The Colorado Coalfield War, 1913-1914
The Ludlow tent colony before the fire
Disaster stalked coal miners, especially in early Colorado where fatality rates
were double what they were everywhere else in the world. The workers had many grievances
against the powerful coal companies but they could not talk to the mine owners because
they had no union and no bargaining power. Anyone who spoke up was immediately fired.
And as most workers lived in company housing, anyone fired also had his family immediately
put on the street. The high death tolls reflected the gross negligence in regards
to safety on the part of the mine owners. And most mines in this area were owned
by John D. Rockefeller.
In 1913, a group of miners drew up 7 demands and presented them to the mine owners.
These demands consisted of: Union recognition, a raise in wages, an eight-hour work
day (which was already a state law but was generally ignored), hourly pay for dead
work (work that didn’t directly produce coal), a check weigh-man at all mines (to
be elected without interference from company officials), the right to trade in any
store they chose, the right to select their own living places and doctors, the enforcement
of Colorado mining laws and the abolition of the guard system that had run the camps
for so many years.
This was a hard one for the owners. For years they had fought every attempt at union
organization with blunt tactics. Union miners were fired, tarred and feathered,
beaten, and threatened, or rounded up and deported across state lines to be abandoned
on remote stretches of prairie. When the union movement gained enough strength to
call a strike, the companies retaliated by swiftly importing laborers. They sent
recruitment ads to foreign countries boasting of the United States as a “land of
milk and honey where the streets are paved with gold.” Desparate workers came in
droves, only to find that they were replacing striking miners. By 1911, many different
nationalities were represented in the coal camps of Colorado.
When the 7 demands were presented to the coal mine owners, the owners decided to
ignore the miners. Consequently, a general strike was called to begin on September
23, 1913. Using union funds, lands east of the coal camps were rented. Union officials
then ordered tents and quietly established tent colonies on the plains for the striking
miners and their families. Thousands of miners set up housekeeping in the flimsy
tents, confident the strike would be over soon. At the same time, the mine owners
invested heavily in more detectives, more guards and lots more rifles and ammunition.
The John Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) steel mills in Pueblo
built an armored car for the company. It had bulletproof sides and machine guns
mounted on the back. It was nicknamed “the Death Special” by the miners because
the gunmen who used the car took perverse delight in spraying bullets through the
tents as they roared past the colonies on their way to and from the mine offices.
It happened so often at Ludlow that the men dug holes under their tents for their
families to crawl into as protection against the flying bullets.
On October 17, 1913, Baldwin-Felts detectives in the Death Special shot up the Forbes
colony, killing several people. One young boy running from the gunfire had 9 bullet
holes in his legs. They discovered that one of the tents had over 85 bullet holes
in it (they shipped this tent to the East Coast and put it on display to show the
rest of the world what was happening in Colorado). On October 28, 1913, Governor
Ammons called out the Colorado National Guard. He issued orders that the troops
be impartial in their handling of the situation and that company guards and gunmen
not be enlisted. Over time, the members of the regular National Guard were replaced
by coal company gunmen in uniform.
The winter of 1913-1914 was one of the worst in recorded Colorado history. Food
was scarce and the tents were cold and wet. In January 1914, Mother Jones
(that’s her on the left) arrived in Trinidad. Even though she was over
80 years old, the coal owners had her arrested immediately and confined in a psychiatric
ward at Mt. San Rafael Hospital (she must have been crazy, she opposed John D. Rockefeller).
On January 21, 1914, miners’ wives and children organized a parade to protest her
arrest. Adjutant General Chase, commander of the Colorado Militia, was so furious
he confronted the women and, in the excitement, fell off his horse. The women laughed
and humiliated him with derogatory remarks about his prowess as a horseman. Embarrassed,
he gave orders to “ride down the women!” His troops then attacked the women and
children with their sabers drawn and injured quite a few.
By spring, the cost of keeping the National Guard in place was bankrupting the state.
Governor Ammons withdrew all but two of the troops from the field, these two troops
being composed mostly of company men, mine guards and gunmen, and both were stationed
On April 20, 1914, a series of 3 signal bombs went off in the military camp. After
the third one, bullets began ripping through the tents at Ludlow. Women screamed
and people dodged. Children ran for their lives and hid in the basements under each
tent. That evening, soldiers raced into the colony on horseback, dipped brooms in
kerosene and torched the tents. Louis Tikas, leader of the Ludlow tent colony, was
captured soon after the firing of the tents and was taken to the military camp.
There, a Lieutenant Linderfeldt bashed his head in with a rifle, and as Tikas turned
and staggered away, shot him 3 times in the back. Accounts say that his body and
those of two others killed in the same fashion lay on the ground where they fell
for a long time. Many of the families were marched by the bodies as the militia
gathered people up and transported them to Trinidad. At the camp itself, the death
toll included 4 men, 2 women and 11 children. All the women and children were found
suffocated in the dugout beneath one of the burned tents. The bodies of the victims
were taken to a mortuary in Trinidad where a mysterious fire broke out. The bodies
had to be hauled into the street to keep them from being burned a second time and
destroyed as evidence of the massacre.
Ludlow tent colony after the fire
During the days that followed, the miners retaliated by attacking the coal mines
in the valleys west of the tent colonies. They set fire to dozens of mine installations
and dynamited thousands of dollars worth of mine buildings and workings. The atrocity
at Ludlow was protested in cities all over the world and Federal troops were called
in, arriving in early May, 1914. The United States Commission of Industrial Relations,
a body appointed by President Woodrow Wilson made an investigation of the massacre
and concluded “the State of Colorado through its military arm was rendered helpless
to maintain law and order because that military arm acted, not as an agent of the
commonwealth, but as an agent of the coal operators against the striking miners.”
In reality, the miners lost the strike. The fighting went on for a while but after
attending the funerals in Trinidad, most of the miners went back to work in the
mines. Their working situation didn’t change for years. In 1917, just three years
later, a few miles north of the massacre site, the Hastings Mine blew up. It was
the worst mine explosion in Colorado history with 121 men dying in the notoriously
Ludlow Mercantile today
A coal cart at the Ludlow Memorial