Armed strikers near Trinidad, Colo, c. 1914, during the Colorado Coalfield Wars. Photo courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. All Rights Reserved.
In Colorado, April 20 is marked for one of two reasons. Thousands of people gather on college campuses and in public parks for 4/20 demonstrations, lighting up joints and pipes in support of marijuana legalization. In quieter quarters, the families and friends of the 13 people killed in the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shootings mark another anniversary of the Littleton tragedy.
For some of us, though, April 20 will always be the day 11 children, two women, and a half-dozen coal miners perished in a fire and shootings at Ludlow, Colo., in 1914. Their deaths, and dozens more in the following days, add up to what remains the deadliest labor dispute in U.S. history, and one of Colorado’s saddest stories.
Although the “Ludlow Massacre” has become a forgotten footnote of U.S. history, the socioeconomic themes leading up to the 1913-1914 Colorado Coalfield Wars still resonate. In light of last year’s Occupy Wall Street protests, new charges of corporate greed, and our protracted economic downturn—the worst since the Great Depression—now feels like a good time to remember the sacrifices made by working people, especially coal miners, over the past century.
For those of us who grew up in southern Colorado, it is difficult not to have the infamous names of Ludlow, Sandcreek and Amache seared into your psyche. My grandfather was a coal miner in La Veta, Colo., and first told me about Ludlow in a reverent tone when I was a little girl. The killings had left an indelible mark on him, and, by extension, on me. Clearly, he did not want history to be forgotten, and I feel compelled to honor his wishes. As Spanish-born writer George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In 2003, my grandfather’s stories came back to haunt me when I was working as an Associated Press newswoman in Denver. Reports emerged late one night that vandals had decapitated granite statues of a miner, a woman and a child at the Ludlow Monument. Many of my colleagues in the AP newsroom did not recognize the significance, and were surprised that a seemingly small act of vandalism could be so newsworthy. Like many other Americans, they had never heard of Ludlow, and didn’t have a visceral reaction to the vandalism.
The Ludlow story has stirred the imaginations of many over the past century. For starters, a lot of high-profile players were involved. They included the wealthy Rockefellers, who at the time owned the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the largest coal operator in the West; the United Mine Workers of America, a powerful labor union; the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, infamous union foilers; President Woodrow Wilson; Mary “Mother Jones” Harris, a legendary labor organizer and feminist; and Texas Rangers imported to Colorado to work as mine guards.
Representing the Rockefellers during this “communication crisis” was Ivy Ledbetter Lee, the father of modern public relations. His contention that an overturned stove caused the Ludlow deaths prompted muckraker Upton Sinclair to dub him “Poison Ivy.” Before Lee’s death in 1934, the U.S. Congress began investigating his suspected propagandist work for I.G. Farben, the defunct German company that held the patent for Zyclon B, the cyanide-based pesticide the Nazis used to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Holocaust gas chambers.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana
Far less mentioned in this historical drama, however, are the miners and family members who died at Ludlow. Their names reflect the rich ethnic diversity of people who helped build the nation’s coal mining industry, and by extension its cities, roads, railroads, steel mills and other infrastructure. They were Italian, Greek and Slovenian immigrants who had fled wars and hardship in Europe to stake their futures in the United States, only to encounter squalor and bigotry. They were Hispanos who had lived in Colorado and New Mexico for generations; Mexican immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution; Asians; African Americans; and skilled British colliers who were well regarded by the coal operators.
Together, this diverse workforce collaborated in the extraction of “buried sunshine” (coal) that fueled the trains that hauled the coal that fed the mills that produced the steel that built the bridges, buildings, factories and homes that made it possible for the United States to expand westward. Their story is the quintessential American story. If Martin Scorsese were to base a film on it, it would be a cross between “Gangs of New York,” “Matewan, ” “Salt of the Earth” and “Titanic.”
Without their work, life as we know it today in Colorado and other parts of the country might not have been possible. They helped build our country, brick by brick, in conditions that were often deplorable and dangerous, and were looked down on by “natives,” coal operators, mine guards, politicians and others. Hundreds of coal miners died when mines collapsed, deadly gases leaked, or when sparks from equipment caused massive explosions.
The miners’ plight, set in a milieu of turn-of-the-century innovation, discovery and global unrest, spurred them to fight for fair wages, eight-hour work days, health and safety regulations, the right to live where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and to see the doctor of their choice. They also wanted coal companies to recognize collective bargaining through unions.
When the companies rejected their requests, the miners went on strike, and coal operators promptly evicted them from company-owned homes. Determined to stand their ground, 1,200 miners and their families pitched tents on the plains east of Colorado’s Spanish Peaks, the Wahatoyas, the ancient mountains that bore witness to an epic chapter of U.S. labor history.
Little children roasted alive make a front page story. — Mother Jones
On the morning of April 20, 1914, a gun battle erupted, but it’s still not clear who fired first, the miners or militiamen. In the end, at least five miners, including labor leader and Greek immigrant Louis Tikas, and one soldier were dead. Later, outraged strikers found the bodies of 11 children and two women, one of them pregnant, in a pit beneath a tent, where they had sought refuge from flying bullets and gatling guns. They had suffocated after someone set a suspicious fire.
Their deaths spurred 10 days of domestic guerilla warfare that ended only after President Wilson sent federal troops in to disarm both sides. Dozens of miners and militiamen died, but it is the image of the dead women and children in that pit that stirs outrage. Following the killings, Mother Jones, an Irish immigrant and self-described “firebrand” who had seen the worst of poverty and hard labor in her native land, said, “Little children roasted alive make a front page story.”
Mother Jones, c. 1910, marching in Trinidad, Colo., Photo courtesy of The Newberry Library, Chicago. Call # MMS Kerr Archives.
It is said that time compresses history. World War I diluted the world’s memory of Ludlow, but the story has nonetheless inspired many. Sinclair’s 1917 novel “King Coal” chronicles the poor working conditions of coal miners across the West. Former U.S. Senator and presidential nominee George McGovern wrote his doctoral dissertation on the coalfield wars, and “A People’s History of the United States” author Howard Zinn wrote about Ludlow in his master’s thesis.
American folk singer Woody Guthrie recounted the bloody strike in his brooding 1944 song, “Ludlow Massacre.” A few years before he died, Zinn said Guthrie’s song inspired him to learn more about Ludlow, “which nobody had ever mentioned in any of my history courses, which no textbook of mine had ever mentioned.”
In 2009, University of Colorado professor Thomas G. Andrews won the coveted Bancroft Prize, one of the highest accolades for historical writing in the U.S., for his deeply human, multidimensional retelling of Ludlow in “Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War.” In the book, Andrews traces the history of coal mining in Colorado, and vividly describes the dangerous “workscapes” miners worked in, risking their lives to harvest latent energy from the earth.
“Like scuba divers or astronauts, colliers ventured into an environment fundamentally different from those in which our species evolved. Conditions underground, like those in space or beneath the sea, threaten the human organism with expiration at any moment,” Andrews wrote.
Today, all that remains of Ludlow is a ghost town, the Ludlow Monument, and academic records that tell the story. The site sits in a rural area surrounded by piñon-covered hillsides, cattle, a solitary windmill, farmhouses, railroad tracks, coal-blackened gulches, and the crumbling ruins of stone houses that once sheltered the immigrants who had arrived with so much hope for the future.
If you stand there long enough, you can hear their voices calling, “Remember Ludlow.”
Colorado's Spanish Peaks, or Wahatoyas.
The Ludlow Monument, about 12 miles northwest of Trinidad, Colo., not far from the Ludlow Massacre historical site.
Stone ruins of what may have been a company-owned home near the Ludlow Massacre site. If you stand there long enough, you can hear their voices calling, "Remember Ludlow."
Lonely windmill near the Ludlow historical site.
Ludlow has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
The Coal Miner's Memorial in downtown Trinidad, Colo., with the names of the men and boys who died while coal mining in southern Colorado. The rich diversity of their names - Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, English and others - reflect the American story.
This lonely headstone marks the site of the Hastings mine explosion, which claimed the lives of 121 men and boys just three years after the Ludlow Massacre.
To see more historical photos, go to: Colorado Coalfield War Project
- King Coal, Upton Sinclair
- The Great Coalfield War, George McGovern
- Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War, Thomas G. Andrews
- Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, Scott Martelle
- Ludlow, David Mason
- Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott Gorn
- The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones
- Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, Zeese Papanikolas
- A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
Photos by Deborah Méndez Wilson, except where noted otherwise.