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Know the West

An underground uprising


Killing for Coal: America's
Deadliest Labor War

Thomas G. Andrews
386 pages, hardcover: $29.95.
Harvard University Press, 2008.

Rusted bits of metal, staircases to nowhere, perhaps a weathered gun tower: These fragments are all that remain of southern Colorado's coal-mining towns. The casual visitor would never guess how central to Western history their inhabitants were.

There is one incident that has never been forgotten, however, and that is the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, a deadly battle between striking coal miners and the Colorado National Guard, who fought on behalf of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. Twenty-five people died, and nearly all of them, including 11 children, were on the strikers' side. The Ludlow Massacre has entered legend as an unprovoked murder of innocents, with its context -- including the decades of labor strife that preceded it -- generally disregarded. Thomas G. Andrews' Killing for Coal seeks to remedy that.

In 1870, Colorado coal baron William Jackson Palmer was struck by a vision of a utopia powered by happy coal miners. His autocratic dreams depended on miners knowing their place and stifling their grievances. It didn't turn out that way, partly, Andrews argues, because coal miners were autonomous in ways that other miners weren't. They were paid by the ton, owned their own tools and set their own hours.

But the coal companies controlled where the miners lived, shopped and spent their leisure time, and accidents and deadly explosions were common. It was a recipe for rebellion, and by the late 19th century, coal miners across the country were organizing. The miners' uprising led to improved working conditions. But it also inspired a brutal backlash, including the carnage at Ludlow.

Andrews is sometimes overzealous in providing context. He whisks readers back to the age of the dinosaurs for a lesson in coal formation, then to 18th-century Europe for a history of itinerant labor. Yet despite its flaws, Killing for Coal is a book that needed to be written. Too few remember Colorado's coal miners or the horrible labor conditions that led them, over and over again, to "fight for justice, freedom and home" -- and sometimes to die for them.