The Ludlow Massacre emanated from a labor conflict: the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914, with the National Guard using machine guns to fire into the colony. Approximately twenty-one people, including miners’ wives and children, were killed. The chief owner of the mine, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was widely excoriated for having orchestrated the massacre.
The massacre, the seminal event in the Colorado Coal Wars resulted in the deaths of an estimated twenty-one people; accounts vary. Ludlow was the deadliest single incident in the southern Colorado Coal Strike, which lasted from September 1913 through December 1914. The strike was organized by the miners against coal mining companies in Colorado. The three largest companies involved were Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, owned by the powerful Rockefeller family; Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, and Victor-American Fuel Company.
In retaliation for the massacre at Ludlow, the miners armed themselves and attacked dozens of anti-union establishments over the next ten days, destroying property and engaging in several skirmishes with the Colorado National Guard along a 40-mile front from Trinidad to Walsenburg. An estimated 69 to 199 deaths occurred during the entire strike. Thomas G. Andrews described it as the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States”, and it is commonly referred to as the Colorado Coalfield War.
The Ludlow Massacre was a watershed moment in American labor relations. Historian Howard Zinn described this as “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history”. Congress responded to public outrage by directing the House Committee on Mines and Mining to investigate the events. Its report, published in 1915, was influential in promoting child labor laws and an eight-hour work day.
The Ludlow site, 18 miles northwest of Trinidad, Colorado, is now a ghost town. The massacre site is owned by the United Mine Workers of America, which erected a granite monument in memory of the miners and their families who died that day. The Ludlow tent colony site was designated as a National Historic Landmark on January 16, 2009, and dedicated on June 28, 2009. Evidence from modern archeological investigation largely supports the strikers’ reports of the event.
Areas of the Rocky Mountains have veins of coal close to the surface of the land, providing significant and relatively accessible reserves. In 1867, these coal deposits caught the attention of William Jackson Palmer, then leading a survey team planning the route of the Kansas Pacific Railway. The rapid expansion of rail transport in the United States made coal a highly valued commodity, and it was rapidly commercialized.
At its peak in 1910, the coal mining industry of Colorado employed 15,864 people, accounting for 10 percent of those employed in the state. Colorado’s coal industry was dominated by a handful of operators. Colorado Fuel and Iron, was the largest coal operator in the west, as well as one of the nation’s most powerful corporations, at one point employing 7,050 individuals and controlling 71,837 acres (290.71 km2) of coal land. The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company was purchased by John D. Rockefeller in 1902, and nine years later he turned over his controlling interest in the company to his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who managed the company from his offices at 26 Broadway in New York.
Mining was dangerous and difficult work. Colliers in Colorado were at constant risk for explosion, suffocation, and collapsing mine walls. In 1912, the death rate in Colorado’s mines was 7.055 per 1,000 employees, compared to a national rate of 3.15. In 1914, the United States House Committee on Mines and Mining reported that
Colorado has good mining laws and such that ought to afford protection to the miners as to safety in the mine if they were enforced, yet in this State the percentage of fatalities is larger than any other, showing there is undoubtedly something wrong in reference to the management of its coal mines.
Miners were generally paid according to tonnage of coal produced, while so-called “dead work”, such as shoring up unstable roofs, was often unpaid. According to historian Thomas G. Andrews, the tonnage system drove many poor and ambitious colliers to gamble with their lives by neglecting precautions and taking on risk, with consequences that were often fatal. Between 1884 and 1912, mining accidents claimed the lives of more than 1,700 in Colorado. In 1913 alone, “104 men would die in Colorado’s mines, and 6 in the mine workings on the surface, in accidents that widowed 51 and left 108 children fatherless.”
Colliers had little opportunity to air their grievances. Many colliers resided in company towns, in which all land, real estate, and amenities were owned by the mine operator, and which were expressly designed to inculcate loyalty and squelch dissent. Welfare capitalists believed that anger and unrest among the workers could be placated by raising colliers’ standard of living, while subsuming it under company management. Company towns indeed brought tangible improvements to the lives of many colliers and their families, including larger houses, better medical care, and broader access to education. But, ownership of the towns provided companies considerable control over all aspects of workers’ lives, and they did not always use this power to augment public welfare. Historian Philip S. Foner has described company towns as “feudal domain[s], with the company acting as lord and master. … The ‘law’ consisted of the company rules. Curfews were imposed. Company guards – brutal thugs armed with machine guns and rifles loaded with soft-point bullets – would not admit any ‘suspicious’ stranger into the camp and would not permit any miner to leave.” Miners who came into conflict with the company were liable to find themselves and their families summarily evicted from their homes.
Frustrated by working conditions which they believed were unsafe and unjust, colliers increasingly turned to unionism. Nationwide, organized mines boasted 40 percent fewer fatalities than nonunion mines. Colorado miners had repeatedly attempted to unionize since the state’s first strike in 1883. The Western Federation of Miners organized primarily hard-rock miners in the gold and silver camps during the 1890s.
Beginning in 1900, the United Mine Workers of America began organizing coal miners in the western states, including southern Colorado. The union decided to focus on the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company because of its harsh management tactics under the conservative and distant Rockefellers and other investors. To break or prevent strikes, the coal companies hired strike breakers, mainly from Mexico and southern and eastern Europe. The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company’s management mixed immigrants of different nationalities in the mines, a practice which discouraged communication that might lead to organization.
Despite attempts to suppress union activity, secret organizing by the United Mine Workers of America continued in the years leading up to 1913. Eventually, the union presented a list of seven demands on behalf of the miners:
- Recognition of the union as bargaining agent
- Compensation for digging coal at a ton-rate based on 2,000 pounds (Previous ton-rates were of long-tons of 2,200 pounds)
- Enforcement of the eight-hour work-day law
- Payment for “dead work” (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
- Weight-checkmen elected by the workers (to keep company weightmen honest)
- Right to use any store, and to choose their boarding houses and doctors
- Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the company guard system
The major coal companies rejected the demands. In September 1913, the United Mine Workers of America called a strike. Those who went on strike were evicted from their company homes, and they moved to tent villages prepared by the union. The tents were built on wood platforms and furnished with cast iron stoves on land leased by the union in preparation for a strike.
When leasing the sites, the union had strategically selected tent locations near the mouths of canyons that led to the coal camps, for the purpose of blocking any strikebreakers’ traffic. Confrontations between striking miners and working miners, referred to as “scabs” by the union, sometimes resulted in deaths. The company hired the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency to protect the new workers and harass the strikers.
Baldwin–Felts had a reputation for aggressive strike breaking. Agents shone searchlights on the tent villages at night and fired bullets into the tents at random, occasionally killing and maiming people. They used an improvised armored car, mounted with a machine gun the union called the “Death Special” to patrol the camp’s perimeters. The steel-covered car was built in the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company plant in Pueblo, Colorado from the chassis of a large touring sedan. Frequent sniper attacks on the tent colonies drove the miners to dig pits beneath the tents where they and their families could be better protected. Armed battles also occurred between (mostly Greek) strikers and sheriffs recently deputized to suppress the strike, thus earning the title “Colorado Coalfield War.
As strike-related violence mounted, Colorado governor Elias M. Ammons called in the Colorado National Guard on October 28. At first, the Guard’s appearance calmed the situation, but the sympathies of Guard leaders lay with company management. Guard Adjutant-General John Chase, who had served during the violent Cripple Creek strike 10 years earlier, imposed a harsh regime. On March 10, 1914, the body of a replacement worker was found on the railroad tracks near Forbes, Colorado. The National Guard said that the man had been murdered by the strikers. In retaliation, Chase ordered the Forbes tent colony destroyed. The attack was launched while the residents were attending a funeral of two infants who had died a few days earlier. The attack was witnessed by photographer Lou Dold, whose images of the destruction appear often in accounts of the strike.
The strikers persevered until the spring of 1914. By then, according to historian Anthony DeStefanis, the National Guard had largely broken the strike by helping the mine operators bring in non-union workers. The state had also run out of money to maintain the Guard, and Governor Ammons decided to recall them. The governor and the mining companies, fearing a breakdown in order, left one company of National Guardsmen in southern Colorado. They formed a new company called “Troop A”, which consisted largely of Colorado Fuel & Iron Company mine camp guards and mine guards hired by Baldwin–Felts, who were given National Guard uniforms to wear.
On the morning of April 20, the day after the Orthodox Easter was celebrated by some in the tent colony, three Guardsmen appeared at the camp ordering the release of a man they claimed was being held against his will. The camp leader, Louis Tikas, left to meet with a local militia commander at the train station in Ludlow village, a half mile (0.8 km) from the colony. While this meeting was progressing, two companies of militia installed a machine gun on a ridge near the camp and took a position along a rail route about half a mile south of Ludlow. Anticipating trouble, Tikas ran back to the camp. The miners set out to flank the militia positions and a gunfight soon broke out. When two dynamite explosions by the militia alerted the Ludlow tent colony, the miners took up positions at the bottom of the hill. When the militia opened fire, hundreds of miners and their families ran for cover.
The fighting raged for the entire day. The militia was reinforced by non-uniformed mine guards later in the afternoon. At dusk, a passing freight train stopped on the tracks in front of the Guards’ machine-gun placements, allowing many of the miners and their families to escape to an outcrop of hills to the east called the “Black Hills.” By 7:00 p.m., the camp was in flames, and the militia descended on it and began to search and loot the camp. Tikas had remained in the camp the entire day and was still there when the fire started. Tikas and two other men were captured by the militia. Tikas and Lt. Karl Linderfelt, commander of one of two Guard companies, had confronted each other several times in the previous months. While two militiamen held Tikas, Linderfelt broke a rifle butt over his head. Tikas and the other two captured miners were later found shot dead. Tikas had been shot in the back. Their bodies lay along the Colorado and Southern Railway tracks for three days in full view of passing trains. The militia officers refused to allow them to be moved until a local of a railway union demanded the bodies be taken away for burial.
During the battle, four women and eleven children had been hiding in a pit beneath one tent, where they were trapped when the tent above them was set on fire. Two of the women and all of the children suffocated. These deaths became a rallying cry for the United Mine Workers of America, who called the incident the “Ludlow Massacre.”
Julia May Courtney reported different numbers in her contemporaneous article “Remember Ludlow!” for the magazine Mother Earth. She said that, in addition to men who were killed, a total of 55 women and children had died in the massacre. According to her account, the militia:
Colorado National Guard fired the two largest buildings—the strikers’ stores—and going from tent to tent, poured oil on the flimsy structures, setting fire to them. From the blazing tents rushed the women and children, only to be beaten back into the fire by the rain of bullets from the militia. The men rushed to the assistance of their families; and as they did so, they were dropped as the whirring messengers of death sped surely to the mark … into the cellars—the pits of hell under their blazing tents—crept the women and children, less fearful of the smoke and flames than of the nameless horror of the spitting bullets. One man counted the bodies of nine little children, taken from one ashy pit, their tiny fingers burned away as they held to the edge in their struggle to escape … thugs in State uniform hacked at the lifeless forms, in some instances nearly cutting off heads and limbs to show their contempt for the strikers. Fifty-five women and children perished in the fire of the Ludlow tent colony. Relief parties carrying the Red Cross flag were driven back by the gunmen, and for twenty-four hours the bodies lay crisping in the ashes, while rescuers vainly tried to cross the firing line.
In addition to the miners associated victims, three company guards and one militiaman were killed in the day’s fighting.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the Ten Day War ensued which was part of the wider Colorado Coalfield War. As news of the deaths of women and children spread, the leaders of organized labor issued a call to arms. They urged union members to get “all the arms and ammunition legally available”. Subsequently, a wide-scale guerrilla war by the coal miners began against the mine guards and facilities located throughout Colorado’s southern coalfields. In the town of Trinidad, the United Mine Workers of America openly and officially distributed arms and ammunition to strikers at union headquarters. Over the next ten days, 700 to 1,000 strikers “attacked mine after mine, driving off or killing the guards and setting fire to the buildings.” At least fifty people, including those at Ludlow, were killed during the ten days of fighting between the mine guards and miners. Hundreds of state militia reinforcements were rushed to the coalfields to regain control of the situation. The fighting, however, only ended after President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops. The troops, who reported directly to Washington, DC, disarmed both sides, displacing and often arresting the militia in the process. The Colorado Coalfield War produced a total death toll of approximately 75 people.
The United Mine Workers of America finally ran out of money, and called off the strike on December 10, 1914. In the end, the strikers failed to obtain their demands, the union did not obtain recognition, and many striking workers were replaced. Four-hundred-eight strikers were arrested, 332 of whom were indicted for murder. Only John R. Lawson, leader of the strike, was convicted of murder. His verdict was eventually overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Twenty-two National Guardsmen, including 10 officers, were court martialed. All were acquitted, except Lt. Linderfelt, who was found guilty of assault for his attack on Louis Tikas. However, he received only a light reprimand.
Rev. Cook pastored the local church in Trinidad, Colorado. He was one of the few pastors in Trinidad who was permitted to search and provide Christian burials to the deceased victims of the Ludlow Massacre.
Although the UMWA failed to win recognition by the company, the strike had a lasting effect both on conditions at the Colorado mines and on labor relations nationally. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. engaged W. L. Mackenzie King, a labor relations expert and future Canadian Prime Minister, to help him develop reforms for the mines and towns. Improvements included paved roads and recreational facilities, as well as worker representation on committees dealing with working conditions, safety, health, and recreation. He prohibited discrimination against workers who had belonged to unions, and ordered the establishment of a company union. The Rockefeller plan was accepted by the miners in a vote.
Rockefeller also brought in pioneer public relations expert Ivy Lee, who warned that the Rockefellers were losing public support and developed a strategy that Junior followed to repair it. Junior had to overcome his shyness, go personally to Colorado to meet with the miners and their families, inspect the conditions of the homes and the factories, attend social events, and especially to listen closely to the grievances. This was novel advice, and attracted widespread media attention. The Rockefellers were able both to resolve the conflict, and present a more humanized versions of their leaders.
Over time, Ludlow has assumed “a striking centrality in the interpretation of the nation’s history developed by several of the most important left-leaning thinkers of the twentieth century.” Historian Howard Zinn wrote his master’s thesis and several book chapters on Ludlow. While in graduate school, George McGovern (1922-2012) wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject, later published in book form as The Great Coalfield War. He was a historian, former United States Senator and Democratic presidential nominee.
A United States Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR), headed by labor lawyer Frank Walsh, conducted hearings in Washington, DC, collecting information and taking testimony from all the principals, including John D. Rockefeller, Sr. He testified that, even after knowing that guards in his pay had committed atrocities against the strikers, he “would have taken no action” to prevent his hirelings from attacking them. The commission’s report suggested many reforms sought by the unions, and provided support for bills establishing a national eight-hour workday and a ban on child labor.
In 1916, the United Mine Workers of America bought the site of the Ludlow tent colony. Two years later, they erected the Ludlow Monument to commemorate those who had died during the strike. The monument was damaged in May 2003 by unknown vandals. The repaired monument was unveiled on June 5, 2005, with slightly altered faces on the statues. On January 16, 2009, the Ludlow tent colony site was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The citation describes the Ludlow Massacre as “a pivotal event in American history” and notes that its site is the first of its kind to be investigated by archeologists.
The last survivor of the Ludlow Massacre, Ermenia “Marie” Padilla Daley, was 3 months old during the event. She celebrated her 104th birthday on January 13, 2018. Her father was a miner and she was born in the camp. Her mother took her and her siblings away as violence escalated; they traveled by train to Trinidad, Colorado. The evacuation resulted in the family having to split up afterward. Daley was cared for by various families, and also was placed for a time in orphanages in Pueblo and Denver. She worked as a housekeeper, then married a consultant whose work allowed them to travel the world. Even with a difficult start, she kept a positive attitude about life. She sang happily at her 104th birthday party.
On April 19, 2013, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order to create the Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission. The group worked to develop programming in the state, such as lectures and exhibits, to commemorate the Ludlow workers’ struggle and raise awareness of the massacre. It worked with Colorado museums, historical societies, churches and art galleries, and supplied programming in 2014.
In 1996, the 1913–1914 Colorado Coalfield War Project began under the leadership of Randall H. McGuire of Binghamton University, Dean Saitta of University of Denver, and Philip Duke of Fort Lewis College, who later formed the Ludlow Collective. Their team conducted excavations of the territory of the former tent colony and surrounding areas.