In southeast Colorado lies a monument to one of the most critical conflicts in American labor history. Often overlooked and forgotten, the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 shaped labor policy and was a dark episode in American history.
I first learned about the Ludlow Massacre in my first year of college. The course I took was Introduction to Mexican-American Studies. For those of you familiar with Colorado, Ludlow, while near the Interstate is not a major place discussed. It’s currently a ghost town just off of I-25 heading south to New Mexico.
The Ludlow Massacre was an event in the greater Colorado Coalfield War which happened throughout South-central/Southeastern Colorado. The Colorado Coalfield War is fascinating and is critical to the history of the region and of American politics. The war began with a strike called by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1913 against the coal companies. Miners sought eight-hour work days and better working conditions.
It was terrible weather at that time. But we determined to stick together there because we had put up with such a lot and believed we would rather suffer anything than go back to work under the conditions that they had been working.Mary Thomas, striker and official greeter of Ludlow tent colony
Thousands of miners and their families were evicted from their houses in the company town, and UMWA provided people with tents, totaling around 200 tents and around 1,200 people in Ludlow. As the strike turned violent and armed guards were sent in by the coal company, things seemed out of control.
A multiethnic workforce made up the mining force, and their leader was Lou Tikas, a Greek man. According to historian Howard Zinn, Tikas was tricked into thinking a truce would be discussed. He was taken up into the hills to “discuss” the truce where he was shot by National Guardsmen.
Greek Orthodox Easter was the night before, where Greek miners celebrated with a feast for the Ludlow colony with festivities lasting long into the night.
After gunfire was exchanged between armed guards and miners, April 20th, 1914 marked the day that changed everything. The Ludlow Massacre itself was about to take place.
A train along the nearby tracks stopped in the evening, allowing some women and children to flee across the plains or toward the hills. The youngest child killed in the massacre was Frank Petrucci, who was just six months old.
The tent colony caught fire, and smoke billowed into the air. Gunshots rang across the cold and desolate windswept plains. Around 21 people died, including women and children, some of whom suffocated from smoke while hiding under tents to avoid gunfire. Violence ensued as angered miners from other camps arrived at Ludlow.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. was the primary owner of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, and the nation was shocked at the level of violence brought about in quelling the miner strikes. Reforms were made within the company, including a company sponsored union and improved living conditions, but for those killed and for the country, the damage had been done.
The unjust carnage seen in Ludlow and in other Colorado towns such as Trinidad and Walsenburg and throughout Huerfano and Las Animas counties paved a way for future laborers. While clashes still occurred throughout the labor movement, the violence employed by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company shocked the nation, and other companies agreed to reform.
President Wilson sent federal troops to restore order, and several investigations into Ludlow happened. Demonstrations took place around the United States in solidarity with those at Ludlow.
Negotiating between unions, workers, and management became more standard as both workers and management sought to avoid the violence seen in Ludlow.
If travelling on Interstate 25 between New Mexico and Colorado, I highly recommend you take a stop in this seemingly desolate place to learn about the rich labor history of Southern Colorado. While terrible, the atrocities of Ludlow and the shock of the nation went on to improve labor conditions around the United States for all workers.