The Ludlow Massacre: Corporate Power, Unions and Labor

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The foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains once held a valuable cache of high-grade, bituminous coal. This coal was vital to the steel industry in the 1800s and the supply of rails for the quickly-expanding railroad network in the United States. The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, part of the Rockefeller Corporation, needed that coal for their steel mills, and it was the job of mining camp supervisors to make sure the coal arrived on time to the mills–no matter how many lives were lost in the process. These were only a few of the factors leading to the Ludlow Massacre, which is now considered one of the most important events in the historic struggle between corporations and the American labor force.

Treatment of Miners in the Early Colorado Coal Industry

According to the University of Denver’s Colorado Coal Field War Project, 43,000 coal miners died in United States coal mines in the 30 years before the Ludlow Massacre, and the average for Colorado miners was twice as high as the rest of the country. In the early 1900s, Union officials fought desperately to organize miners across the country to strike for safer working conditions, but many miners felt trapped by these same working conditions. Their pay was so low that they couldn’t afford to seek safer employment and company men were notorious for cheating the miners at the weigh stations. Tasks performed to make the mines safer were completed without pay. Miners were “paid” in company scrip, which mining officials claimed reduced the dangers of transporting cash to the mines, but scrip could only be used at company stores where prices were greatly inflated. Miners were always in debt to the company, and children were often forced to work alongside their fathers to repay this debt. In fact, the strikers’ demands included the enforcement of child labor laws, safety laws, and anti-scrip laws that were already in place. To make matters worse, miners and their families were forced to live in company houses in company towns patrolled by armed guards–they lived their lives in constant fear of retaliation.

The Call to Strike

Organizing the miners was a daunting task as company supervisors often hired miners who spoke many different languages so they could not understand each other well enough to organize. According to the University of Denver’s Colorado Coal Field War Project, there was 24 distinctly different languages spoken at the Ludlow mining camp. Nevertheless, the UMWA was successful in many parts of the country due to careful planning. They leased land, provided tents, cook stoves, and guidance to camp leaders. At Ludlow, they positioned the strike camp near the canyon so union officials could harass strikebreakers, or scabs. The official call to strike was issued in southern Colorado on September 17, 1913. Company supervisors immediately evicted all striking miners and families from the company towns. In Ludlow, 1200 miners and their families moved into the strike camp in the valley. The mining company hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to harass strikers and protect scabs, which they did with the help of a car reinforced with a Gatling gun called the “Death Special.” Baldwin-Felts agents drove the Death Special past the Ludlow tents day and night, firing randomly into the camp.

Colorado’s Governor Ammons Sends the National Guard to Strike Camps

On October 28, 1913, Colorado Governor Elias M. Ammons called on the Colorado National Guard to keep the peace, but this only fueled the flames. On January 22, 1914, social activist Mother Jones held a rally in Trinidad, Colorado to attract national attention to the strike. In retaliation for her efforts, Jones was sent to an asylum for three months then sent to jail for an additional two weeks before her lawyer secured her release. On March 10, 1914, the body of one of the “scabs” was found on the railroad tracks near Forbes, Colorado. Tensions grew in the tent camps and company towns. Then suddenly, Governor Ammons claimed the state was short on funds and he recalled the National Guard, but he gave permission to many of the men to stay behind on the mine company’s payroll joining additional militiamen and company guards to form a small army.

Massacre in the Ludlow Strike Camp

Ironically, on April 19, 1914, members of the Ludlow strike camp celebrated Greek Easter with the militia, sharing a meal, playing baseball in a nearby field, then ending the evening with song and dance. The next morning, however, three guards arrived at the camp claiming a scab was held against his will inside one of the tents. Louis Tikas, the camp leader, agreed to meet with the militia leader at a nearby train station to discuss the matter. While they spoke, Tikas noticed two militia groups mounting a machine gun on a ridge called Water Tank Hill, so he ran back to the camp to warn the miners and their families to seek shelter. The first shots were fired around 10 a.m. on April 20, 1914. The men and boys ran for cover with their guns and the women and children huddled in deep chambers carved beneath the tents. The gun battle raged on for fourteen hours. Finally, near nightfall, a passing train paused on the tracks near the strikers camp long enough for miners and their families to hide behind the cars then run into the nearby Black Hills. Four women and eleven children were left behind in one of the underground shelters. Louis Tikas and a few other strike leaders also remained in the camp. One of the men left behind watched in horror as Lt. Karl Linderfelt, commander of one of the militias, broke a rifle over the head of Louis Tikas. Tikas and two other men were shot and killed and their bodies were left beside the train tracks. By 7 p.m. the camp was swarming with militia men who looted the tents and used oil-soaked torches to start them on fire. As the smoke cleared, the militiamen made a horrific discovery–the bodies of two women and eleven children were discovered beneath the ashes of one of the tents.

A Well-Publicized Funeral and the Colorado Coal Field War

Militia leaders refused to allow family members to remove the bodies of Louis Tikas and the other two men from beside the tracks until passengers in passing trains began to voice their outrage. A well-publicized funeral was held in Trinidad for the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, attracting national attention. The Ludlow Massacre sparked a ten-day guerrilla war in southern Colorado between 1000 miners, militia men and company guards in an area ranging from Walsenburg to Trinidad. The final death toll was estimated at 199 men, women and children. President Woodrow Wilson finally intervened with federal troops. Four hundred strikers were arrested and 332 men were indicted for murder, then later released. Twenty-two National Guardsmen were court martialed, then acquitted. The strike leader, John Lawson, was convicted of murder, but this verdict was also overturned by the Supreme Court. Karl Linderfelt, the man who broke the rifle over the head of Louis Tikas, was reprimanded and returned to work. The United States Commission on Industrial Relations also investigated the Ludlow Massacre.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the Aftermath

According to “The Ludlow Massacre” on PBS American Experience, Rockefeller sent a letter to CF&I President Lamont Bowers at the beginning of the strike praising the actions of the company men, then later hired labor relations experts and sought advice from W. L. Mackenzie King, the future prime minister of Canada, to suggest reforms in the mines and company towns. Nevertheless, social activists and the press blamed Rockefeller for the massacre. Rockefeller’s public image and the public image of his corporation suffered greatly due to the events surrounding the Ludlow Massacre. Rockefeller’s home and office were surrounded by chanting protesters for months and one woman broke into his office, waving a gun and shouting threats. Upton Sinclair, the social activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, called Rockefeller a “murderer.” In 1917, Sinclair wrote King Coal, a fiction novel inspired by the incidents at Ludlow.

Monument to the Victims

The 40-acre former strike camp where the Ludlow Massacre took place is now owned by the UMWA and on January 16, 2009, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. A large granite statue of a miner, his wife and child now stands above the site where the two women and fourteen children died. The underground chamber where the two women and eleven children of the Ludlow Massacre suffered and died remains at the foot of the granite statue, reinforced by cement and covered by a heavy, steel door.

Resources:

“A History of the Colorado Coal Field War.” Colorado Coal Field War Project. Retrieved February 20, 2011.

Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Random House, New York: 1998.

“:The Ludlow Massacre.” American Experience. PBS Home Programs. Retrieved February 20, 2011.

West, George P. “Report on the Colorado Strike.” United States Commission on Industrial Relations. Barnard & Miller Print. Chicago:1915.

Wallace, Robert. The Miners: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York: 1976.