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The Revolt of 1913

Settled at the entrance to a canyon in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, located along the western side of Interstate 25 approximately 12 miles north of Trinidad, the ghost town of Ludlow can be found.

“Ludlow” is not remembered or referred to as a place, but for being the name of the Ludlow Massacre. It’s recognizable Southern Colorado history, but what led to the massacre, low wages, poor working conditions and continued victimization of union activists, were common.

The worker’s riots weren’t portrayed as common until 1903, according to a hearing to the Committee on Mines and Mining of the 63rd United States Congress. There was a walk-out among miners in 1885, but it was of  “such insignificance in magnitude and duration as to fail of chronicle in the history of labor troubles, and now finds evidence only in the memory of man.”

Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., owned by the Rockefellers who ultimately pushed the miners to strike at Ludlow, was the result of mergers, many of them. Coal mining companies from Iowa began moving into Colorado around 1889, together they absorbed several small companies, and eventually took control of their competitor, Colorado Coal and Iron Company. That merger birthed CF&I.

Issues concerning labor had burdened the U.S. for many years before World War I and had resulted in widespread strikes, especially in the western part of the country.

In 1903, another walkout occurred. “Prompt and well-directed military intervention prevented the wholesale bloodshed and destruction of property,” the 1914 U.S. congressional resolution to investigate Colorado coal mining conditions said. “And the orderly deportation beyond the trouble zone of the nonresident trouble breeders speedily restored peace, and those who desired to work were protected in so doing, resulting in a return of normal conditions in the region where the organization was ignored, namely, the entire state, except the northern field and one or two isolated mines in the southern field.”

As a result of the 1903 strike, mines in the northern field were unionized.  

Restoring peace didn’t last long for the rest of the state, however. Another strike occurred in 1910.

Tensions escalated and eventually bubbled over when a union activist was killed in late 1913. It resulted with the miners at the Rockefeller family owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation’s going on strike. The miners officially left the coal camps on September 23, 1913.

Every aspect of daily life at the mining campus was under the control of the mining company, from the school to the church to the store to the administration of justice. 

A miner’s house was either a framed shack he built himself or a four-room cement-block house built by the company and rented to him by the company. Each toilet was made up of a few boards and a gunnysack tacked together around a shallow hole in the ground.  The water supply was always questionable, and Typhoid fever was a problem.

The work conditions in the coal mines themselves were extremely dangerous.  Miners worked on their stomachs or knees, and worked in almost complete darkness, inhaling suffocating dust. Inside the mines, the collapse of a wall or roof was a disaster waiting to happen. And disaster did happen. Often.

Miners in Colorado died at twice the national average, according to the Colorado Coal Field Project. The only place in the country more dangerous than Colorado coal mines were Utah coal mines.

Roofs caving-in on the miners was the biggest hazard underground, and explosives were the biggest killer above ground. The Denver Public Library has kept track of every major mining accident from 1884 to 1981.

Explosions resulting from an open light were common. On Nov. 8, 1910, 79 miners were killed in an explosion near Las Animas. A year later, 17 more men died in an explosion close by.

They were paid only for the coal they mined, and their wages were virtually determined by the company weigh men, and corrupt weigh men at the scales was a constant obstacle for miners encountered. 

This was to mark the beginning of what was to be a long, unforgiving seven months of continued brutality and repression at the hands of their bosses.

Attempts of unionization by the miners dated back all the way to the first strike of 1883. In 1913, the miners were attempting to organize into the United Mine Workers of America, but those advances weren’t welcomed by CF&I.

The Rockefeller’s evicted the striking workers from the company owned homes leaving them, and their families to face the harsh winter months without shelter. Assisted by the UMWA, the strikers then organized ‘tent cities’ and continued their strike.

A memo from the UWMA to its members during the strike said strikes were being held in Colorado and Vancouver Island, and campaigns for unionization in Southern Colorado and West Virginia would more-than-likely continue.

“In order to provide funds for carrying on this campaign we are levying an assessment of 50 cents per member for two months, during September and October… If each and every member will respond promptly and cheerfully, you will increasingly help bring about success in establishing the organization everywhere,” the notice said.

The campaign made little difference to the Rockefellers.

Through various agencies the CF&I was able to hire men to take a more aggressive approach versus the striking workers, thus armed guards were supplied to harass strikers and union organizers. The miners however, persisted, even after multiple attempts by the CF&I and the National Guard to end the strike.

Union members and organizers were kidnapped and beaten, and shots being fired into the camps from strikebreakers and the National Guardsmen were a constant occurrence.

The miner’s strike would soon reach its climax, and National Guardsmen were ordered to remove the remaining tent colonies around the mines, despite them being on private property leased by the UMWA.

Ludlow was the largest of these colonies. And so, it was on the morning of April 20th 1914, troops fired into the camp with machine guns, anyone who was seen moving in the camp was targeted. The miners fired back, and fighting continued for nearly 14 hours.

That evening, under cover of darkness, the militiamen entered the camp and set fire to tents, killing two women and 11 children who were hiding from the gunfire in a ditch below a tent, 13 other people were also shot dead during the fighting.

As news of the massacre spread, workers from around the country went on strike to show solidarity with the remaining miners on strike in Colorado, and to express sympathy for those who had lost loved ones in Ludlow.

However, the workers failed to obtain their demands along with union recognition and many were replaced with non-union workers. No National Guardsmen was ever prosecuted over the killings.

Sixty-six people had been killed by the time violence ended.

 

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