Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Colorado Coalfield War 1913-1914

There are many ways to look at historical events. Sometimes they appear isolated and other times they portend to be part of something much larger. As time passes and we look back at them they can often take on greater significance. Two examples are the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 where 146 garment workers, mostly immigrants, were killed and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in 1942 which killed 492 people. Although they happened decades apart, both of these disasters ushered in much stronger building fire regulations. Such was the case with the Colorado Coalfield Wars of 1913-1914 that took place in southern Colorado in the area near Ludlow just north of Trinidad. 

On the surface it appeared to be just another instance of labor unrest which was prevalent during the late 1800's and early 1900's. In 1886 the country experienced the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago where a pipe bomb was thrown into a crowd resulting in the deaths of seven police officers. The police responded by killing four demonstrators and a total of sixty people were injured. There was also unrest in the West Virginia coal mines in the latter part of the 1800's which led to violence and deaths. The impetus of the unrest was the workers desire to unionize and the industrialists equally strong desire for them not to. The case of the Colorado Coalfield Wars was no different...they had everything to do with unionizing and they were violent and deadly. There was general labor unrest with mine workers throughout Colorado and in some cases entire towns were occupied by striking miners but the events in Ludlow were particularly violent.

Working conditions in general were not good for the miners. The work was hard and dangerous. Cave-ins happened frequently causing deaths and the appearance was that the mine operators didn't place too much emphasis on safety. Colorado's mine worker fatality rate was running double the national average. Most of the miners at that time were European immigrants just happy to have a job.

The violence began in earnest after the Colorado militia entered the picture to try to force the miners back to work. The mine operators also hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to add muscle. Their detectives were primarily there to intimidate the miners and their families. In those days a coal miner and his family typically lived on land near the mines owned by the mine operator. When work stoppage began they were ordered off the property and ended up building a tent city on land leased by the union.

The strife escalated with the militia in open warfare with the striking miners and the miners trying to damage and destroy the mines. Each side was heavily armed and each trying to occupy strategic positions. There were accusations that the union organizers were intimidating many of the workers to strike and accusations that the state militia was nothing but an enforcement arm of the mine owners. It should be noted that the major investors in these mines were millionaires from the east such as John D. Rockefeller. While they sent representatives to Colorado, they were pretty much removed from the daily operations.

All of the strife came to a head with the destruction of the tent city at the hands of the militia. The tent city was fired upon with machine guns and burned with kerosene. The fighting at the camp lasted some fourteen hours. There were many deaths, mostly women and children. 

To illustrate how this was much more a war than a scuffle, the picture to the left shows what some called the " Ludlow Death Car", an armor plated automobile which served as a sort of urban army tank. After the Ludlow Camp massacre the fighting intensified with the union calling all workers to arms. Mines were attacked, mine guards killed and everything was escalating out of control. Peace was finally restored only after President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops. Total number of lives lost in this labor war vary widely depending on which side was asked, anywhere from 69 to 190

The aftermath of all this carnage was that the union did not win it's right to organize the workers. They were eventually replaced by other workers and the union ran out of money at the end of 1914.

What the workers did win was the recognition that conditions needed to be changed. John D. Rockefeller Jr. personally became involved in making the changes. Mine safety was improved, roads to the mines were paved, recreation facilities were built and mine workers were seated on committees dealing with safety, recreation and health. In other words, where before the workers had absolutely no input, they now had a voice in the operation of the mines. There was also the understanding that previously striking miners would not be discriminated against.

In 1916, the United Mine Workers of America bought the land at the site of the Ludlow Massacre and built a monument there in 1918. In 2009 the site was made a U.S.National Historic Landmark. 

The monument site is located about 15 miles north of Trinidad, CO just off Interstate-25. Take the County Road 44 exit and go west just short of a mile. Visiting the landmark is a good lesson in history. Another interesting companion side trip when in Colorado is Manitou Springs' Miramont Castle.

Here are several good web sites to learn more about the Colorado Coalfield War:




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