In 1910, the Colorado coal mining industry employed 10 percent of the state’s workers, almost 16,000 people. Colorado Fuel and Iron dominated the industry. John D. Rockefeller bought the company in 1902 and turned it over to his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. nine years later.
Attempts had been made to unionize Colorado coal miners since 1883. The United Mine Workers of America began a concentrated effort to organize them in 1900, focusing on the Rockefeller’s CF&I because of its strict treatment of miners. The task was complicated because miners were primarily newcomers to the United States from many countries and speaking many languages.
The issues were fundamental – miners in the remote coalfields had nowhere to live but company camps where they had no ownership rights. They were mostly paid in scrip, and average of $1.68 a day, which could only be spent at stores owned by the mining companies and with doctors provided by the coal companies. Work days were long and arduous, with miners crouched for hours in low tunnels. In 1914 alone, 104 miners died at their work; between 1884 and 1912, 1,708 miners died in Colorado, more than twice the national average.
By 1913 the UMWA was ready with a list of demands for the mine owners that included a 10 percent increase in pay per ton, an eight-hour work day, payment for “dead work” like laying track and timbering mine walls, a checker chosen by the miners to ensure their output was weighed fairly, an end to scrip payment, enforcement of Colorado mine safety rules and an end to the company guards who patrolled and controlled the company camps.
The mine owners rejected the demands in September and 10,000 miners walked off the job. The miners and their families were evicted from the company camps and set up tent towns on land leased by the union.
There was scattered violence on both sides. The striking miners waylaid trains bringing replacement workers from the East. The mine owners hired the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency to protect the new workers and harass the strikers by randomly firing into the tents at night and patrolling the perimeter of the camps with an armored vehicle with a mounted machine gun that the guards dubbed the Death Special. Gunfire from the Special was responsible for the death of one miner and the maiming of two children. The miners dug hidden pits beneath their tents to protect themselves and their families from the gunfire.
On Oct. 28 Colorado Gov. Elias M. Ammons called in the Colorado National Guard to calm the situation. However, the Guard soon exhibited a sympathy with the mine owners and imposed harsh controls over the miners. By the spring, the state was out of money to keep the guard in place and withdrew all but two units, leaving militia hired by the mine owners as the primary force.
On the morning of April 20, as Greek miners at the 1,200-resident Ludlow camp hosted an Easter celebration, the state guards set up a machine gun overlooking the camp. Miners attempted to flank them and a firefight broke out that continued through the day.
In the evening, a passing freight train stopped on the tracks, blocking the guards’ machine gun and allowing many of the camp’s residents to flee to an outcrop to the east.
By 7 p.m., the guards set fire to the tent town and moved in to rout any remaining miners. Huddled in one of the pits dug for safety, two women and 11 children suffocated and burned when the tent above them was set afire. Three strikers were shot dead after being captured by the guards and three company guards and one militiaman were killed.
In retaliation, the UMWA encouraged strikers to arm themselves. The resulting guerrilla war lasted 10 days and stretched along a 40-mile front from Trinidad to Walsenburg. The full death toll is somewhere between 69 and 199 people. The fighting ended only when President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops that disarmed fighters on both sides.
In the end, more than 400 strikers were arrested and 332 indicted for murder. Only strike leader John Lawson was convicted and his conviction was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Twenty-two National Guardsmen were court-martialed; all but one were acquitted and he received only a light reprimand.
The UMWA, out of money, ended the strike on Dec. 10, 1914. Although the UMWA didn’t win recognition, some of its demands were met: the Congressional House Committee on Mines and Mining held an investigation that led to child labor laws and an eight-hour work day.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. formed a commission to help develop reforms for his mines and camp towns that included worker representation on committees dealing with working conditions, safety, health and recreation. The plan also established a company union. The miners endorsed the plan.
The 40-acre Ludlow site, now a ghost town, is owned by the UMWA. A granite monument commemorates the miners and their families who died in the strike. Visitors can also descend into the claustrophobic “Death Pit” where the women and children died. The Ludlow Tent Colony Site has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Former Senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern wrote a book on the massacre, “The Great Coalfield War,” and Upton Sinclair’s novel “King Coal” is based on Ludlow. Folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded a song about the tragedy, “Ludlow Massacre,” and Irish musician Andy Irvine wrote and recorded “The Monument (Lest We Forget).” Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason commemorated the event in a verse-novel, “Ludlow.”