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)
I’ve written variations on this post a few times, for both Labor Day and the anniversary of a major turning point in US labor relations that was kept alive by historian Howard Zinn and others. I had planned to write this year’s remembrance from Ludlow itself as the American Association for Cancer Research meeting is being held in Denver. Other issues have kept me from the meeting but my heart is with Ludlow today. Energy security is a hot issue these days and the US is both blessed with coal and the corporations that will do anything to harvest it, including blowing off the tops of mountains in Appalachia. The answers are not simple ones. But today, I wish to recognize all unsung heroes, past and present, who have worked to provide coal for all manner of our comfort.
As Check Your Premises wrote last year, “Keep that in mind as you go about your work today- a century ago, you might have been killed by your own government for the benefits you now enjoy.”
Below is what I wrote last year.
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). [Last year, commenter Deborah reminded us that Italian and Mexican immigrants and their children composed the majority of those killed at Ludlow]. 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.
Since last year, I am happy to report that now-Cabinet member Salazar’s legislation went through and on 16 January 2009, the Ludlow Tent Colony Site was designated a US National Historic Monument:
Ludlow Tent Colony, Ludlow, CO, is nationally significant in the history of industry for its association with the Ludlow Massacre, a pivotal event in American history that culminated in the destruction of the tent colony and the deaths of two women and eleven children on April 20, 1914. The tent colony originated when coal miners and their families were evicted from company housing during a strike that began in September 1913. The colony, or camp, was established by the United Mine Workers of America on vacant land near the mines and the small community of Ludlow. On April 24, a truce was declared and representatives of the miners and the mine owners med to discuss a “peace with justice.” In 1916, the United Mine Workers of America purchased the 40-acre site of the Ludlow Massacre, and two years later, a monument commemorating the massacre was built. Since then, union rallies and commemorations have become regular events at the site. The Ludlow Tent Colony Site is the first such strike camp to be archeologically investigated. This site is a prime example of what archeologists consider to be the perfect source of physical data because it is a short-term occupation that was destroyed by fire. Archeological investigation of the site to date is providing the means to gain a richer, more detailed, and more systematic understanding of the everyday reality of mining families of the period and throughout the United States.
I also wanted to share with readers a comment last year from colleague and fellow Colorado history lover, Barn Owl:
My father grew up on a farm in Eastern Colorado, so we have ties to the area as well. Because of my love for Colorado, and because the flight from Denver to Aspen gives me unrelenting motion sickness, I drive to a scientific meeting in Aspen every few years. I know the stretch of I-25 between Trinidad and Colorado Springs quite well, and because I was primed with Woody Guthrie songs by my father, I’ve stopped at the Ludlow Massacre site.
I’m ashamed to admit that my initial fascinations in Aspen were with the wealthy celebrities who frequent (invade?) the place, before I got a clue and realized that the interesting people and histories have nothing to do with the glitterati. The miners’ camps, abandoned homesteads, old ranches, and itinerant sheepherders’ cabins in and around Aspen and Leadville have far richer and more important history and relevance, than do Hunter S. Thomson’s outrages, or Jack Nicholson’s privacy issues, or Ken Lay’s multiple vacation homes. I’ve made a point to record this history, as well as the natural beauty of the area, with drawings and photos in my journal, each time I travel to the Front Range.
I’m glad to see that the Ludlow Massacre history will receive the attention and note it deserves.
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.