The Ludlow Massacre and the Colorado Coalfield War

During Colorado’s coal mining days, colliers experienced twice the number of deaths compared to anywhere else in the world. These high death tolls reflected the mine owners’ gross negligence to safety. Though colliers wished to complain about their working conditions to mine owners, without a union, they would be fired on the spot. Moreover, companies provided most housing, and thus, anyone who was fired also ended up in the street.

In 1913, the United Mine Workers of America collaborated with a group of Southern Colorado colliers to draw up seven demands and present them to mine owners. These demands include:

  • Union recognition
  • A raise in wages
  • An eight-hour workday (which was already a state law but 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
  • The abolition of the guard system that had run the camps for so many years.

Mine owners had always fought every attempt at union organization with blunt tactics. Union colliers were fired, tarred and feathered, beaten, threatened, or rounded up and deported across state lines to be abandoned on remote stretches of prairie.

Cool fact: When you were hired to work the mines, you could expect to work twelve hour days for at least six days a week. Some miners worked twelve-hour shifts seven days a week with no time off. At that time, there was no such thing as overtime pay or paid vacations.

However, the union movement soon gained enough strength and a strike was called on September 23, 1913. Union officials rented land east of the coal camps and established tent colonies for the thousands of striking colliers and their families.

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 and working colliers sometimes resulted in deaths. Mine owners eventually 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 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 camps’ perimeters. 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.

As strike-related violence mounted, Colorado Governor Elias M. Ammons called in the Colorado National Guard on October 28, ordering troops to be impartial when handling the situation and company guards and gunmen to not enlist. However, despite governor Ammons’s request, coal company gunmen in uniform eventually replaced members of the regular National Guard.

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 troops were stationed near the Ludlow colony and were composed mostly of company men, mine guards, and gunmen.

On April 20, 1914, a series of bombs went off in the military camp, signaling striking colliers that trouble was coming. After the third bomb, bullets began ripping through the tents at Ludlow.

Fighting raged for the entire day, and in the evening, soldiers raced into the colony on horseback, dipped brooms in Kerosene, and torched the tents. In total, four men, two women, and 11 children were killed at Ludlow that day—the women and children having suffocated in the pits below the tents.

Cool Fact: As soon as news of the massacre hit the newspapers, there was a public outcry. People hit the streets to protest in major cities across the United States.

During the 10 days that followed, colliers retaliated by attacking the coal mines. They set fire to dozens of mine installations and dynamited thousands of dollars’ worth of mine buildings and workings. This act of vengeance is often referred to as the Colorado Coalfield War or the Ten Days War.

At least 50 people, including those at Ludlow, were killed during the Colorado Coalfield War, and the fighting ended only when President Woodrow Wilson sent in Federal troops to disarm both sides.

The United Mine Workers of America finally ran out of money and called off the strike on December 10, 1914. In the end, strikers failed to obtain their demands, the union did not obtain recognition, and many striking workers were replaced.

Although the United Mine Workers of America failed to win recognition by the company, the strike had a lasting effect on conditions at the Colorado mines and national labor relations. Mine owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr. engaged a labor relations expert to help him develop reforms for the mines and towns. Improvements included paved roads and recreational facilities and 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.