The lessons of Ludlow, 100 years later

by Allen Best

If April 20 is an informal holiday for celebrants of cannabis, 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 the 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.

Photograph by Allen Best.

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 majority 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 in Ludlow went out on strike, vacating their company-owned houses and piling their families’ worldly possessions onto wagons.

Some 1,100-to-1,200 of the strikers and their families settled in for a long, snowy winter in white tents provided by the United Mine Workers at Ludlow, in southern Colorado. Occasionally, Mother Jones -- the famous labor agitator, who was then in her 70s -- passed by on a train between public appearances in Trinidad and Walsenburg. Her free speech came with a cost; she received 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 playing 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. The outcome was horrific: A boy fell first, and 11 children and two women later suffocated in pits underneath the tents after soldiers set fire to them. The militia lost one man and summarily executed three strikers, including strike leader Louis Tikas.

To avenge Ludlow in the following days, enraged strikers roamed from camp to camp in western Colorado, killing mine guards, strikebreakers, and others before federal troops arrived to restore uneasy order. The final death toll is uncertain, but altogether upwards of 75 would die in the violence, both miners and their foes. For the union, by then near bankruptcy, the struggle was over, and after Ludlow, death continued in the mines. 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 the individual prospectors, the brave trailblazers, the lonely cowboys, the 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.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in metropolitan Denver and publishes Mountain Town News.

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