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1913-14 - Colorado Coalfield War

The Colorado Coal Field Strike and War of 1913-1914 was a watershed episode in US labor history. There is no way to quantify labor history, but more union activity probably occurred in the extractive industries than in the manufacturing industries. The level of conflict and the corresponding loss of life in the American mining industry are of national significance. The "Ludlow Massacre" was the most violent episode of the 1913 - 1914 Colorado Coal Field Strike. The ten days of gunfire between miners and militia that it precipitated constituted one of the more dramatic examples of open class warfare in American history.

In September, 1913, striking coal miners around Trinidad in southern Colorado demanded recognition of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a 10% increase in wages, enforcement of the eight-hour work law, health and safety regulations, and the right to select their own living quarters, eating houses and doctors. The mine operators, with the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company acting as spokesman for the group, attempted to open their properties with non-union labor. John D. Rockefeller of New York was one of the absentee owners of this company. The miners attempted to keep the strikebreakers out of the coal fields. The mine owners then sent appeals to the statehouse and Governor Ammons asking for militia intervention, who then sent National Guard troops to the region in order to keep the mines operating.

The history of the Colorado coal mining industry showed that, far from living complacently under company rule, the Colorado miners had revolted time and again during the thirty years prior to 1913. Strikes had occurred each ten years since 1883. In 1903, during John Mitchell's incumbency as president of the United Mine Workers, miners in the same camps affected by the 1913 strikes quit work for similar reasons and under circumstances very much resembling those of the 1913 strike. The history of this earlier strike was almost identical with the history of the strike of 1913. Strikers and their leaders were deported from the state by the military authorities of Colorado; large numbers of armed guards in the employ of the companies terrorized the strikers' communities and ruthlessly disregarded their civil rights. The strike was defeated by these methods, and the mines were re-opened with strike breakers recruited from the immigrant population of non-union eastern coal mining towns. Lacking as they were in radical or revolutionary background, these strike breakers themselves struck ten years later.

The Colorado coal mining industry presented an instance of the development of natural resources in isolated and unsettled territory by private capital organized in large companies and operating on a large scale. The industry had attained a considerable development in the 1880s, and by 1913 many of the camps were from fifteen to thirty years old. At the outset it was necessary for the owners to perform all the functions of the civil government and in addition to supervise all the activities of community life in these newly-created industrial communities situated in isolated and unsettled territory.

The allegation was frequently heard during the Colorado controversy that the inhabitants of the coal camps, being largely of foreign birth and speech, were incapable of either political self-government. The populations of coal mining camps in southern Colorado consisted of a small minority of English-speaking miners and their families and a majority of recently-arrived Europeans.

There were two principal classifications into which industrial disturbances fell. On the one side are the spontaneous revolts and the organized strikes of wage earners who are impelled to act by the pressure of economic necessity, or by the conviction that their collective power is sufficiently great to force an increase in wages or other purely material advantage. On the other side of the line are those revolts that are animated primarily, not by the need and desire for higher wages and greater material blessings, but by resentment against the possession and the exercise by the employer of arbitrary power. The struggle in Colorado was primarily a struggle against arbitrary power, in which the question of wages was secondary, as an immediate issue.

The Colorado conflict was also a struggle for a voice in determining political and social conditions in the communities where they and their families lived. The strikers passionately felt and believed that they were denied, not only a voice in fixing working conditions within the mines, but that political democracy, carrying with it rights and privileges guaranteed by the laws of the land, had likewise been flouted and repudiated by the owners. It was this latter belief that gave to the strikers that intensity of feeling which impelled them to suffer unusual hardships during their stay in the tent colonies, and which gave to the strike the character more of a revolt by entire communities than of a protest by wage earners only.

The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company mined from thirty-five to forty per cent of the coal produced in Colorado and employed nearly three times as many miners as the second largest company. For more than ten years its largest stockholder had been John D. Rockefeller, and since 1907 a personal representative of Mr. Rockefeller had been in active charge of its management. This official was Mr. L. M. Bowers, a man sixty-nine years of age, who had been employed by Mr. Rockefeller to manage various industries for twenty years, and whose deep seated opposition and animosity to labor unions and the practice of collective bargaining must have been well known to his employer. From first to last Mr. Bowers, as shown by his letters to Mr. Rockefeller's office, saw nothing in the struggle of the miners for the right to organize for collective bargaining except a plot by "socialists," "anarchists," and "political demagogues" to to wrest the control of the mines from their owners.

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.

The strike of about 9,000 coal miners in southern Colorado began on September 23, 1913. When workers resided in company-owned housing, work stoppages brought mass evictions. Evicted strikers often were forced into makeshift accommodations. When the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and other southern Colorado mine operators drove coal miners from their homes in September 1913, the miners set up a sizable tent colony near the town of Ludlow.

Conditions in the coal mining district were such that violence was inevitable. Men accustomed to the ready use of a revolver or rifle had been imported into the district in large numbers from Texas, New Mexico, West Virginia, and other sections by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company and its associates. These mercenary adventurers had been employed and armed by the coal companies prior to the strike, and had been given deputy sheriffs' commissions by the sheriffs of Las Animas and Huerfano counties, who were political partners and agents of the coal companies. The first act of violence in connection with the strike was the killing of Gerald Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, by George Belcher, a Baldwin-Felts detective in the employ of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. Lippiatt was shot down on a public street in Trinidad before the strike began.

Union officials frankly admitted the purchase of arms and have quoted that section of the Constitution of Colorado which reads : "The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person, and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall be called in question."

The strikers had established tent colonies at strategic positions near the mouths of the canyons in which the mines were situated, so that strike breakers going from the railroad stations to the mines were forced to pass near them. The history of strikes shows that workmen on strike feel that they have a property interest in their jobs, and that other workmen who take their places and thus aid their employers to defeat the strike are fit subjects for abuse, ridicule, and violence.

While the strikers and mine guards were waging guerrilla warfare on October 26 and 27, Governor Ammons of Denver was making a last effort to bring about a settlement. When his efforts failed he issued orders to Adjutant General Chase, calling out the militia and ordering General Chase to occupy the strike district. On October 28, 1913, Governor Ammons called out the Colorado National Guard. The units sent into the field included cavalry, infantry and artillery. Up to this time and for several weeks thereafter Governor Ammons had devoted all his efforts to bringing about a settlement on a basis that would be fair to all concerned. He issued orders that the troops be impartial in their handling of the situation and that no present or former coal company guards and gunmen were to be enlisted for service during this crisis.

Governor Ammons accepted the view that to permit the use of the troops in escorting strikebreakers would be to turn them over to one of the parties to the conflict. When the Federal troops entered the field seven months later similar orders were issued to them by the Secretary of War.

Soon after the troops entered the field many business men and salaried employees who had steady positions at home asked to be relieved from duty. Their places were taken by men recruited in the strike zone, at least some of whom had been imported to serve as mine guards.

In their efforts to coerce the Governor, the operators were aided by a peculiar situation produced by the refusal of State Auditor Kenehan to issue certificates of indebtedness to pay the salaries and expenses of the State troops. Bankers in Denver, Ludlow and Colorado Springs had acceded to a request of the Governor that they advance money for the militia. There were constant threats that the money would not be paid. Governor Ammons rescinded his order to the militia, prohibiting the importation of strikebreakers, after all efforts to obtain a settlement had failed, on November 27, 1913.

Strikers were arrested without charge on mere suspicion and were kept incommunicado; they were refused the visits of friends, the right to consult with counsel or to do anything else in the way of taking charge of and looking after their own interest and welfare, such as was usually granted to the commonest of criminals. Mother Jones, a general organizer for the United Mine Workers, more than eighty years of age, was arrested and put in jail and kept absolutely incommunicado for several months. All of that was done under a decision of the Supreme Court of the State that arose out of the Cripple Creek strike, called the Moyer case, the substance of which decision was that, whether martial law had been proclaimed or not, wherever state troops were for the purpose of restoring peace or preserving the peace, that there all civil law might be suspended at the will of the commanding officer and the military law take its place. This was a decision that, up to that time, had no precedent except in the Philippine Islands.

The economic dependence of the Colorado National Guard on the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. and other operators was fully established. Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. had paid militiamen from $75,000 to $80,000 on certificates of indebtedness bearing interest and collectable fiom the State. Troops were quartered in Company buildings and furnished with supplies by Company stores in return for these certificates.

By the Spring of 1914, 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 of these troops were stationed near Ludlow. By April 1914 the Colorado National Guard no longer offered even a pretense of fairness or impartiality, and its units in the field had degenerated into a force of professional gunmen and adventurers who were economically dependent oa and subservient to the will of the coal operators. This force was dominated by an officer whose intense hatred for the strikers had been demonstrated, and who did not lack the courage and the belligerent spirit required to provoke hostilities.

Continual attacks on the colony by private guards and local and state authorities culminated on April 20, 1914. Shortly after dawn, Colorado National Guard troops opened fire on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners at Ludlow, Colorado. Twenty four hours later the camp was in ruins. That day's onslaught of gunfire and arson, the Ludlow Massacre, claimed 24 lives, including those of 2 women and 11 children who succumbed to smoke suffocation. Along with their mothers, the children had hidden in shallow pits dug below the tents in order to be safe from flying bullets. The event outraged the nation, for a short while.

The Ludlow Massacre precipitated an armed and open rebellion against the authority of the State as represented by the militia. This rebellion constituted perhaps one of the nearest approaches to civil war and revolution ever known in this country in connection with an industrial conflict. Strikers in Southern Colorado armed themselves and swarmed over the hills, bent on avenging the death of their Ludlow comrades. Two days after the Ludlow tragedy, on Wednesday, April 22, the responsible leaders of organized labor in Colorado telegraphed to President Wilson, notifying him that they had sent an appeal to every labor organization in Colorado urging them to gather arms and ammunition and organize themselves into companies.

By Wednesday, April 22, two days after the Ludlow killings, armed and enraged strikers were in possession of the field from Rouse, twelve miles south of Walsenburg, to Hastings and Delagua, southwest of Ludlow. Within this territory of eighteen miles north and south by four or five miles east and west were situated many mines manned by superintendents, foremen, mine guards and strikebreakers. Inflamed by what they considered the wanton slaughter of their women, children and comrades, the miners attacked mine after mine, driving off or killing the guards and setting fire to the buildings.

During the ten days of fighting at least fifty persons had lost their lives, including the twenty-one killed at Ludlow. From 700 to 1,000 armed strikers had been in absolute control of large areas of territory, and had waged open warfare against mine guards, militia and mine employees. Responsible union officials planned the movements of their men, set about collecting and distributing arms and ammunition, and openly justified their acts. Each side reported its casualties after each skirmish and made claims as to the number of men killed and wounded on the opposing side. Newspapers, friendly to one side or the other, charged with apparent satisfaction that the losses of the other side had been greater than were admitted.

The New York Times carried an editorial on the events in Colorado, which stated "With the deadliest weapons of civilization in the hands of savage-mined men, there can be no telling to what lengths the war in Colorado will go unless it is quelled by force ... The President should turn his attention from Mexico long enough to take stern measures in Colorado."

The governor of Colorado ask for federal troops to restore order, and Woodrow Wilson complied. Ten days after the Ludlow Massacre, the 1,600 federal troops arrived -- with orders to disarm everyone in the state - militia, company guards, and strikers -- and all fighting ceased. After the 10-Day War, the strike dragged on for another seven months, ending in defeat for the UMWA. Negotiations proceeded and the strike officially ended in December, 1914, with the union miners being permanently replaced by non-union workers. Federal Troops remained in Colorado for the rest of 1914 - an unprecedented occupation of a state's jurisdiction.

Two years later, the Democrats in Colorado had to campaign under the real handicap of trying to explain away the uproar resulting from the Ludlow incident and the violence in the coal fields. The Republicans captured the Statehouse at the next election and the coal mines never economically recovered.

At Ludlow, Colorado, one can view the pit where the women and children were suffocated after National Guard troops burned their tent colony in the violent 1914 Colorado civil war. A monument, erected by the United Mine Workers of America, mourns the death of these innocents, the civilian casualties of industrial wars. Their deaths account for the national significance of the Ludlow massacre, the horror of which "jolted America." The U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations concluded in 1915 that workers "shared an almost universal conviction that they, both as individuals and as a class, are denied justice," that employers had used law enforcement in a "bitterly partisan" manner, and that the denial of workers' rights had caused industrial violence.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:22:03 Zulu