Ludlow and the Colorado Coalfield War

 

Ludlow, Colorado buildings today, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2018.

Ludlow, Colorado buildings today, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2018.

The abandoned town of Ludlow, Colorado was once a flourishing railroad and coal-mining town made famous by the nearby Ludlow Massacre in 1914.

Ludlow, located about 12 miles north of Trinidad, began sometime in the 1890s and a post office was established in 1896. Early on, Bressan’s Stagecoach line ran past the Bear Canon Coal mine, daily from the nearby coal-mining towns of Berwind, Tobasco, Hastings, Delagua, and Tollerburg to Ludlow and Trinidad.

In 1904 the Colorado and Southeastern Railway built its tracks through the area and established a station at Ludlow. At about this same time, the Ludlow Mine was started by the Huerfano Coal Company. The town soon included the railroad depot, a general store and post office, a saloon, a livery and feed store, two meat markets, a physician, and two grocery stores. Ludlow first appears in the Colorado State Business Directory in 1911 when about 50 people lived in the town.

Though the number of residents doesn’t appear to have been able to support so many businesses, the town, no doubt, provided goods and services to the many nearby coal mining camps in the Ludlow Valley. These included Hastings, Delagua, Gulnare, Berwind, Tabasco, Aguilar and others.

Although small amounts of coal were produced in the area for locals as early as the 1860s, major development of the industry did not occur until the arrival of railroads. The Denver & Rio Grande Railway reached the Trinidad area in 1876 and played a dominant role in developing coal mines in the vicinity. Colorado’s southern coalfield in Las Animas and Huerfano Counties became the state’s most productive coal area by 1884.

Colorado Fuel & Iron Company Plant in Pueblo, Colorado

Colorado Fuel & Iron Company Plant in Pueblo, Colorado

The Colorado Coal & Iron Company established the company town of Berwind, 3.1 miles southwest of Ludlow, in 1888 and erected an integrated iron and steel mill in Pueblo. In 1892, the Colorado Coal & Iron Company merged with its principal competitor, the Colorado Fuel Company forming the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (C.F.&I.). The new company became the largest coal and coke firm in the West.

In 1901, the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company established the company town of Tabasco, just 2.7 miles southwest of Ludlow. In 1903, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and George Jay Gould assumed control of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. Gould initially had greater influence in the company but reduced his involvement after four years. Rockefeller took control of the company in 1907 and transferred his interest to his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The mines were managed from offices in New York.

In 1906, the Engineering and Mining Journal estimated that 10% of Colorado’s population depended on C.F.&I. for their livelihood.

C.F.&I., along with the Victor-American Fuel Company, wielded formidable political clout in early 20th-century Colorado and their control over the politics and livelihoods of the residents of Las Animas and Huerfano Counties was nearly total.

Berwind, Colorado Coal Mine

Berwind, Colorado Coal Mine

In 1913, C.F.&I. operated mines at Engle, Sopris No. 2, Berwind, Starkville, Tabasco, Primero, Tercio, Frederick, and Morley in Las Animas County and the Walsen, Robinson Nos. 1 and 2, New Rouse, Pictou, Herzon, Cameron, Ideal, Lester, and McNally mines in Huerfano County, in addition to mines in other parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

During these busy coal-mining days, European, Mexican, and Japanese immigrants dominated the mining workforce in Colorado. By 1902, the coal workers represented 32 nationalities and spoke 27 languages. In 1915, Anglo-Americans formed only 13 percent of the workforce. During these times, the workers were often stereotyped and were described by one CF&I official as “foreigners who do not intend to make America their home, and who live like rats in order to save money.” Operators distributed multiple ethnic and racial groups in each mining camp, believing it increased workers’ dependence on the employer and prevented union organizing. Company housing within camps was often segregated, based on ethnicity and race, in terms of location and quality. Further, mining companies often mixed immigrants of different nationalities in their work environments, a practice which discouraged communication that might lead to organization.

Las Animas County, Colorado Coal Miners

Las Animas County, Colorado Coal Miners

In the company-owned coal camps, owners created worker housing near the mines and mine managers virtually controlled the lives of their employees. Single men resided in boarding houses while families lived in small cottages. The coal companies provided all services including education, medical care, recreation, religious, and social programs. Schools were erected and teachers were selected by the company, as well as the books and newspapers made available. Churches were built and staffed by the company, as well as infirmaries and physicians. Cultural and recreational opportunities included activities such as weekly dances and motion pictures, fraternal organizations and ethnic lodges, and sporting events such as baseball games. Company towns were guarded by company appointed camp marshals who were tasked with ensuring sanitary conditions, guarding the entrance gates, maintaining curfews, inspecting the upkeep of miners’ houses, and acting as truant officers. These “officers” often cracked down on anyone critical of the mine owners or the conditions in the town. If miners wanted to consume alcohol, they could only do it at company saloons. The doctors and priests of the communities were company employees.

Company stores offered groceries and a wide range of consumer items but many workers complained that prices at the company store were higher than those in Trinidad and Walsenburg. Although Colorado outlawed payment in scrip, tokens of paper “money” which were only redeemable for goods at company stores and businesses in 1899, the law was ignored by many coal operators. Further, the mine operators often extended lines of credit to the miners and their families, which easily became overextended, forcing the miner to have no choice but work whatever hours and shifts the mine owners demanded.

Wages were determined by the tonnage of coal produced, while “dead work” such as repairing damaged roofs and timbers, clearing passages, and other maintenance chores were often unpaid, causing workers to neglect safety precautions in order to earn more.

Company towns did bring tangible improvements to the lives of many miners and their families, including larger houses, better medical care, and broader access to education. But, these benefits came with a price – control over all aspects of workers’ lives. Further, many companies exploited their employees and took heavy-handed measures to prevent them from organizing.

After the Primero, Colorado Mine Explosion

After the Primero, Colorado Mine Explosion

Making matters worse, statistics indicate that Colorado coal mines were among the most dangerous in the nation. From 1884 to 1912, more than 1,708 men died in the state’s coal mines, a rate twice the national average. In 1910, explosions at CF&I’s Primero and Starkville mines killed 75 and 56 men respectively, and 79 miners died in a blast at a Victor-American Fuel Company operation at Delagua.

Colorado and the rest of the coal-producing West paid a terrible price in blood to bring coal out of the depths of the earth.” – James Whiteside, Historian.

The workers and their families had little recourse for the dangerous conditions in the mines and coroners’ juries almost exclusively sided with the mine operators. For example, in the years from 1904-1914, the juries picked by the Sheriff of Huerfano County, Jeff Farr, found the coal operators to blame in only one case out of 95.

In the meantime, The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had been founded in Ohio and in 1890 began large-scale efforts to organize coal miners in the Rocky Mountains. In 1894, CF&I faced its first strike when workers walked out for four months seeking improvements such as recognition of the union as bargaining agent for coal workers in Colorado and New Mexico, adjustment of the system of weighing coal, accuracy of checkweighmen, semimonthly payment of wages in money, abolition of scrip, and strict enforcement of state laws relating to underground safety. These actions and demands would continue to be a part of miners’ protests throughout the next two decades leading to the Ludlow Massacre.

More strikes would occur in the during the first decade of the 20th century which provided area miners with some concessions from the mining companies. However, the companies refused to recognize the union.

In 1910, to prevent a strike, CF&I agreed to increase wages, abolished scrip, pay its workers on a semi-monthly basis, and adopted an eight-hour workday. However, the company still refused to recognize the union as a method of resolving miners’ grievances.

In August 1913, UMWA officials arrived in Trinidad, Colorado believing that only through acceptance of the union could workers gain improved working conditions and enforcement of existing state laws. In early September, labor activist Mary “Mother” Jones, described as a “militant crusader for the rights of the laboring man” and “an idolized leader of the United Mine Workers of America,” arrived from West Virginia to assist with preparing the miners for a potential walkout.

Colorado Coal Miners

Colorado Coal Miners

The union scheduled a convention of miner representatives in Trinidad on September 15, 1913 with many of the same issues of the previous UMWA walkouts, including: recognition of the union as the miners’ bargaining representative; a 10 percent increase in wages on tonnage rates; payment for “dead work” such as timbering in abandoned workings, cleaning passages, and track laying; the right of miners to elect their own checkweighmen; semi-monthly paydays; the right to make purchases at any store, live in any house, and visit any doctor of their choosing; enforcement of existing Colorado mining laws; and an end to the system of mine guards. September 23 was selected as the date miners would walk off their jobs, and the union had already stockpiled necessary provisions for the strike.

However, CF&I President Jesse F. Welborn refused to meet with the union miners and said that any dispute “would be a strike to the finish.” In the end, both sides vowed to hold to their position over the long term, resulting in an industrial dispute that would be one of the most violent and emotional in American labor history.

Strikers at the Ludlow, Colorado Tent Colony

Strikers at the Ludlow, Colorado Tent Colony

About 9,000 miners walked off the job, protesting low pay and abysmal working conditions in the coalfields of Colorado. The striking miners were then evicted from the homes in the CF&I company-owned towns. However, the union had predicted this and established a number of tent colonies in the area, the largest of which, housing about 1,200 strikers, was located about ½ mile north of the railroad town of Ludlow. The Ludlow Tent Colony was made up of tents built on wood platforms and furnished with cast iron stoves. The colony was equipped with a telephone line to facilitate communication.

Some people began making their way out of the mining camps on September 21, when wagons, trains, and interurban cars in Trinidad were loaded with families of miners. The Rocky Mountain News reported that thousands of coal miners laid down their tools the following day, and it predicted almost every coal mine in the state would be idle within two days.

Ludlow, Colorado Tent Families

Ludlow, Colorado Tent Families

Mary Thomas, one of the refugees, reached Ludlow on September 22, before most of the strikers arrived. She found carpenters “working feverishly in the rain” to get things ready for the massive influx of people expected and described the scene the next day as “a beautiful new city of white tents.” On September 23, the mass exodus of miners began, with most of the strikers at Ludlow coming from the CF&I operated properties at Berwind and Tabasco in Berwind Canyon and the Victor-American Fuel Company towns at Hastings and Del Agua.

Pelting rain and snow accompanied the strikers to the tent colony and Don MacGregor, a reporter for the pro-union Denver Express and the only journalist on the scene, described the scene as an “exodus of woe, of a people leaving known fears for new terrors, a hopeless people seeking new hope, a people born to suffering going forth to certain new suffering.”

With all of their personal belongings the miners and their families arrived throughout the day, most of them “soaked to the skin.” In the beginning, there were not enough tents and hundreds of single men without families camped out in the storm during the first night, while others found shelter in the homes of union sympathizers in nearby Ludlow. Piles of furniture were scattered across the prairie. After five days, Ludlow was described as a “white colony of a thousand souls” housed in 200 tents.

Ludlow Tent Colony before the fire, Lewis Dold, 1914

Ludlow Tent Colony before the fire, Lewis Dold, 1914

The UMWA paid the strikers a stipend of three dollars per week for each miner, one dollar for each woman, and fifty cents for each child. Tents, coal, food, and clothing also were provided by the union, which bought supplies from independent merchants and nearby ranchers. The union later reported it sent between thirty and forty thousand dollars each week to the strike zone.

With little to do during long hours of free time, the strikers volunteered their services to keep the camp functioning, including providing first aid, removing trash, guarding the site, and keeping the public areas of the colony clean. A baseball field was established where games were played in good weather and a large “circus-like” tent was utilized for mass gatherings and entertainment such as concerts, dances, meetings, and church services.

Both sides of the dispute prepared to use arms to defend their interests. The coal operators employed an estimated 300 armed guards to protect their mine properties and guards escorted new and non-striking employees between the railroad stations and the mines. Some of the guards were hired through the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency of New York and West Virginia, which specialized in working on the side of management during strikes. Many of the guards were also were sworn in as deputy sheriffs.

Baldwin-Felts Detectives

Baldwin-Felts Detectives

The violence began before the tent colonies were even established. On August 16, union organizer Gerald Lippiatti died in a gunfight with a Baldwin-Felts operative and a company guard, who was subsequently himself killed by union miners. On September 24, the CF&I camp-marshal at the Segundo coke ovens was killed while attempting to make an arrest.

After the tent colonies were established, the mine operators initiated a campaign of harassment against the strikers which took the form of high-powered searchlights playing over the colonies at night. Albert C. Felts designed a vehicle miners christened “the Death Special,” an automobile shipped from Denver that was modified with sides of steel plates fabricated at the CF&I mill in Pueblo. At the top of the car was a specially-designed compartment held two machine guns which periodically sprayed selected colonies with machine-gun fire. As a result, the colonists dug pits beneath their tens to shelter from gunfire.

Mother Jones

Mother Jones

On the morning of October 7th, Union leader John Lawson and Mother Jones rallied strikers at the Ludlow colony, and in the afternoon company guards near the site exchanged gunfire with miners. The following day, hundreds of shots rang out during a three-hour battle that resulted in injuries to one guard and two Greek strikers. A miner working as a cowboy at a local ranch died in the cross-fire. During the same incident, bullets entered houses of employees of the Colorado & Southern and shattered windows of the railroad depot. John Lawson, who was present during the conflict, disarmed many of the angry miners and tried to pacify the women and children, who were “running about the tent colony screaming frantically” during the fight.

Afterward, the local sheriff called the Colorado National Guard in Trinidad requesting as many troops as possible to come to Ludlow and be sworn in as deputies. However, by the time the troops arrived, the conflict had ceased and the Guardsmen found no reason to stay. John Lawson then traveled to Denver to meet with Governor Elias Ammons and convince him that the newly-hired company guards would escalate the violence and encouraged him to prohibit the hiring of such men in other parts of the state.

On October 11 reports from the strike zone indicated that three shots were directed at the tent colony at Sopris, and a journalist reported: “The feeling here against the guards still grows and more serious trouble is anticipated.”

"Death Special" at Ludlow, Colorado

“Death Special” at Ludlow, Colorado

Six days later, on October 17, strikers and deputy sheriffs exchanged gunfire at the Forbes Tent Colony south of Ludlow. At this time, the deputized Baldwin-Felts employees tested their Death Special on the tents. One striker died, a mine guard received wounds, and a boy and girl were hit by bullets. On October 24, 1913, mounted mine guards fired upon a group of strikers and their families who were heckling men heading to work at the Walsen Mine, resulting in the deaths of three protesters.

As word of these incidents spread through the other tent camps, fear increased, and the miners at Ludlow vowed that no guards would be allowed near enough to their campsite to use the Death Special. Ludlow strikers believed that company guards planned to “wipe them out” and subsequently, a mine guard was killed near the Ludlow colony. Strikers and guards then exchanged shots for several days. Finally, one of the guards sent a telegram to Adjutant General John Chase, the commander of the Colorado National Guard.

In the meantime, strikers began to attack the mines at Berwind and Tabasco, firing into company houses and using dynamite bombs to destroy mine facilities. One guard died, and two children and four strikers were wounded. As a result, CF&I ordered the removal of women and children from the communities it owned in the area.

National Guard at the Ludlow, Colorado Strike

National Guard at the Ludlow, Colorado Strike

On October 28, 1913, Governor Ammons responded by sending National Guard troops to the strike zone, assuring both the union leaders and the mine owners, that the troops would remain impartial and focus on protecting property. The soldiers established an encampment across the railroad tracks southwest of the Ludlow Tent Colony.

In one of their first actions, troops attempted to confiscate all of the arms and ammunition from both the strikers and the mine employees. In addition, coal company representatives were told to discharge their guards. However, the people at the Ludlow colony withheld the majority of their weapons. But, for several months afterward, no strike-related deaths occurred.

When the troops first arrived, Ludlow colonists were initially friendly, but over time, the cooperation turned gradually to one of mistrust as Adjutant General John Chase imposed a form of military rule in the area, making arrests and undertaking frequent inspections at the camps. The atmosphere worsened in November when the governor allowed soldiers to begin protecting imported strikebreakers. By the early part of 1914, the production of coal was sufficient to meet the company’s requirements, and there was no general closure of mines in the area.

Mother Jones and 600 miners marching to the State Capitol at Denver, Colorado, to present their grievances to Governor Ammons regarding sending militia to the Southern Coal Fields. The Ludlow battle flag was carried at the head of the column.

Mother Jones and 600 miners marching to the State Capitol at Denver, Colorado, to present their grievances to Governor Ammons regarding sending militia to the Southern Coal Fields.

Throughout the strike, state and federal officials attempted to bring both sides of the dispute into an agreement but the coal companies spurned this effort, believing it provided a form of union recognition. More meetings followed where most of the union demands were met, but the coal companies once again rejected the union’s right to address ongoing grievances.

During this time, Mother Jones visited Ludlow to rally miners several times, and state and local authorities believed she incited unrest, so much so that Colorado Governor Ammons threatened to have her jailed or deported to keep things under control. She departed Trinidad on January 4, 1914, stating, “They can’t keep me from my boys.” General Chase ordered his men to arrest and detain her if she came back, which happened a week later. She was then detained at Trinidad’s San Rafael Hospital, where she was held incommunicado for nine weeks, gaining nationwide publicity.

In the meantime, the miners’ wives organized a march through Trinidad to protest her incarceration on January 21, 1914. Adjutant General Chase, who directed the soldiers to charge the women, fell off his horse during the action, and the peaceful demonstration became known as “the Mother Jones Riot.”

National attention again turned to Colorado in February 1914, when a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Mines and Mining inspected the strike district, talking to miners, union leaders, coal company officials, and members of the National Guard. Five congressmen also visited several areas where violence had occurred.

When the body of a non-union worker was found on the train tracks near Forbes in early March 1914, an investigation led to the tent colony, where a number of men were arrested. On March 10, mounted members of the National Guard took down and removed the tents occupied by the men at Forbes and ordered all the strikers to leave the camp within 48 hours and take their possessions with them.

Armed mining strikers in Trinidad, Colorado

Armed mining strikers in Trinidad, Colorado

Union officials immediately protested the Guard’s actions and issued an advisory to striking miners in the coal district to arm themselves to protect their lives and property. The union also urged the tent colonists to resist any attempt by company employees or the National Guard to remove them from the sites leased by the union.

In Denver, Governor Ammons stated he had not ordered the tents to be taken down, and he assured the union that no effort would be made to deport strikers. However, on March 27, the National Guard prevented a group of union members from rebuilding eleven tents at the Forbes site. Upon hearing this, the Ludlow colonists expanded the cellars under their tents and prepared for the colony’s defense.

As the state troops’ occupation of the strike zone dragged on into its sixth month, many professional members of the National Guard asked permission to leave the strike zone and return to their jobs, schools, and families in the Denver area. Because the military presence had been effective in stopping the killing in the area and expenses were mounting, Governor Ammons began to gradually withdraw the troops replacing them with previous camp guards and mine employees. By April, this prompted George P. West to  report to the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations: “the Colorado National Guard no longer offered even a pretense of fairness or impartiality, and its units in the field had degenerated into a force of professional gunmen and adventurers who were economically dependent on and subservient to the will of the coal operators.” By mid-April 1914, only a small contingent consisting of less than 50 soldiers remained in the strike zone, most of them stationed in the Ludlow area.

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