Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
About 12 miles north of Trinidad, Colorado, off Interstate 25 is a roadside attraction that doesn’t get much attention, even in normal times.
There’s a sign that points to the site of the Ludlow Massacre about a half mile down Las Animas County Road 44. But if you blink, you’ll miss the National Historic Landmark for the Ludlow Tent Colony Site, a memorial to the 20 or so coal miners and their family members – half of them women and children – killed there in what historians describe as a pivotal incident in the history of labor relations in America.
A neighbor tends to the site.
“I water the grass, mow the lawn and haul away the trash,” said John Fatur, who was never a miner himself, but, like a lot of people in the area, was born into a mining family.
Though the memorial is within sight of the interstate, it doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic. But some people seek it out as it is a place of pilgrimage for miners and advocates of organized labor.
“We do get quite a few people stop by, especially during the summer,” Fatur said. “Every once in a while, someone will leave a note saying their grandfather or somebody they know was at this site.”
The memorial gets busy only one day a year, usually a Sunday in June when the United Mine Workers of America hold an event there to remember the victims of the massacre, including two women and nine children who either suffocated or burned alive in the dug-out cellar. The landmark is at the site of a tent camp miners occupied while on strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and managed from his New York City office.
The cellar where 11 people died is still there, covered with a metal lid, at the foot of a monument featuring the figures of a man and a woman holding a child. The inscription above them reads, “In memory of the men, women and children who lost their lives in freedom’s cause at Ludlow, Colorado, April 20, 1914.”
Still, not a lot of people know about Ludlow.
“The centennial a few years back has given it more visibility,” said Bob Butero, director of UMWA Region 4, which owns the nearly 40-acre site. “But even in Colorado history books, they don’t talk about Ludlow.”
And Butero thinks that’s a shame.
Because, as tragic as it was, what happened there is a part of the history that led to the strengthening of child labor laws and the 8-hour work day.
And the events of that day have present-day relevance as the story carries similarities to some of what’s happening in America today: civil unrest, private militia groups, armed vigilantes, street killings and the inspiration for a movement to create social change.
“There’s a lot of history here and a lot of things that apply today,” Butero said. “The majority of miners were immigrants. Immigrants were recruited (to work in the mines) and promised the good life, and then basically were taken advantage of.”
Butero said 23 different languages were spoken at the tent colony that included roughly 200 dwellings housing 1,200 people, as well as a couple of larger community tents. Greeks, Italians and Mexicans made up the majority of the population.
A seminal event
There was a time when Ludlow received greater attention.
The massacre inspired songs by Woody Guthrie and others – and even an opera.
Upton Sinclair includes elements of the events that led up to the incident and the aftermath in his 1917 novel “King Coal.”
Historians Howard Zinn, Mike Wallace and others explored its connotations in their 20th-century writings.
George McGovern wrote his doctoral dissertation about it and later a book, “The Great Coalfield War.”
The Ludlow Massacre was the seminal event of the Coalfield War, an uprising over wages, working and living conditions in company-owned towns in southern Colorado.
“At the time, (workers) didn’t have the legal right to organize,” Butero said. “It wasn’t illegal, but the only way to organize was to gain consent from the employer.”
The strike started in September 1913 when mining companies along the Front Range refused to meet a set of worker demands. It lasted until the UMWA ran out of funding in December 1914.
At least 65 people died in the war, though some estimates run much higher.
The UMWA had made seven demands on the mining companies, among them that the union be recognized as a bargaining agent, an 8-hour work day, the right to shop at any store (not just the company-owned store) and payment for “dead work.” Miners got paid by the ton of coal they took out of a mine, but not for any of the groundwork required to prepare the mine to remove the coal.
They also demanded the enforcement of mine safety rules. Reports are that more than 1,700 Colorado miners died in mining accidents in the decades leading up to the strike, 110 in 1913 when the strike broke out.
In fact, about a mile down the road from the memorial is a much smaller monument at the Hastings Mine, where 12 miners were killed in an explosion in 1912. Five years later, a fire at the same mine operated by the Victor-American Fuel Company took 121 lives.
But the mining companies rejected the demands. Thousands of colliers and their families were kicked out of the company towns. The UMWA set up tent camps to accommodate the families while the strike went on through what was one of the harshest winters in memory.
Many of the families at Ludlow dug cellars beneath their tents, primarily as storage space, but also as a safety bunker when a random shot was fired into the camp by company guards, sometimes just to scare them.
Tensions ran high between the miner families and the Colorado Coal and Iron Company, which formed a de facto militia of its own company guards and members of a detective agency hired to break the strike.
“Basically, what they did was antagonize the miners,” Butero said. “They all got sworn in and became a militia.”
They even had an armored car equipped with a machine gun, dubbed the “Death Special.”
Gov. Elias Ammons called in the National Guard in an attempt to relieve tensions, but many of them sided with the mining companies.
The war was on
Interpretive signs at the Ludlow memorial tell the rest of the story about the Ludlow Massacre.
The eve of the massacre was Orthodox Easter Sunday and the Greek contingent organized a service and feast to celebrate the day. A baseball game was played in the afternoon and even some of the company guards participated.
But the next morning, things went bad. Gunfire was exchanged between the miners and company militia, and a daylong battle ensued. At one point, the shooting paused when a train stopped in the line of fire between the tent camp and “Machine Gun Hill,” the mound on which the militia was entrenched. This gave most of the women and children a chance to escape, but not all of them left camp. Some, including members of the Costa, Valdez and Petrucci families, hid in the cellar of one of the tents.
When dusk arrived, the guardsmen moved in, wrecking the village and looting the tents. Presumably unaware of the hiding place, they doused the tents with fluid and set them ablaze. Two women and 11 children ranging in age from 9 years to 6 months died in the “Death Pit.”
Several miners and one boy were killed by gunfire during the day’s fighting. Three company guardsman and a militiaman also died that day.
But that was just the beginning. The surviving miners and others between Trinidad and Walsenburg formed their own army. They attacked the company mines with a vengeance, themselves burning down buildings. Over the next week and a half, another 50 people died in the fighting.
President Woodrow Wilson eventually sent in federal troops and the fighting quelled.
In the end, more than 400 miners were arrested and more than 330 of them were indicted for murder. But only one, strike leader John Lawson, was convicted and that conviction was later overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court.
In the aftermath
As tragic as the Ludlow Massacre was, it played a part in effecting change. An outraged Congress ordered an investigation, the findings of which advocated for child labor laws and a standard 8-hour work day.
The incident also set off protests elsewhere, one in front of Rockefeller’s offices in New York City.
“It really opened his eyes and he made a lot of changes,” Butero said of the capitalist.
The UWMA may have lost the Coalfield War. But victories for organized labor came later.
“The strike wasn’t successful in the effort to unionize, but it did lay the groundwork for the future,” Butero says. “Ludlow was one of the first incidents that led to workers gaining their rights.”
Before he went to work for UMWA, Butero spent 6½ years as a miner working for Colorado Fuel and Iron, and 13 years as a mine safety inspector.
“I always felt that I stood on these people’s shoulders as far as improving the standards of living and mine safety,” he said, sharing a sentiment surely shared by others who visit Ludlow. “Because of these people’s sweat and blood, they were able to make things better for all of us.”