I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.
We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn’t try so very hard.
– Woody Guthrie, Ludlow Massacre (1944)
US Senator Ken Salazar (D-Colo) has commemorated today’s 94th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre by introducing a bill (PDF) to designate the coalminers tent colony as a National Historic Landmark. Unless you are a descendant of a coalminer or a deep Woody Guthrie enthusiast, the only way most Americans know of the Ludlow Massacre is from Howard Zinn’s defining account in A People’s History of the United States.
The 1913-1914 coal strike in Southern Colorado was one of the most visible and violent labor conflicts of the early 20th century. In September, 1913, coal miners across the area walked out of the mines to protest for higher wages, union recognition and the enforcement of Colorado’s mining laws. Evicted from company towns, the miners established tent colonies near the entrances to the canyons that held the mines. After months of stalemate between the coal companies and the United Mine Workers of America, rising tensions sparked a daylong battle between strikers and the National Guard at the Ludlow Tent Colony on April 20, 1914.
The day is one of the most tragic chapters in Colorado history. In the midst of a gun battle near the Ludlow Tent Colony, the tent colony was set on fire, killing two women and eleven children who were seeking shelter in a pit under one of the tents. The incident, which came to be known as the ‘Ludlow Massacre,’ focused the eyes of the nation on southern Colorado and provoked widespread public outrage with the working conditions and treatment of miners and their families.
The Ludlow Massacre was a watershed in labor relations that brought national attention to the price being paid in the West to heat our homes in the East. Details of the massacre appeared in the New York Times and the Rockefeller family-run mine company operating in Ludlow was targeted. According to Zinn, “Pickets marched in front of the Rockefeller office at 26 Broadway, New York City. A minister protested in front of the church where Rockefeller sometimes gave sermons, and was clubbed by the police.”
These laborers were primarily recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (Ludlow colony leader, Louis Tikas, was Greek and the first to be murdered). The outstanding Colorado Coal Field War Project notes:
Before the strike, the UMW [United Mine Workers of America] counted 24 distinct languages in the Southern Field coal camps. In 1912, 61% of Colorado’s coal miners were of “non-Western European origin” (Whiteside 1991:48). This obviously had consequences for organizing the miners and maintaining unity among them during the strike. It also resulted in the strike and its violence being seen largely as a result of Greek and Balkan culture, rather than the conditions in the Southern Colorado coalfields.
The geology of Southern Colorado provided relatively easy access to coal seams in canyons that had been exposed by erosion. Workers toiled in the mountains but were paid in company scrip instead of cash, and were therefore dependent upon the monopolies of company-run stores for food, supplies, and other sustenance. This issue was the focus of at least one of the seven demands made by the UMWA in September 1913:
Recognition of the union; an 8-hour work day; the right to elect their own check-weighmen; payment for “dead work;” a 10 percent increase in wages on the tonnage rates; the right to trade in any store, choose their own doctors, and choose their own boarding places; and enforcement of Colorado mining laws and abolition of the company guard system.
Even if you are a frequent visitor to Colorado ski areas, there is little chance you have been to Ludlow since it is roughly halfway between Denver and Albuquerque (or 125 miles south of Colorado Springs) at Exit 27 on Interstate 25.
While I’m not one for justifying every post here for its relation to science, I will mention that during my June, 2002 visit to Ludlow, I ran into an archaeological team from the University of Denver, Fort Lewis College, and Binghamton University. I had not known that one could do archaeology on a 90-year-old site but the winds of the Southern Colorado high plains resulted in several inches of soil deposits over the area during that time. In fact, Ludlow was a rich site for artifacts since surviving miners and their families fled rapidly from the tent colony, leaving behind all kinds of personal items. A detailed description of the archaeology project can also be found at the Colorado Coal Field War Project website.
When we are all whining today about the “hardships” of the academic life – dwindling research grants, petty political disputes among colleagues, job shortages due to overtraining – we often forget that at least we don’t have to work for a living. The sacrifices made at Ludlow, other mining camps in the East and West, and factoryworkers’ unions in the East and Midwest have given us the comfortable lives that so many of us lead today.
“Because of (the Ludlow miners’) sacrifices, we can ask for a decent wage, we can expect health care and pensions, Social Security and Medicare, a vacation and expect to send our kids to the schools of our choice,” [United Mine Workers Association president Cecil] Roberts said, calling those who died at Ludlow “American freedom fighters.” “We can expect equal treatment under the law because they gave their lives here.”
So, I wish to offer my personal thanks to Senator Salazar for using today’s anniversary to raise awareness of this dark yet important episode in US labor history. The bill introduced in the Senate to establish Ludlow Tent Colony as a National Historic Landmark will be accompanied in the House by companion legislation introduced by Congressman John Salazar (D-Colo), the senator’s brother in the state’s 3rd Congressional district. Those of us with ties to Las Animas, Huerfano and Pueblo counties are happy to help promote this legislation however we can. In fact, all US citizens benefit from the sacrifices made at Ludlow and elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As one final aside, is it just me or does this week in American history carries some really bad juju? Beyond the forgotten Ludlow Massacre, we’ve got Waco, the OKC bombing, Columbine, Virginia Tech