The Colorado coalmines, specifically those owned by Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in the early 1900s, were crude, harsh environments that yielded no light at the end of the tunnel, either literally or figuratively.
These men worked and lived in deplorable conditions. Colorado mines had the highest death rates of any in mines the country. The deaths really only stemmed from one cause: miners were not paid for “dead work.” Dead work consisted of tasks like putting timber up to prevent roofs from caving in, a catch-22 for miners because they received no pay for the work that aided in saving their lives.
Coal mining work was dismal at best, a job where a man walked in but might not walk out. The standard ten-hour day was spent heaving a pickaxe repeatedly in a space that a man can’t stand up straight in. At the end of the day, the coal was lugged to a station where it was then screened by a mine operator whose interests lay with CF&I, resulting in one to two dollars less pay. Termed ‘insufferable’ today, these conditions were a day-to-day reality for miners.
Unfortunately for the miner, the infractions didn’t stop there. A miner who dared to complain was often placed in a poor-producing or oppressive room within the mine, if he was not simply fired. What did these men do who were fired for simply standing up for their rights? They bit the bullet and started working in the same exact conditions in a new mine, except this time the miner was wiser, and most likely did not complain.
Eventually a man’s breaking point is met, when the tasks required are simply too much to bear. The 1913-1914 strike was such a time, when white canvas tents dotted an otherwise barren, dry and sagebrush-laden landscape during one of the bloodiest strikes in American history. A classic story of labor vs. management, the strike was something to write home about. A wild tale of the regaled West, where the valiant miners fought the incorrigible CF&I henchman. Violence lurked around every corner and on every side street. Men blatantly displayed their guns as if daring the other to make a move – a ticking time bomb that eventually would reach the end of its fuse.
The Ludlow Massacre was the climax of this evolution, appropriately termed “massacre” when eleven children and two women died. The scene was set when bullets began raining down from top-of-the-line machine guns on the tent colony, sending the miners’ families scrambling for their lives. The fear of catching a stray bullet created immediate chaos.
On April 20th, 1914, these women and children had sought refuge in the dugout below their tent. When the tents caught fire, they were trapped below where they died from smoke inhalation. Nothing short of a tragedy, this news spread like wildfire, and soon the nation reverberated with the knowledge that innocent people had paid the ultimate price in the battle between union and corporate management.
Total casualties reached at least nineteen, with thirteen women and children, five miners and one guard on that fateful day. Destruction continued as striking miners fled to the hills and began sabotaging any mines they came across. Ultimately the miners lost the strike and never gained union recognition. Shortly after, though, CF&I adopted their own company union which, in truth, proved to be successful for a period of time, but in the end it failed to appease the workers’ demands, and outside union recognition was once again sought out.
In the earliest days of American history, immigrants seeking refuge from the daily injustices of their home countries believed America was a place where hard work and conviction determined the amount of success to be gained. Downtrodden and bedraggled, these miners not only lived the American dream by standing up for what was right, but they helped write it. These battles between men and corporations distinctly shaped labor relations for future generations.
by Genevieve Ackley
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