Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War
Thomas G. Andrews
Harvard University Press (2008)
Excerpt from “Introduction: Civil War, Red and Bloody”
The shooting started around nine o’clock on a bright, breezy morning in a broad valley where the broken foothills of the southern Rockies tumble down onto the high plains. No one has ever determined who shot first, but participants and witnesses all agreed that within seconds of the initial gun blast, bullets began to fly thick and fast. Occupying the high ground was a small detachment of Colorado National Guardsmen. Thirty-four strong, this force and the dozen other militiamen encamped in the flats below consisted mostly of men formerly employed as guards by the largest coal mine operator in the West, the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
Seven months of shootouts and assassinations, executions and ambushes, had already earned the Colorado coalfi eld war the dubious distinction of being the deadliest strike in the history of the United States. On the morning of April 20, 1914, however, the conflict between Colorado state militia allied with the West’s largest coal producers and mineworkers organized under the auspices of the nation’s largest union erupted into open warfare, in what would become known as the Ludlow Massacre.
Returning the guardsmen’s fire were hundreds of striking coal miners of more than a dozen nationalities, all of whom resided in the Ludlow tent colony, “the largest of its kind in the history of this country,” according to a United Mine Workers (UMW) of ficial, John Lawson. Union leaders had named the 1,200-person camp after the railroad depot about a mile away.
The strikers, however, nicknamed it the White City, an apt description of the settlement’s gleaming canvas facades, as well as an ironic reference to the dreamlike buildings that had housed the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The sounds of exploding powder and shrieking bullets echoed between piñon-covered canyon walls, rousing the many strikers who had decided to sleep in, following Orthodox Easter festivities that had run late into the night. Women grabbed the children and hid with them in cellars dug into the hard adobe soil below the colony. The men of the camp, meanwhile, took their weapons, hurried to defensive positions via a nearby arroyo and returned fire in hopes of drawing the assault away from the colony.
In the early afternoon a bullet hit Private Martin in the neck, inflicting a fatal wound that “smashed” his face “as if hit.” Rifle fire also killed several strikers over the course of the day, including Frank Snyder. Just twelve years old, Frank had left the safe haven of his family’s cellar either in search of food or to relieve his bladder - on this as on so many things eyewitness accounts differ - only to have a bullet tear off his head; “practically nothing above his eyes” remained. At some point in the late afternoon or early evening—here recollections again diverged—Ludlow’s canvas dwellings caught fire under suspicious circumstances; soon the whole camp was ablaze. Two women and eleven children perished in their cellar hideout—asphyxiated when flames devoured the tents over their heads. Militiamen had also arrested and killed three men, including Louis Tikas, leader of the Greek strikers, who died of multiple gunshot wounds to the back.
The family names of the eighteen strikers killed over the course of the day—Snyder and Tikas, Costa and Valdez and Pedregone—hinted at the diverse paths they had followed to the coalfields, as well as their unusual success at forging a common cause despite differences in race, ethnicity, and nationality. Back in September, the Denver journalist Don McGregor—a swashbuckling figure who would later join Pancho Villa’s forces in the
Mexican Revolution—had described the creation of Ludlow’s sister tent colony at Walsenburg as “the outward sign of civil war, red and bloody, with its hates and its assassinations, its woes and its suffering.” On April 21, 1914, dawn’s rays revealed the horrible fulfillment of McGregor’s prophecy. Odd jumbles of metal furniture contorted by the heat, blackened coal stoves lined up like sentries on the plain, ethereal outlines seared into the ground where hundreds of tents had stood fast against rain and wind, snow, and gunshots for seven hard months—only vestiges remained of the hopeful strivings that had created and sustained the Ludlow colony.
Journalists rushed to telegraph and telephone offices while the fighting still raged. The Colorado Coal strike had already attracted national press coverage, but a pitched battle between the United Mine Workers of America and the forces of the powerful Rockefeller family was headline news. “Little children roasted alive,” as the irascible Mother Jones remarked, “make a front page story.” The next morning, papers carried the shocking news of the strikers’ deaths to millions of Americans, thus assuring Ludlow a place alongside Haymarket, Homestead, and Pullman in the annals of desperate struggle between Labor and Capital over who would bear the burdens and reap the rewards of American industrialization.
How had all this come to pass—what forces had changed a former Rocky Mountain frontier into an epicenter of class war?
This program aired on January 21, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.