Ludlow and the Colorado Coalfield War

The Rocky Mountain News published an editorial entitled “Massacre of the Innocents,” condemning the events in southern Colorado and questioning why the federal government had not become involved:

“The details of the massacre are horrible. Mexico offers no barbarity so base as that of the murder of defenseless women and children by the mine guards in soldier’s clothing.”

Ludlow, Massacre Newspaper Article

Ludlow, Massacre Newspaper Article

The Oakland Tribune reported on the battle and deaths of those killed by guns, noting:

“The Ludlow Tent Colony Site presented a scene of death and desolation today.”

A New York Times headline read:

“Women and Children Roasted in Pits of Tent Colony as Flames Destroy It.”

The newspaper judged,

“The Ludlow camp is a mass of charred debris, and buried beneath it is a story of horror unparalleled in the history of industrial warfare.”

Afterward, both sides disputed how the fire that caused the destruction of the Ludlow Tent Colony began. The New York Times described the scene as the tents blazed:

“Some [women], braver than the rest, ran into the open and dashed aimlessly among the two hundred tents, which by that time, had become so many torches which swirled their fire and sparks and lighted the scene with ghastly brilliancy.”

National Guard at Ludlow, Colorado

National Guard at Ludlow, Colorado

A military investigatory commission later concluded, however the fire started, the troops spread the blaze: “Beyond a doubt, it was seen to intentionally that the fire should destroy the whole of the colony.” The National Guard’s investigative panel starkly concluded that the force “had ceased to be an army and had become a mob.”

On April 24, a truce was declared, and the following day a conference was held between mining representatives and the coal companies, which resulted in the extension of the truce. However, miners fighting in the hills could not be informed of the truce and acted in accord with the motto, “Remember Ludlow!” In response, CF&I rehired guards and equipped them and its workers with rifles to protect its facilities and employees, and posted notices at all the company’s mines, announcing that “the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company will have absolutely nothing to do with the union mine workers.”

A slain miner at the Forbes Mine south of Ludlow, Colorado, Bain News Service, 1914

A slain miner at the Forbes Mine south of Ludlow, Colorado, Bain News Service, 1914

As the fighting continued, protests were held in Denver to demand that the governor request federal troops immediately and in Trinidad, several hundred heavily armed Greeks arrived ready to assist their countrymen. Strikers attacked the Forbes Mine south of Ludlow, killing 10 men and setting fires to all the buildings. Although the exact number of casualties during the “Ten Days War” is unclear, one account found 28 dead and 41 wounded. The whole affair, commonly referred to as the Colorado Coalfield War, was the deadliest strike in the history of the United States.

Finally, President Woodrow Wilson sent in Federal troops. When some 1,600 soldiers arrived in Trinidad on May 1, they began disarming all civilians, including deputy sheriffs. All mines closed by the strike when it began were ordered to remain closed and the U.S. military permitted the Ludlow Tent Colony to be re-established so its residents could return.

In its 1914 Annual Report, the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company observed, “Without question the women and children who lost their lives in this affray were smothered in a covered cave, through the foolish, if not criminal, act of their own men who put them there and sealed the cover with dirt.” The company also denied it controlled the state troops during the conflict, and claimed it hired additional guards only to protect its property and its workers.

After the Ludlow tragedy, more attempts were made to bring an end to the strike but almost all of the operating companies in Colorado refused to settle citing the miners’ threats and damages resulting from the conflict and contended the union was responsible for the disorder and bloodshed. By the end of the year, the United Mine Workers of America was out of money and called off the strike on December 10, 1914, and its leaders left southern Colorado in defeat.

Subsequently, more than 400 indictments were brought against union leaders and strikers for crimes such as murder, property destruction, and conspiracy to restrict trade. Only one strike leader – John Lawson – was brought to trial. He was arrested and convicted of murder for the killing of a deputy sheriff shot during a confrontation between miners and guards at the Ludlow colony in 1913. However, on appeal, his conviction was overturned. Most of the other charges against the strikers were dismissed, and decisions in the cases of four brought to trial and convicted were also overturned.

Colorado National Guard at the townsite of Ludlow, Colorado

Colorado National Guard at the townsite of Ludlow, Colorado

Twenty-two National Guardsmen, including 10 officers, were court-martialed. All were acquitted, except Lieutenant Linderfelt, who was found guilty of assault for his attack on Louis Tikas. However, he received only a light reprimand.

In January 1915, there were 288 people living at the Ludlow Tent Colony, which had been re-established just northeast of the previous site. Financially drained, the UMWA ended benefits to strikers in February 1915. Lacking jobs and other forms of financial support, as well as places to live, some miners stayed at the Ludlow Tent Colony Site for another two-and-a-half years.

The period following the strike was a difficult one in the coalfields with widespread unemployment among miners, a number of mine closures, and associated business downturns. In 1915, CF&I reported that it rehired three-fourths of its former employees in southern Colorado and then Governor George A. Carlson established the Colorado Committee on Unemployment and Relief in March 1915 to put men with families to work. The committee contacted the Rockefeller Foundation, which contributed $100,000 toward its efforts. Men were put to work on road building projects throughout the state.

President Wilson assembled the Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR), to study situations of industrial unrest and make recommendations. After holding extensive hearings that brought national attention to the Colorado situation, the CIR concluded the coal mine operators were responsible for the conditions that led to the 1913-14 strike and the resulting violence. The strike was described as “a revolt by whole communities against arbitrary, economic, political, and social domination by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and the smaller coal mining companies that followed its lead.” Further, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was cited as the leader in determining and implementing the operators’ strike policies and was accused of approving measures to coerce the state government, as well as disregarding President Wilson’s wishes.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

As a result, CF&I and the Rockefellers faced the brunt of public criticism for the conditions that led to the strike and the violence at Ludlow. Rockefeller then hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a public relations specialist, who advised Rockefeller, Jr., that a comprehensive plan to provide miners with a system for redressing grievances should be a priority. Under Lee’s guidance, the younger Rockefeller publicized his efforts to improve relations between management and labor. Rockefeller, Jr. was determined to avoid the violence of 1913-14 in future industrial confrontations but was not ready to recognize the UMWA as the workers’ representative. He did, however, begin to shape a new labor-management plan that included employee representation in management, safe working conditions, wage scales, and other issues.

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