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Ludlow Massacre

Ludlow Massacre

United States 1914

Synopsis

In the Colorado coalfields, miners labored for long hours under extremely dangerous conditions for comparatively little pay. When the miners attempted to organize under the auspices of the United Mine Workers, most of the coal companies in the southern part of the state refused to recognize the union, prompting workers to go out on strike in September 1913. The dispute soon degenerated into one of the most violent strikes in U.S. history, with both sides guilty of beatings and murder. Efforts by the newly formed U.S. Department of Labor failed to have any effect, since the companies were adamant about refusing to do anything that would imply union recognition. The Colorado National Guard came in to protect the mines, but as was typical of the era, the soldiers actually worked to break the strike. The militia, joined by strikebreakers and company guards, attacked the workers' tent colony at Ludlow on 20 April 1914. Gunfire and flames claimed the lives of 25 people, including 11 children. The strike ended shortly thereafter. The tragedy of Ludlow shocked the nation, with resulting public disgust contributing mightily to Progressive Era labor reforms.

Timeline

  • 1894: Thousands of unemployed American workers—a group named "Coxey's Army" for their leader, Jacob S. Coxey—march on Washington, D.C. A number of such marches on the capital occurred during this period of economic challenges, but Coxey's march was the only one to actually reach its destination.
  • 1899: The Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War begins.
  • 1904: The ten-hour workday is established in France.
  • 1911: Turkish-Italian War sees the first use of aircraft as an offensive weapon. Italian victory results in the annexation of Libya.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1914: On the Western Front, the first battles of the Marne and Ypres establish a line that will more or less hold for the next four years. Exuberance is still high on both sides but will dissipate as thousands of German, French, and British soldiers sacrifice their lives in battles over a few miles of barbed wire and mud. The Eastern Front is a different story: a German victory over Russia at Tannenberg in August sets the stage for a war in which Russia will enjoy little success, and will eventually descend into chaos that paves the way for the 1917 revolutions.
  • 1914: The Panama Canal opens.
  • 1914: U.S. Congress passes the Clayton Antitrust Act, and establishes the Federal Trade Commission.
  • 1914: Intervening in Mexico's civil war to protect American financial assets and other U.S. interests, U.S. Marines occupy the city of Veracruz.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front are waged. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1920: League of Nations, based in Geneva, holds its first meetings.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.

Event and Its Context

Industrialization brought many benefits to the American working class. Jobs became plentiful as the demand for laborers dramatically grew, allowing even the unskilled with a poor command of English to find work. Incomes rose accordingly, but these benefits came at the cost of dangerous working conditions, diminished control over working conditions, and a growing sense of powerlessness. Industrial workers rarely saw an owner. The supervisor exercised almost complete control over the workers in his section, hiring, firing, and setting wages. Managers often compared workers to machines, paying them as little as possible for as much labor as possible. Worker's compensation was unknown and benefits for on-the-job deaths were rare. In this climate, labor trouble brewed and one of the most violent strikes occurred in the coalfields of southern Colorado.

On the east side of the Rockies, the coal seams occur in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The coal from this area is particularly high-grade, low-sulfur bituminous and sub-bituminous. In the early nineteenth century, two southern Colorado counties, Las Animas and Huerfano, provided 60 percent of the state's total coal output and constituted the chief production area for coking coal west of the Mississippi River. This coking coal was primarily used by the steel industry, which supplied rails for the expanding U.S. rail network. Since the railroads needed to maintain a steady supply of coking coal, the southern field was heavily industrialized and dominated by a few large-scale corporate operations. The largest of these was the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CFI), which produced one-third of the state's coal output. In 1906 the Engineering and Mining Journal estimated that 10 percent of Colorado's population depended on CFI for a livelihood. The wealth and power of CFI and the other large coal operators, such as the Victor-American Fuel Company, allowed them to wield considerable political clout in Colorado. Their control over the government of Las Animas and Huerfano Counties was nearly total.

The Rockefellers

In 1903 CFI passed into the hands of John D. Rockefeller, who firmly believed that God had made him the richest man in the world as a reward for his worthiness. Rockefeller would receive $960,000 in dividends during the 11 years that he controlled the company, while the best miner only took home $696 annually. To Rockefeller and other followers of Social Darwinism, only the fittest survived in the world of business, and the subjugation of the weak was accepted as being part of the natural order. Like many other businessmen of his era, Rockefeller tempered this harsh philosophy with the Social Gospel notion that it was the duty of the wealthy to use their riches to advance social progress. Devout Baptists, both Rockefeller and his only son, John, Jr., gave away vast sums of money during their lives to a variety of worthy causes, but this philanthropy did not extend to their workers.

Although he had withdrawn from most of his father's businesses by 1910 to devote his energies to charitable endeavors, the younger Rockefeller became the majority stockholder in CFI and as such had the power to institute policy. Remaining in New York, about 2,000 miles from Colorado, Rockefeller relied on reports from the coal company managers, who repeatedly mentioned how well the workers were treated and how content they were with their situation. Rockefeller never personally investigated conditions in Colorado, as he later testified, and did not believe that the workers needed any help. Even after the strike had begun, he would insist that the miners had expressed no dissatisfaction with their conditions and that outsiders imposed the troubles.

The Workers

In American mines, the accident rate was higher than that of any industrial nation in the world, and Colorado miners died at twice the national average. Cave-ins and poisonous gases claimed the lives of 618 coal diggers in Colorado between 1910 and 1913, leaving many of the families destitute. Coroners' juries typically absolved the coal companies of responsibility almost without exception. For example, in the years from 1904 to 1914, the juries picked by the sheriff of Huerfano County, Jeff Farr, found the coal operators to blame in only 1 case out of 95. The coroner's verdicts in the other cases show a similar refrain: "fall of rock, accident unavoidable," "fall of rock, due to his own negligence," "run over by a car… due to negligence of deceased," and "death by neglect on his part and no other." The average death benefit was around $700, but many families settled for less money. The attorney for one Colorado company told a widow to be satisfied with and thankful for a $20 coffin. The miners could do little to remedy this situation; workers were cheap and expendable. A bit of oft-repeated gallows humor among the miners held that the coal operators cared more about the well-being of the mules in the mines since they could not be replaced as inexpensively.

The workforce itself was largely immigrant labor from southern and eastern Europe, including many Greeks, Italians, Germans, Poles, Slavs, Serbians, Austrians, and Montenegrins. The wide range of languages, 24 by the United Mine Workers' (UMW) count, made it difficult for the miners to organize. Most of the miners lived in company towns, in company houses, and bought food and equipment with company-supplied scrip at company stores and alcohol at company saloons. Some were fired for refusing to pay the company's inflated prices. The doctors, priests, schoolteachers, and law enforcement were all company employees. The entries to the camps were gated and guarded by deputized armed guards. Despite evidence to the contrary, the coal operators argued that the miners were not employees, but independent contractors free to come and go as they pleased.

The men usually worked the mine two to a room cutting into the face of the seam between pillars of standing coal. Miners received their room assignments from a pit boss, who could assign to his favorites the rooms with the thickest coal seams, the ones with the least amount of water on the floor, or the ones that did not require much bending to reach the coal. Each miner was paid only by the ton of coal mined and not by the hour. The "dead work" that was crucial to digging the coal went unpaid. Dead work included taking away rock to get to the coal, removing coal dust, laying track for the cars, and placing timbers so that the ceiling would not collapse. Adding to the miners' grievances, a company man would weigh the collected coal, and many workers suspected the accuracy of the scale, a suspicion enhanced by the company's aggression toward men who asked for a noncompany man to check the weight. Miners also complained of being forced to vote for company-approved candidates and about the blacklisting of miners who had joined the union.

The Strike Is Called

The UMW, the largest union in the United States, had spent a decade trying to organize Colorado. On 17 September 1913 the UMW president, John Lawson, announced that a strike would occur if the coal operators would not meet a list of seven demands: 1) a 10 percent increase on the tonnage rates; 2) an eight-hour workday; 3) payment for dead work; 4) the right to elect without any interference their own men to weigh coal; 5) the right to trade in any store, to choose their own boarding places, and choose their own doctors; 6) enforcement of Colorado mining laws and the abolition of the company guard system; 7) recognition of the union. The UMW gave the companies one week to accept the demands, by 23 September, and made preparations for a strike.

Expecting the workers to be evicted from the company towns, the UMW arranged for alternate housing and supplies. It leased land near the mouths of coal canyons, both to make it a shorter distance for mining families to move possessions and to have a strategically ideal site to harass strikebreakers attempting to enter the mines. The UMW supplied tents and ovens and also organized the strikers into colonies. The largest and most important tent colony, a 40-acre plot, was situated next to the railroad spur serving the coalfield's most valuable properties. This was Ludlow. It would become home to 1,200 miners and their families in 200 tents.

Coal company officials met the strike call with resounding silence. The operators refused to meet with UMW officials for fear of giving even token recognition to the union. Spies and company officials assured the younger Rockefeller that the miners were satisfied with their working conditions and would neither join the union nor heed the strike call. The campaign to terrorize miners into submission had given the operators a false sense of security. Fully aware that men who joined the union were fired, that union organizers risked beatings, and that spies were everywhere, comparatively few miners put their names on the union rolls. Meanwhile, a mass exodus of miners began, and by 22 September most of the coal diggers were idle. Approximately 95 percent of the workforce struck, consisting of about 11,232 of Colorado's 13,980 miners and their families. The surprised operators argued that the UMW had suddenly terrorized this huge mass of tranquil workers into subjection.

As expected, the striking miners who lived in the camps were evicted. On 23 September the striker families hauled their possessions through rain and snow out of the canyons to about a dozen UMW sites. At Ludlow, the miners erected a wooden stage for meetings and bedecked it with a U.S. flag. They marked out a baseball diamond and set up large tents for school, assembly, and recreation. Police squads were organized to keep the peace. From the union headquarters in Trinidad, the UMW paid benefits of $3 to each miner, $1 to each wife, and 50 cents for each child.

Mediation Fails

With Colorado coal crucial to the well being of the nation's industry, President Woodrow Wilson hoped for a quick solution to the turmoil. Unfortunately, the mediation effort by the newly formed Department of Labor failed. The federal mediator, Ethelbert Stewart, canvassed the situation and interviewed both sides, but he could not gain the trust of the operators. Deeply suspicious of William Wilson, the unionist labor secretary, the operators did not see what they could gain by dealing with his emissary. Rockefeller would later insist, when quizzed by a congressional committee headed by Representative Martin Foster, that by resisting the union he was helping miners determine the conditions under which they worked.

The mine operators adopted the position that most miners would return to their jobs if the state guaranteed protection from union intimidation. Seeking the commitment of state troops, they persuaded the county sheriffs of Las Animas and Huerfano to wire Colorado governor Elias Ammons for immediate assistance. Ammons hesitated, and then sent militia in October 1913 after the violence had escalated. The sympathies of the guard commander, General John Chase, would ensure that the militia would be used to break the strike rather than impartially keep the peace.

Violence

The strategic proximity of the tent colonies to railroad stations and canyon entrances served as a provocation to the private armies of the coal companies, while strikers were often enraged by the simple sight of a mine guard. The first to die was Bob Lee, a CFI deputy sheriff and the chief guard at the Segundo coking plants. A bully known for targeting the wives of miners, Lee stumbled upon a group of Greeks sabotaging a bridge two days after the walkout. As he chased the men and prepared to fire a rifle, one of the Greeks shot first, killing Lee instantly. The CFI blamed Lee's death on incendiary talk from the union organizer Mother Jones, who would subsequently spend three months in a Colorado jail without ever being charged with a crime. The white-haired, elderly Jones would leave Colorado just before the 1914 massacre.

As the number of murders and beatings increased, both sides began to stockpile arms and dynamite. Rockefeller was not informed that CFI men had purchased machine guns and armored a car known as the "Death Special." He also did not realize that CFI used eight searchlights with beams of five miles to survey the miners' camps each night and rob the families of sleep.

The Massacre

Excesses by the Colorado National Guard, including the attempted intimidation of congressional investigators, and the near bankruptcy of the state by the cost of maintaining troops, led to the removal of most of the militia by 17 April 1914. Only one unit of 34 soldiers remained, but it was joined by a newly formed unit of 100 mine employees who received no guard training or uniforms before going into action. Rockefeller was informed of this strike countermeasure.

Both sides expected an imminent attack when on 20 April 1914 Major Patrick Hamrock brought a mine company machine gun to a meeting with the Greek interpreter and union organizer Louis Tikas. The subsequent arrival of 20 mounted guardsmen led the Greeks to believe that an attack on their tent camp had begun. Soon the firing was general. Women and children were hustled into pits dug underneath tent floors for storage and shelter. One boy, attempting to get water for his sister, was shot through the head. The battle raged for 14 hours, during which bombs exploded and 177 militiamen pelted the tents with machine gun fire. Militiamen shot the unarmed Tikas in the back under unclear circumstances, either when he tried to escape or after ordering him to run. The arrival of a freight train gave many of the families the chance to use it as a barrier to flee. By evening the guardsmen were looting and setting tents afire. A group of two women and 10 children hiding in a pit died of smoke inhalation. The known fatalities at the end of the day were 25 people, including three militiamen and one uninvolved passerby.

The news of the massacre quickly spread, and a guerillastyle war began to rage along a 50-mile range from Trinidad to Walsenburg. For 10 days enraged miners destroyed buildings and battled with mine guards, leading to 14 more deaths. The fighting ceased when the governor requested federal intervention. In the first week of May, 2,000 federal troops arrived in Colorado. The strike dragged on for another seven months, until the union reached the end of its financial resources. The union declared defeat on 7 December 1914.

Legacy

The Ludlow Massacre focused national attention on the conditions in the Colorado coal camps, and on labor conditions throughout the United States. While facing public outrage, picketing, and death threats, the younger Rockefeller began to realize that unquestioning reliance on the company's management had not served him well. His efforts to improve his public image led to the development of the field of public relations.

Key Players

Jones, Mary Harris "Mother" (1837-1930): The Irish-born Jones began organizing for the United Mine Workers in 1894 and worked in a number of states, including Colorado. Active in other industries besides mining, she led the 1903 Children's Crusade to oppose child labor. Often harassed and jailed by state and local government officials, Jones was never convicted of any crime.

Rockefeller, John D., Jr. (1874-1960): Rockefeller Jr. held the majority share and a directorship in Colorado Fuel and Iron. Primarily a philanthropist, he donated vast sums of money during his lifetime to a wide range of causes including Christianity, conservation, higher education, and historic preservation. He also built Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Rockefeller, John D., Sr. (1839-1937): The founder of Standard Oil, Rockefeller Sr. is best known for obtaining a monopoly on the U.S. oil trade that was eventually broken up by the Supreme Court. In 1913 he established the Rockefeller Foundation for charitable works.

Tikas, Louis (1886-1913): Tikas, a Crete-born Greek who immigrated to the United States in 1906, helped to organize Colorado miners and served as a translator. He was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances at Ludlow.

See also: United Mine Workers of America.

Bibliography

Books

Gitelman, Howard M. Legacy of the Ludlow Massacre: A Chapter in American Industrial Relations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Long, Priscilla. "The Women of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Strike, 1913-1914." In Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of U.S. Women's Labor History, edited by Ruth Milkman. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

McGovern, George S., and Leonard F. Guttridge. The Great Coalfield War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Papanikolas, Zeese. Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1982.

Stein, Leon, and Philip Taft, eds. Massacre at Ludlow: Four Reports. New York: Arno, 1971.

Other

Colorado Coal Field War Project. 2000 [cited 14 February2003]. <coloradodigital.coalliance.org/cfindex.html>.

Additional Resources

Books

Beshoar, Barron B. Out of the Depths: The Story of John R. Lawson, a Labor Leader. Denver: Colorado Historical Commission and Denver Trades and Labor Assembly, 1957.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. New York: Paragon Books, 1991.

Periodicals

Long, Priscilla. "The Voice of the Gun: Colorado's Great Coalfield War of 1913-1914." Labor's Heritage 1, no. 4 (1989): 4-23.

—Caryn E. Neumann

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