In the 1800’s, railroad companies were in constant competition with each other on who could lay tracks to certain regions the fastest with the ultimate goal of connecting the east coast with the west coast. This rapid expansion of the nation’s railroad system meant that the railroad companies were in constant need of supplies such as steel for the rails and coal for the engines. So when coal and iron ore deposits were found in Colorado and Wyoming, plans were quickly made to mine these resources so that the railroads could ship out steel and coal from the Rockies for the railroad tracks in the West instead of waiting on shipments from the Appalachians.
In the 1850’s, coal mining was a popular career in Colorado with most men being able to mine coal out of the mountains using only a pick and shovel. By the 1880’s, miners began to drill holes and use dynamite to blast large rock out of mountainsides. By the early 1900’s, mining had turned into a high level commercial operation in Colorado and mining techniques included deep tunneling and tippling systems. Between 1870 and 1910, the non-native population in Colorado multiplied 20 times over mostly due to the mining opportunities there.
Whenever a large amount of coal was found, a mine camp was usually quickly established that usually consisted of quickly erected shacks where the miners lived and a company owned saloon and store filled with basic needs. These camps acted as small towns and were ran by the mining companies with the mine superintendent often acting as a sort of mayor. There were curfews and company guards that were armed with machine guns and rifles loaded with soft-point bullets and were ordered to not allow any one that seemed ‘suspicious’ into the camp. When an inspector visited a mining site in Starkville, Colorado that had just lost 56 men to an explosion he wrote about the town saying:
“The residences or houses and living quarters of the miners smack of the direst poverty. Practically all of the residences are huddled in the shadow of the coal washers and the smoke of the coke ovens making the surrounding smutty with coal dust and coke smoke. Not all of the houses are equipped with water, and practically none have sewerage; they depend for their water upon hydrants on the streets. The people reflect their surroundings; slatternly dressed women and unkempt children throng the dirty streets and alleys of the camp. One is forced to the conclusion that these people must be very poorly paid, else they would not be content to live in this fashion.”
Mining has always been and is still is a very dangerous job. Mining in Colorado was especially hazardous and had a fatality rate that was almost double the national average at the time. This could be blamed on a few different things, including a geological make-up that caused several cave-ins the state only had three inspectors to check on conditions in mines across Colorado. Between 1906 and 1910, there were seven explosions at mines in Colorado that killed a total of 272 miners. What made it even more dangerous was that miners were often paid by ton of coal mined and not by hour. This meant that time shoring up mine walls and ceilings was basically unpaid. And not every mine used the same definition of ton as a weight. Some mines used the standard 2,000 pounds while others used 2,200 or 2,400 pounds.
Many of the miners and their families were not content with their work and living conditions, but they didn’t have much a voice. Many of the courts and political systems in Colorado were controlled by the owners of the mining companies. When elections happened, mine superintendents often voted on behalf of their employees to ensure the mine’s best interests were being seen to. When miners tried to unionize, the mining companies would work quickly to shut the unions down. Many of the mining companies employed detectives and private security that would spy on unions and then run the union organizers out of town. An example of this was a letter that mine operators sent to each other that said:
“All superintendents: look out for Jack Nelson, commonly called the Big Swede. He has been working at Wooten and he is an organizer for the” United Mine Workers of America or the UMW of A."
Colorado Fuel and Iron was the largest coal company in the western United States at the time. It had been purchased by John D. Rockefeller in 1902 and in 1911 Rockefeller gave control of the company to his son John D. Rockefeller, Jr. At the companies height, it controlled around 72,000 acres of coal land.
In the summer of 1913, the UMW began to organize the 11,000 miners working for Colorado Fuel & Iron Company into a union. In August, the miners union sent out invitations to representatives of CFI so that they could all sit down and the union could discuss their grievances including low pay, long hours, and corrupt management practices, however the company refused to meet with them. In September, 8,000 miners for CFI went on strike until their seven demands were met which included:
-Recognition of the union as a bargaining agent on behalf of the miners
-Compensation for digging coal at a ton rate based on 2,000 pounds
-Enforcement of the eight-hour work day. The Colorado Eight Hour Workday for Underground Workers Act had actually been passed a year earlier, but it was not being enforced.
- Payment for “dead work” such as laying track, timbering, shoring up mine walls
-Weight checkmen elected by the workers
-Right to use any store and to choose their boarding house and doctors
-Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws and an end to the company guard system.
The miners on strike were kicked out of the company-owned town, so they built tent cities at the mouths of canyons that led to the mines for the miners to live in and to block any strikebreakers’ traffic. The largest tent city was named the Ludlow camp. CFI then hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency that was described as a group of “Texas desperadoes and thugs.” The detective agency would raid the tent cities and fire their guns scaring the miners and their families. They would sometimes even fire bullets into random tents which would kill and severely injure people. The agency then brought in an armored car with a mounted machine gun attached that they named the “Death Special”. They would use this car to drive around the perimeters of the camps and shoot into it. The strikers dug pits beneath their tents so they could hide when the agency would come through. The miners occasionally shot back and were able to keep the agency out of the camps.
In November, Rockefeller called up the Colorado governor and asked him to supply national guard soldiers in helping break up the strikers. The Rockefellers would pay for the wages of the soldiers in return. When the National Guard showed up, the strikers thought that they were on their side and greeted them with flags and cheers until the Guardsmen showed up at night to beat the miners and arrested hundreds of them.
Despite all this, the strike continued through winter and into the spring of 1914. On March 10, 1914, a replacement worker for the striking miners was found dead on the railroad tracks near Forbes, Colorado. It was believed by the company that strikers had murdered him. In retaliation for the murder, National Guard Adjutant-General John Chase ordered the tent city near Forbes to be destroyed. While the whole tent city was at a funeral for two infants that had just died, the National Guard burned the tents to the ground.
In April of 1914, John D. Rockefeller Jr. testified before Congress on the strike and said it was a “a national issue, whether workers shall be allowed to work under such conditions as they may choose.” Rockefeller went on to say that union organizers needed to be kept from being able “to come in and interfere with employees who are thoroughly satisfied with their labor conditions.” When asked by the committee chairman if he would stand by these anti-union principles even if it cost him all of his property and it killed all of his employees, Rockefeller simply replied “It is a great principle.”
A few days after his testimony, some of the Greek families put together an Orthodox Easter celebration for everyone in the Ludlow tent colony. The next day, on April 20, four national guard soldiers came to the camp with a machine gun saying that they were looking for a suspected criminal. It’s hard to say which side shot first, but eventually shots were fired between the two groups and it continued for the rest of the day. Some guardsmen told a union leader that he was invited to discuss a truce, but when he was away from the camp he was shot to death.
When night came, the National Guard came down from the surrounding hills and began to set fire to the tents. They set fire to the two stores first, which were the largest buildings in the tent city, and then began to go from tent to tent, pouring oil on the tents and then setting them ablaze. When the miners and their families tried to flee the fires, they were shot at. A total of thirteen people were killed by gunfire. When a telephone linesman was walking through the carnage the next day, he lifted up an iron cot that was covering a pit in an infirmary tent and found the burned bodies of eleven children and two women. Three of those children belonged to a woman named Mary Petrucci who later said “I came out of the hole. There was light and lots of smoke. I wandered among the ashes until a priest found me. I couldn’t feel anything. I was cold.”
News of what happened at Ludlow quickly spread across the country. The United Mine Workers in Denver issued a call to arms where they asked for others in the union to “gather together for defensive purposes all arms and ammunition legally available.” Three hundred armed strikers marched from the other surrounding tent cities to where Ludlow had once been. They cut telephone and telegraph wires and prepared themselves for a fight. Railroad workers in Colorado refused to take any soldiers to Ludlow and in Colorado Springs, three hundred union miners stopped working and headed towards Ludlow carrying whatever guns they owned.
Funerals were held in Trinidad, Colorado for the twenty six that had died that night. After the funeral was over, men walked from the funeral to a nearby building that had rifles and ammunition stacked and ready for them. From there, they walked to nearby mines, killed mine guards, and exploded mine shafts. 82 National Guard soldiers that were on a train headed from Denver to Trinidad refused to get off. A newspaper reported that “the men declared they would not engage in the shooting of women and children. They hissed the 350 men who did start and shouted imprecations at them.”
Five thousand people showed up at the Colorado State Capital and protested on the front lawn asking that the National Guard officers involved be tried for murder. The Denver Cigar Makers Union voted to send 500 of their own armed men to help with the miners and the United Garment Workers Union in Denver announced that they would be sending four hundred women to volunteer as nurses to help the wounded strikers. There began to be protests all across the country, including in front of the Rockefeller office in New York City. When a minister began to speak as part of the protest, he was clubbed by police.
The New York Times ran an editorial that said “Somebody blundered. With the deadliest weapons of civilization in the hands of savage-minded men, there can be no telling to what lengths the war in Colorado will go unless it is quelled by force…The President should turn his attention from Mexico long enough to take stern measures in Colorado.”
Soon after, President Woodrow Wilson ordered federal troops to the area. When the strikers heard about federal troops showing up, they knew there was no way they were going to win that fight they laid down their arms. A total of 75 men comprised of miners, strikebreakers, union officials, and mine guards had been killed over the 10 day battle. Over 400 miners were arrested and charged for murder, however only was actually convicted. That miner’s conviction was later overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court because the state of Colorado had never declared martial law and the miners were in their rights to defend themselves. 22 nation guardsmen, including 10 officers, were court martialled for the events at Ludlow. All 22 were acquitted.
When Congress convened to discuss Ludlow and the events that followed, many senators brought up the need to check the martial power that was being wielded by private institutions. One senator said “I fear that unless society can in some manner reconcile these troubled conditions as between capital and labor, Mexico is not the only country that will be torn by internecine strife.” Rockefeller released a memorandum in June where he stated “There was no Ludlow massacre. The engagement started as a desperate fight for life by two small squads of militia against the entire tent colony, which attacked them with over three hundred armed men.” The deaths in the infirmary were the result of inadequate ventilation and overcrowding, not caused by the actions taken by “the defenders of law and property, who were in no slightest way responsible for it.”
The UMW ran out of money and called off the strike on December 10, 1914, despite none of their demands being met. Stricter labor laws began to appear all across the country and support for unions began to rise. Rockefeller seeing that his family and companies were losing public support, asked labor relations expert W.L. Mackenzie King to help him develop reforms for his mines and their surrounding towns including paved roads, recreational facilities, getting worker representation of committees that dealt with working conditions, safety, and health and prohibiting the discrimination of workers that belonged to unions.
“Blood Passion” by Scott Martelle
“The Richest American Family Hired Terrorists To Shoot Machine Guns At Sleeping Women and Children” by Meagan Day
“April 20, 1914: Ludlow Massacre” by Howard Zinn
“The Ludlow Massacre Still Matters” by Ben Mauk