|ONLINE VERSION||APRIL 2001|
Ludlow Massacre April 20, 1914
Year after year coal miners died violently and frequently in Colorado mines. Hazards in early Colorado mines doubled fatality rates everywhere else in the world. The high death tolls reflected gross negligence on the part of coal companies concerning mine safety.
Miners living conditions were primitive and they were forced to live in fenced camps patrolled by armed guards. Workers were paid in "scrip" which was good only at a company store.
When mine owners were criticized for their brutal treatment of workers, they reminded their critics that the miners were only "ignorant, lawless and savage South European peasants." Coal camps were viewed as "little United Nations of the poor" where "foreigners were seen as a threat because of the unrest in Europe that led to World War I a few years later."
Union organization was slow. It was not easy for union representatives to enter fenced mine camps patrolled by armed guards. But by the end of 1911, "a complicated spy network operated in the southern coal fields." Union organizers worked in the mines to recruit members but company spies worked just as hard to locate union organizers. Union miners were fired, tarred and feathered, threatened, beaten, and/or rounded up and taken across state lines and abandoned in remote areas without any supplies. Still the union movement gained strength.
In 1913, miners drew up a list of demands and presented them to the coal mine owners:
Recognition of the union.
When the owners ignored the miners' demands, the United Mine Workers of America called for a strike on September 23, 1913. After they were evicted from their company housing, some 10,000 miners moved to tent colonies established by the UMW on land rented by the union east of the coal camps. As miners and their families moved into the tent cities in locations near Aguilar, Forbes, Ludlow, Starkville and Walsenburg, they were confident the mine owners would soon meet their demands.
But the mine owners had no intention of even considering the workers' demands. They hired more "Baldwin-Felts detectives," doubled the guards around company property, purchased large quantities of rifles and ammunition and demanded the governor send in National Guard troops to protect mine property. "Using troops to favor the position of coal companies was illegal, but it was a practice that went on in Colorado for many years."
The Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron steel mills in Pueblo, Colorado even built a unique armored car for the company. "With bulletproof sides and machine guns mounted in the back, it was nicknamed the ‘Death Special' by miners because the gunmen who used the car took perverse delight in spraying bullets through the tents as they roared past the colonies. At the Ludlow camp, men dug holes under the tents to protect their families from the flying bullets that tore through their canvas homes."
"The winter of 1913-14 was one of the worst recorded in Colorado history. Mountains of heavy snow piled up in the streets. The canvas shelters were cold and often wet. Hunger stalked the families. The men hunted daily, and if lucky, added a rabbit or deer to their skimpy menus."
By spring the financial burden of keeping troops in the field was bankrupting the state and as members of the regular National Guard grew tired of the long tour of duty and asked to be replaced, more coal company gunmen began appearing in uniform. On April 14, 1914, the Colorado governor withdrew all but two outfits of troops from the field. The two troops left, made up mostly of company men, mine guards and gunmen, were stationed near Ludlow, 18 miles north of Trinidad.
On Easter night (April 19), company-employed gunmen and members of the National Guard drenched the strikers' tents with oil and brooms dipped in kerosene. Before dawn, they ignited the tents while the miners and their families were asleep. When the miners, their wives and their children ran from the burning tents, they were machine-gunned. Many escaped in the darkness, many were wounded, but five men, two women and 13 children died.
Eleven of the children and the two women, one pregnant, died in a dugout under one tent where they had taken refuge but instead died of suffocation. Eleven-year old William Snyder Jr. was killed instantly by a bullet to the head when he left the protection of the dugout to get water for his mother. The site was soon christened "The Black Hole of Ludlow."
(When the UMW built the Ludlow monument in 1918, it was placed directly east of the Black Hole. The pit itself was cemented in with stairs going into the hole where the women and children perished during the massacre. A trap door seals the pit from the elements, but it can be opened and visitors may go down into the hole.)
Mine owners quickly issued statements charging the striking miners with "starting the fight at Ludlow" and maintained an overturned stove started the fire that killed the women and children. They blamed "cheap professors, even cheaper muckraking magazines and a lot of milk and water preachers" for making a mountain out of a mole hill with the story of the massacre.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., however, took full responsibility for the massacre, saying it "was the unfortunate outcome of a principled fight he was bound to make for the protection of the workingman against trade unions."
(Sources: Labor's Untold Story, Richard O. Boyer & Herbert M. Morais, and "Remember Ludlow," Joanna Sampson.)