by William “Doc” Halliday
While I have been in both mines and caves, I have never worked underground for a living. I have lived in Colorado, and worked in a silver mine just for the experience. I can only imagine what working in a coal mine is like, particularly 100 years ago. Breathing the dust is what first comes to my mind. I took basic training in the Army at Ft. Dix in old wood barracks (circa World War 2) that were heated with coal. When you awakened in the morning, you would blow your nose and what came out was black coal dust!
Exactly 102 years ago today, on April 20, 1914, at least 19 men, women, and children died in the Ludlow Massacre during a coal-miner’s strike in Colorado. It was one of history’s most extreme confrontations between owners and labor that took place at the mines of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
A century ago, mining was both difficult and hazardous. There was a constant risk of explosions, suffocation, and collapsing mine walls. In 1912, the death rate in Colorado mines was more than twice that of the national average. Over 1,700 men died in these mines between 1884 and 1912.
The United States House committee on Mines and Mining had been created immediately after the Civil War. That committee reported in 1914 that although Colorado had good mining laws for the protection of miners, the state still had a higher percentage of deaths than any other. The problem was that the laws were not enforced, and the committee found that “…there is undoubtedly something wrong in reference to the management of its coal mines.”
In part to ameliorate their working conditions the miners presented a list of seven demands. The demands were refused and in September of 1913 the miners went out on strike. Approximately 90 percent of the workforce totaling 11,000 miners in southern Colorado went on strike against the potent Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation.
The company responded to the strike by immediately evicting the miners and their families from company-owned houses which were no more than shacks. On September 23 the striking miners and their families hauled their possessions through rain and snow out of the canyons to about a dozen sites that had been rented in advance by the UMWA to house them. The union had strategically selected locations near the mouths of canyons that led to the coal camps, in order to block scabs who might attempt to break the strike. The Ludlow tent colony was one of the largest of these sites.
The Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency was employed by the company to both harass the strikers, and protect the scabs. Company guards and employees of the detective agency would harass the miners by shining searchlights on the tent villages at night and firing bullets into the tents at random, maiming and occasionally killing people in the tent village. In order to protect themselves and their families the miners dug pits beneath the tents. The company even employed an improvised armored car with a machine gun which was called the “Death Special”.
On October 28 Governor Elias Milton Ammons called out the Colorado National Guard. The miners initial relief quickly transformed into horror when they realized that the objective of the troops was not to keep the peace, but to augment the company thugs.
On the morning of April 20, the day after Orthodox Easter, the trouble escalated. At 10 a.m. the militia ringed the camp and began firing into the tents upon a signal from the commander, Lt. Karl E. Lindenfelter.
Four women and 11 small children died like trapped rats when the flames swept over them. Later investigations revealed that kerosene had intentionally been poured on the tents to set them ablaze. The women and children were found huddled together in the pits at the bottoms of their tents.
Not one of the perpetrators of the slaughter was ever punished, but scores of miners and their leaders were arrested and black-balled from the coal industry. The expanded conflict is called the Colorado Coalfield War and resulted in 75 deaths and an unknown number of wounded.
William “Doc” Halliday, writer and historian, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org