rarely had running water, the ‘outhouse’ was just a hole in the ground with a board on top. Rent was $2 per room. Company-paid armed guards patrolled the fenced-in camps. Needless to say, the miners and their families felt like prisoners.
History has shown time and time again, oppression unites the oppressed, which is what happened at Ludlow.
ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE
Representatives from the Ludlow camp somehow managed to meet on the sly with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Plans were made. On September 23, 1913, thousands of CF&I miners went on strike. They gave their demands. The response two days later was eviction. Families walked away with what they could carry on their backs.
UMWA had planned and prepared for the families and had leased land nearby, put up 1,000 or so tents with wooden floors, heating and cooking stoves, and real beds. Soon, social activities were organized. The UMWA even paid weekly wages to the strikers and each of their family members.
GOVERNOR TAKES ACTION
Thoroughly ‘put-out’ with the striking minors and the UMWA, Colorado Governor Elias Ammons ordered the Colorado National Guard to move into the tent camp and ‘take control”. The guardsmen arrived there on November 1st, and evidence indicates that both sides got along fairly well together. This went on for four months until it became too expensive to keep them there. By the first of March, only 200 guardsmen remained, and were replaced by a militia of mine employees paid and armed by CF&I. CF&I guards had high powered rifles and machine guns, while the miners had rifles and shotguns. Harassment began.
On April 6, 1914 J.D. Rockefeller Jr (now in charge of CF&I), swore to a congressional committee that the striking miners weren’t dissatisfied, their living conditions were fine, blah, blah, blah.
THE LID BLOWS OFF
April 19th arrived for Greek Easter (Greece was the native land of many of the miners), and the tent camp dwellers celebrated with roast lamb, dancing, and a baseball game on the field upon which they’d built a field and bleachers.
The next morning, the CF&I militia leaders requested a meeting with a man named Louis Tikas, a Greek miner who had been elected the camp’s leader. They met at the Ludlow train depot. A disagreement arose, and the commander of the militia, Karl Linderfelt, reportedly struck Tikas on the head with the butt of his rifle. Tikas escaped, but the battle was afoot.
Shots went both directions. Some women and children hid in the spaces under their tent floors, others huddled in a community well. Still others fled to the foothills. With sunset, the militia swarmed the tent camp, pouring kerosene over the tents and lighting them on fire. The carnage was gruesome. However, some militia rescued women and children, but many looted the camp.
On the 21st, Rockefeller received a telegram from CF&I that not only was the tent camp destroyed by fire, there had been explosions from the ammunition and dynamite stored there (which turned out to be a lie perpetuated by the militia to cover their arson).
And this continued until April 28th when President Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops to straighten out the mess and ordered the governor to withdraw all troops. When the ‘dust’ settled, victims buried, and the camp rebuilt, the strike still lingered through the summer and autumn.
In 1915, Rockefeller again swore: “…was no Ludlow massacre…” December 14, 1914 arrived without resolution. The UMWA was bankrupt, and the striking miners were mostly blackballed and consequently out of work.
In the final report on the matter, the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations stated: “The Colorado strike was a revolt by whole communities against arbitrary economic, political and social domination by the CF&I company…groups of…citizens have been stripped of their liberties, robbed of portions of their earnings, subjected to ruthless persecution and abuse and reduced to a state of economic and political serfdom…”
Some 400 miners were arrested, 300+ indicted for murder, but in 1920 when the litigations finally wound down, few miners actually went to trial, and those that were convicted, had their sentences overturned at the Colorado Supreme Court level.
In 1917, UMWA purchased the site of the tent camp on 40 acres and built a monument. In 2009, the site was declared a national monument. An annual gathering has occurred at the Ludlow site since 1918 on the third Sunday in June. Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary, the ceremony will be held May 17 & 18.
- PBS – American Experience – Primary Resources (film) – Ludlow Massacre http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/rockefellers-ludlow/
- April 19, 2014 – The New Yorker – The Ludlow Massacre Still Matters – http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/04/the-ludlow-massacre-still-matters.html
- Colorado Coal Field War Project – http://www.du.edu/ludlow/cfhist3.html
- April 2014 edition of the Southeast Colorado Power Association’s magazine, “Colorado Country Life” http://www.coloradocountrylife.coop
- Wikipedia – Ludlow Massacre – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludlow_Massacre
- Map – http://www.nationalatlas.gov/printable/reference.html#list
- Images http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ludlowtentcolonyfromthesurvey.jpg – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludlow_Monument
- Images of Ludlow Massacre – Library of Congress
Until next time,