April 20 has a ring of infamy in Colorado. In recent history it is remembered as the day of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Others now know it as a day to commemorate Colorado’s lenient laws on recreational use of marijuana. In Southern Colorado, however, the ominous date marks the seminal event in the Colorado Coal Wars: the Ludlow Massacre.
“Ludlow was really the apex of the fight between working families and large corporations,” said Michael Simmons, a southwestern historian. “On one side you had striking miners who were looking for better pay, better treatment from their employers, and an eight-hour workday. On the other side you had the corporate moguls most prominent among them the Rockefeller family which owned Colorado’s largest mining company, Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.”
Demands for better pay, treatment
The massacre, which took place on April 20, 1914 in Ludlow, Colo., was something that had been building up for almost a year as coal workers began to strike in 1913. According to Simmons, coal in the beginning of the 1900s was to industry as tech is today, so some of the nation’s most powerful people ran companies like Colorado Fuel & Iron or the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company and their employees knew it.
“Miners were not aloof to the fact that they suffered for their wages,” Simmons said. “They weren’t just fighting for better pay, they were fighting to preserve their lives and their families.”
Indeed, in Colorado during the boom of the mining industry from 1884 to 1912 mining accidents claimed the lives of more than 1,700 Coloradoans. According to Thomas G. Andrews’ account of the Colorado Coal Wars in “Killing for Coal: American’s Deadliest Labor War”, in 1913, the year the strike began, “104 men would die in Colorado’s mines, and six in the mine workings on the surface, in accidents that widowed 51 and left 108 children fatherless.”
Strikebreakers and Colorado National Guard
As the miners went on strike, strike-breakers from Mexico and southern and eastern Europe were hired to take their place. The striking miners, who were set up in company housing near their mining sites at the time, were forced out of their housing and moved into tent villages prepared by their union representatives. From their they had a clear view of the strikebreakers and would harass them, in some cases strikebreakers would be found dead.
To retaliate, the coal companies hired armored guards to protect the new workers and keep the strikers at bay. As they violence mounted, governor Elias M. Ammons ordered the Colorado National Guard to head south to calm the situation. The strategy worked, but only momentarily.
“The National Guard’s sympathies were with the strikebreakers and the corporations, so it didn’t take long for them to become part of the problem,” Simmons said. “That all came to a head on April 20th.”
That morning gunfire erupted at the Ludlow tent colony as the Colorado National Guard and guards of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company set fire to the colony. By the time the fighting had ceased 19 striking miners and their families were dead. Of the 19, two women and 11 children died.
“It was the deaths of women and children that really served as a rallying cry for the union,” Simmons said. “That’s when the situation turned from an aggressive strike to a guerrilla war.”
Changes enacted as a result
Dubbed the Colorado Coalfield War, the 10 days of fighting would claim the lives of approximately 75 people and only came to an end when President Woodrow Wilson deployed federal troops to the area.
“Though changes weren’t imminent, they did occur and a lot of that has to do with the residency of the miners,” Simmons said. “From [the events] an eight-hour work day and child labor laws became regulatory.”
Though no more than a ghost town today, visitors to Ludlow can view the Ludlow Monument at the Ludlow Tent Colony Site, which was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2009.