Closer view of the destruction at Ludlow
On the morning of April 20, 1914, agents of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency along with Colorado national guardsmen massed on a ridge overlooking a tent city of hundreds of coal miners and their families that occupied the plain below – roughly a half mile from the village of Ludlow, Colorado. They came armed, with some men on horseback but with others setting up machine gun positions able to sweep over the encampment. Inside the thin cotton tents some 1200 men, women and children stirred and began their day as they had throughout the preceding months. during one of the coldest Colorado winters in recent memory.
The Ludlow Massacre Memorial, April 20th, 1914, Colorado Massacre on Coal Miners
The miners and their families had been living in the tents since John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Coal and Fuel company along with 2 other coal operators had thrown them out of company houses in September of the previous fall. The companies had refused the demands of the miners and a strike/lockout had begun. The coal companies had hoped the brutal cold and isolation of the winter would break the striker’s resolve and end the confrontation.
Throughout the cold months, there had been skirmishes, with the Baldwin-Felts agents firing shots into the camp, wounding and on occasion killing strikers. With the arrival of spring, it became apparent that the miners and their families would be able to hold out for much longer, perhaps indefinitely.
The morning had begun with the strike’s organizer, Louis Tikas, being lured out of the camp to a meeting with the militia’s leader on the pretext of negotiating the release of two men who were supposedly wanted by authorities Tikas, who had dealt with the captain many times before, sensed something amiss during the meeting and cut it short, rushing back to his people in the tent city. As he returned, the Baldwin-Felts agents opened fire, sending a terrifying hail of soft-point bullets ripping through the fabric of the tents. So began the bloodiest and deadliest labor battle America has ever seen.
By today’s standards, the striker’s demands seem tame:
1. Recognition of the union as bargaining agent
2. An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase)
3. Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law
4. Payment for “dead work” (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
5. Weight-checkmen elected by the workers (to keep company weightmen honest)
6. The right to use any store, and choose their boarding houses and doctors
7. Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the company guard system
The nascent United Mine Workers of America had done their best in preparation for the strike. They leased land for the encampment and built the tents on wood platforms. They provided as much support as they were able, including their most potent asset, Mary Harris Jones.
Before being known as a magazine, Mother Jones was notorious as a fiery organizer and activist – referred to at times as the most dangerous woman in America. She galvanized support and attention on the striker’s plight and during her visits brought together the immigrant women, wives of the miners, bridging divides of culture and language that the coal operators hoped would keep them separate.
The cost of militia patrols were mounting for the state of Colorado and the governor was growing tired of the standoff at Ludlow and other mines. The cost of the private detectives bore heavily on Rockefeller’s coffers as well. The pressure for a quick resolution to the conflict was mounting. It was in this atmosphere that the battle was sparked.
The gunfire continued through the entire day – 14 hours. The strikers had dug pits beneath the tents to protect them from the sniper fire that had plagued them all winter. The militia and detectives picked off some of the men, but most of the camp was able to take shelter beneath the tents. At one point a passing train gave some of the strikers cover and a few fled to the nearby hills. As night approached at 7:00 pm the militiamen descended on horseback into the camp.
Using paraffin and torches, they set fire to the tents. In the ensuing pandemonium numerous of the miners were gunned down. Beneath one of the tents, which functioned as a nursery, nearly a dozen children, many of them infants, and two of the women taking take of them, suffocated and burned to death.
Tikas had stayed on in the camp to the end, and was rounded up along with other union organizers. One of the officers of the militia was seen to break his gunstock over Tikas’ head. Shortly after, Tikas was killed and for the next three days his body lay in the field were he died. Finally, railroad workers recovered the remains, He was found to have been shot in the back.