The Colorado Coalfield War and the Children of Ludlow



History Colorado

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bullets tore through the tent colony at Ludlow on the morning of April 20, 1914, and the shooting continued into the early evening. The gunfire erupted at intervals from the rifles and machine guns of the Colorado National Guardsmen on the hill overlooking the long, neat rows of tents, the temporary homes of striking coal miners and their families.


Mary Petrucci, like many other strikers’ wives, was prepared for shooting. During the months of the strike in the southern Colorado coalfield, the miners dug cellars beneath the floorboards of their tents to shelter women and children from the occasional potshots the militia fired at the Ludlow colony. Petrucci and her three children, aged 6 months to 4 years, crowded into the cellar of their tent, Tent No. 1, and waited for the danger to pass. It didn’t.

 

 

At around 6 p.m., Petrucci saw the flicker of flames from above – the guardsmen had made their way down from the hill and set her tent ablaze. Petrucci grabbed her children and ran out of the burning tent, with soldiers shooting in her direction as she ran to Tent No. 58. Out of the more than 150 tents in the colony, this tent had the biggest cellar, more like a cave, which was used to shelter pregnant women while in labor.Petrucci and her children clambered down the earthen stairs to find three women and eight children already taking cover there. It wasn’t long before the flames reached this tent, too – most likely spread by militiamen with torches. Petrucci said they should get out while they could, but her friend, the pregnant Fedelina Costa, urged everyone to stay. The flames wouldn’t reach them underground, and besides, the soldiers would shoot them if they tried to run.


But they hadn’t counted on the smoke and the suffocating effect of the fire as it consumed precious oxygen. By the time they realized their predicament, the burning floorboards above them prevented their escape. One by one, the women and children in the pit drifted from consciousness.


It was 5:30 a.m. when Petrucci came to. Her children hadn’t woken up. They never would. Scarcely able to think or walk, she staggered from the cellar, leaving behind two of the three other women and their 11 children, all dead. 

 

This was the Ludlow Massacre, the crescendo of one of the longest, bloodiest strikes in U.S. history. The labor dispute turned into an armed conflict that pitted Colorado coal mine operators, backed by local sheriffs and the Colorado National Guard, against their striking employees. Colorado’s southern Front Range was transformed into a war zone that saw 75 people from both sides killed from the fall of 1913 to the spring of 1914. 


As shocking as the violence was, it was an almost logical result of the weird conditions that prevailed in southern Colorado, where modern industry mixed with “the fungi of medievalism,” as one federal mediator described it, quoted in Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West by Scott Martelle.


Pueblo was a major steel-producing city, and its blast furnaces depended on a steady supply of coal from the coalfield to the south, particularly the rich seams between Walsenburg and Trinidad. The coal mine operators ruled as feudal lords, with the miners as their subjects. Miners lived in company-owned houses in company towns next to the mines where they worked, and they were often paid in company scrip that could only be used in company stores. A private army of mine guards enforced order – and compliance – in the coal camps. The work environment was dangerous, even by the standards of the time; coal miners in Colorado were twice as likely to die in accidents as their counterparts in the East. Anyone who sought to join a union to improve conditions was promptly fired, leaving his family homeless.

 

 

The miners joined unions anyway, and in 1910, the United Mine Workers of America called a strike in Colorado’s northern coalfield near Denver. By 1913, union organizers spread to the much larger southern fields to enlist miners there. The Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., owned by the powerful Rockefeller family and by far the state’s biggest coal and steel operator, had a network of spies to report any miners who talked to union men. 


But the union devised clandestine ways of organizing the miners. One union leader, Ed Doyle, sent 22 two-man teams to southern Colorado. As described in Blood Passion, one man would openly encourage miners to join the union, while his team member would get a job at the mine and cozy up to the bosses as a solidly anti-union man, tattling on co-workers whom he claimed had joined the union. In fact, the inside man fed the bosses names of miners who had rebuffed his teammate’s offers to join the union. The miners who wanted to help the union cause pledged their support in secret without signing a union card.

 

 

The union threatened to call a strike unless its demands were met. The miners, paid by ton of coal extracted, wanted pay for “dead work,” such as shoring up mine walls with timber, for which they received no compensation. They wanted the right to choose honest men to weigh the coal, and they wanted strict enforcement of mine safety rules and the freedom choose where they lived and shopped. But most of all, they wanted mine operators to recognize the union as their bargaining agent. Recognizing the union was the last thing CF&I’s chief executive, Lamont Bowers, intended to do. Hand-picked by the Rockefellers and given near total autonomy to run the company, Bowers showed open contempt for the miners, two-thirds of whom were immigrants, mainly from southern and eastern Europe. In a letter to John D. Rockefeller Jr. explaining recent pay cuts, Bowers said the foreign-born miners “live like rats,” hoarding money to send back to their native lands.


The judges and sheriffs of Huerfano and Las Animas counties in the southern fields were in league with the mine owners. Anticipating a strike, the mines hired hundreds of men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, notorious for violently suppressing strikes back East, who were in turn deputized by the local sheriffs.


Facing staunch opposition, the union shipped hundreds of rifles and pistols to southern Colorado, preparing not only for a strike but for war, if it came to that. Famed Irish-American labor agitator Mary Harris Jones, known to all as Mother Jones, came to Trinidad to urge the miners to walk out.


“Rise up and strike!” she cried. “If you are too cowardly to fight there are enough women in this country to come in and beat the hell out of you. If it is slavery or strike, why I say strike, until the last one of you drops into your graves.”

 

The mine operators were given until Sept. 23, 1913, to accede to the union’s demands. When the deadline came and went, a huge number of coal miners and their families, 12,000 people total, answered the call to strike. Because they would be evicted from their company-owned homes once they went on strike, they packed up their possessions and trudged through heavy rain to set up tent colonies on the plains nearby. Ludlow was the largest colony, and it became the striking miners’ de facto capital.

 

 

CF&I banded together with Rocky Mountain Fuel Co., Victor-American Fuel Co. and other coal companies affected by the sudden labor shortfall, but even with this cooperation, it was hard for the operators to keep their mines running. In Las Animas County during the first month of the strike, 121,680 tons of coal were produced, a sharp decline from the previous year’s take of 420,086 tons.


The strike was violent from the start. A guard at the Segundo mine was shot to death by strikers the day after the walkout. In October, guards and strikers exchanged shots in the night at the Suffield mine. Near Ludlow, a car carrying Baldwin-Felts detectives was ambushed by a few dozen armed miners. After strikers from the tent colony near Forbes shot at the mine there, Baldwin-Felts unleashed an armored car, nicknamed “the Death Special,” on the colony. The machine gun mounted on the car sprayed 600 bullets into the tents, killing one man and hitting a boy in the legs nine times. One tent had 150 bullet holes in it.

 

 

Mine operators appealed to Gov. Elias Ammons to send in the National Guard to break the strike. Bowers claimed the unrest was caused by outside agitators, and that most miners were staying away from work not because they were on strike, but because they feared union gunmen. Ammons didn’t want to send the militia just yet, but Gen. John Chase, the Denver eye doctor who commanded the Colorado National Guard, dispatched one of his men to the strike zone to gather information.


The man Chase sent, Karl Linderfelt, was both a professional miner – mostly gold – and soldier who had fought in the Boxer Rebellion in China, suppressed insurrections in the Philippines, fought as a mercenary in Mexico and helped put down a 1903 Colorado mining strike as part of the National Guard. Linderfelt took relish in antagonizing the strikers, and because he frequently sought out confrontations, a prominent National Guardsman called him “the worst man that could have been put in command of troops charged with preserving the peace.”


Linderfelt assumed control of the deputies near Ludlow to help escort nonstriking miners to work. On Oct. 25, four deputies traveled from their encampment near Ludlow to greet strikebreakers arriving at the train station there. As they walked in the open near Water Tank Hill, which overlooked the Ludlow colony, strikers hidden behind a steel railroad bridge opened fire. One deputy was killed in a three-hour gun battle.

 

As night came and snow began to fall, the miners expanded their attack up Berwind Canyon, which opened onto the plains at Ludlow. Strikers crept down the slopes at the Berwind mine and opened fire, killing a mine guard. A train carried five coal cars full of deputies to Berwind, and it arrived to a rain of bullets from the miners, who eventually cleared out.
Ammons summoned an emergency meeting of union leaders and mine operators at the governor’s office to see if they could reach an agreement. Both sides held fast. The union demanded recognition and the mine operators refused, claiming that their workers – that is, the miners who didn’t go on strike – had no complaints. The impasse was such that labor and management never actually met face to face, staying in separate suites of Ammon’s office and relaying messages back and forth.


With a crisis in the making, Ammons caved to the mine operators’ wishes and sent in the National Guard. The governor told them they were not there to break the strike but to prevent further violence. The miners initially welcomed them. At Ludlow, the soldiers and strikers played a baseball game, which the soldiers won 19-6. But Linderfelt, who referred to the strikers as “the enemy,” helped destroy that early peace, harassing suspected union sympathizers and searching nearby homes for weapons. The interests of the National Guard and the mine owners were soon entangled, as many mine guards were enlisted into the soldiers’ ranks.


The well-armed strikers showed no signs of backing down. One strikebreaking miner at Aguilar was shot through the head. Another strikebreaker was pressured to join the union when he went to La Veta to visit the dentist, and strikers threatened him when he refused. He called for an escort of mine guards to drive him home, but the car was ambushed on the way out of town, and the four mine guards and drivers were killed.

 

 

Mother Jones continued her rabble-rousing in Trinidad, followed by mining company spies who transcribed her speeches in shorthand. The National Guard wanted her gone, sending her off in January on a train to Denver. When Jones returned to Trinidad a few days later, she was arrested and held in custody at San Rafael Hospital. A thousand women marched through the streets of Trinidad demanding her release, but they were blocked by mounted soldiers, led by Chase, who allegedly ordered his men to “ride the women down.” The soldiers rode through the crowd three times, clubbing women with their pistols and the flat sides of their sabers.


Things had quieted down by March and April 1914. Ammons, thinking the worst was over, and running out of money to pay the militia, withdrew most of the National Guard troops. By mid-April, the only troops left were the newly recruited Trinidad men of Company A and Linderfelt’s men of Company B, who were still camped near Ludlow.


April 19 was Easter Sunday for the Greek Orthodox faith observed by the many Greek miners in the Ludlow colony, including its leader, Louis Tikas. As part of the celebration, the miners played a baseball game, which was interrupted by Linderfelt’s soldiers. Despite the recent months’ calm, the situation remained tense.


On the morning of April 20, Linderfelt received a letter from the wife of miner Carindo Tuttolimando claiming her husband was being held against his will in Ludlow. He gave the letter to Major Patrick Hamrock, who went with soldiers to find Tikas and inquire about the missing man. Tikas, interrupted from looking at Easter postcards with friends, told the soldiers Tuttolimando wasn’t there, and that the military didn’t have authority over the strikers’ camp.


The militiamen left, saying they would be back at noon to find the man, even if it meant searching the colony tent by tent. Hamrock telephoned the colony and again spoke to Tikas, asking him to meet him at the military camp. Tikas refused. Hamrock ordered soldiers to occupy Water Tank Hill – and to bring the machine gun. If there was to be trouble, he wanted to be prepared.

 

 

Ludlow was abuzz with activity. The strikers were furious at the prospect of their tents being searched. Tikas called Hamrock and agreed to meet him at the Ludlow train station to hash things out. While they were talking at the depot, soldiers arrived on Water Tank Hill, south of the colony, which prompted the miners to grab their rifles and seek cover north of the tents. Seeing the danger, Tikas ran back to the colony, waving a white handkerchief, to cool the situation. 


Then three explosions rang out, blasts of dynamite from the military camp west of Ludlow. The National Guardsmen knew this as their agreed-upon signal that danger was imminent. Instead of preventing trouble, the signal probably set it off. By the time the third blast had sounded, Ludlow had erupted in gunfire from both of the opposing forces.


The people in the camp were mostly women and children, and many ran for the shelter of arroyos to the north, while others cowered in the cellars of their tents. The soldiers fired at the armed miners at Ludlow’s edges but also raked bullets across the colony itself.


Soldiers occupied the hill south of the colony, while strikers were in the railroad cut and rifle pits to the north. At 5 p.m., the National Guard, having driven off most of the strikers, descended Water Tank Hill and entered Ludlow, shooting and looting. 


Tikas and two other men were still among the tents. They were captured and brought to Linderfelt, who berated Tikas for failing to stop the strikers from firing. Linderfelt used his rifle as a club to deal a vicious blow to the right side of Tikas’ head, leaving a bloody gash with exposed bone. Linderfelt departed. Soon afterward, Tikas and his two comrades, still in military custody, were shot dead.


Meanwhile, the soldiers set fire to the tents with torches and coal oil. By night, nearly the entire colony was burning. Amid the ruins the next day, the bodies of the two women and 11 children were found.

 

Word spread quickly of “the Ludlow Massacre.” Union leader John Lawson told reporters, “It has now become a war of extinction.” Thousands of miners from Trinidad to Walsenburg and beyond gathered their guns, put as much ammunition as they could find in bandoliers and flour sacks, and headed out to fight all along the Front Range. The militia held Ludlow, but the strikers occupied the rest of the countryside, shooting at and setting fire to as many mines as they could, and killing anyone who tried to stop them.


At the Empire mine, strikers overwhelmed the guards, mortally shot the superintendent and forced 35 guards, managers, strikebreakers and their families to seek shelter in the mine. The strikers then tried to blow up the mine, failing to kill them all only because the dynamite didn’t fully detonate.


The war raged for 10 days following the Ludlow Massacre, with strikers killing 23 soldiers, guards and strikebreakers, according to the detailed count in Blood Passion. Just a handful of strikers were killed. The National Guard was redeployed but could do little to stop the bloodshed. Only when the governor appealed to President Woodrow Wilson to send in the U.S. Army did the fighting end. 

 

But the strike continued almost all year. Finally, in December 1914, the union ran out of money to keep the strike going. After all the heartache the miners went through for more than a year, their efforts failed. It wasn’t all for nothing, though.
 

The massacre publicly shamed John D. Rockefeller Jr. into enacting wide-ranging reforms at CF&I, improving workers’ conditions, giving amnesty to strikers and adopting a company union. In the wake of Ludlow, a federal commission investigated labor relations and helped pass national laws establishing an eight-hour workday and banning child labor.


The call “Remember Ludlow!” was taken up by union workers across the country, and in 1916, the United Mine Workers of America purchased the site of the massacre, erecting a stone monument honoring those who died in the Ludlow Massacre. Today, signs along Interstate 25 north of Trinidad direct motorists to the memorial. The marker reads: “In memory of the men, women and children who lost their lives in freedom’s cause at Ludlow, Colorado, April 20, 1914.” 


Just a few yards away from the monument, there’s a cellar door where visitors can walk down steep stairs to a dark chamber. This is the “death pit,” where two women and 11 children died. The Ludlow Massacre happened 100 years ago, but at this hallowed place, the memory seems very much alive. 

 

The Children of Ludlow

Mary Petrucci lost her three children in the Ludlow Massacre, but she survived, and life went on. Five years later, she had another son, Frank, named after the infant son she lost that day. Last year, the now 94-year-old Frank Petrucci visited the El Pueblo History Museum to see his family’s story play a central part in the exhibit “Children of Ludlow: Life in a Battle Zone, 1913-1914.”


Ludlow might belong to history now, but it still looms large in the lives of many families in southern Colorado. When Jodene Parlapiano of Pueblo visited the exhibit, she recognized family members in the historical photographs, including her grandfather, a striker killed in cold blood at Ludlow alongside strike leader Louis Tikas. 


The museum tells the Ludlow story from the perspective of the thousands of children in the tent colonies. “When you consider that there was always the threat of violence, the environment these kids were living in was quite literally a battlefield,” said Dawn DiPrince, the museum’s assistant director.


DiPrince co-chairs the Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission, which is organizing events to mark the 100th anniversary of the coal strike and the massacre. The commission has been gathering stories from families.


“So much of Ludlow has been passed down at kitchen tables and not in textbooks,” DiPrince said. “One of our large goals is to officially document things that hadn’t been documented before.”


For information on the El Pueblo Museum, call (719) 583-0453. Visit ludlow100.com to learn about 100th-anniversary commemoration events.

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