Bloody Ludlow — Long Buried in Myth and Neglect, the Story of Colorado’s Deadly Coal War Is Worth Remembering

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Ludlow Massacre
Ludlow Massacre

From Westword Magazine
Story by

It’s a lonely place now, a forlorn and mostly forgotten spot a half-mile west of the interstate and twelve miles north of Trinidad. Flanked by cottonwoods, surrounded by windswept prairie studded with piñon and tumbleweeds, it has an unfinished look, like a roadside attraction somebody started to build and then abandoned.

There’s an iron fence, a cinder-block meeting hall, a tattered guest book, some storyboards about what took place here, and a granite monument, featuring a heroic sculpture of a miner and his wife and child.

And the pit. Unless you read all the signs, it’s easy to miss the pit. You have to pull open the metal door in the ground, a few feet in front of the monument, and descend a dozen steps into a small, dark, empty space. Now you understand: What had seemed unfinished is actually the end of something. A tomb. A return to the earth.

Traffic is sparse at the Ludlow Memorial. The place has seen some improvements since the monument’s statuary was vandalized in 2003, the miner and his wife neatly decapitated — a desecration that prompted outrage from the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America and a painstaking restoration. But aside from the commemorative services held here by the UMWA, the flow of visitors to the site remains more a trickle than a stream. Few linger long enough to sign the guest book.

It’s hard to imagine that such desolate ground was ever anything else. Yet a century ago Ludlow was alive, densely packed with men and women from nearly two dozen cultures, an international community chattering in a Babel of native tongues: Spanish, Greek, Italian, German, Polish, Russian and more. They had come to Colorado to work in the infernal coal mines and coking ovens of Las Animas and Huerfano counties, some of the most dangerous jobs in the hemisphere. In the fall of 1913, more than 11,000 of them went on strike, demanding a living wage and a fair chance of surviving the job. Evicted from the company towns, they poured out of the canyons with their families and set up tent colonies along the railroad lines, determined to block strikebreakers from reaching the mines.

Ludlow was the largest colony of them all, a makeshift town of 1,200 people. To the unbelievers, it was simply a clump of canvas tents and wooden privies; to those who endured months of hardship in those tents, it was a nucleus of hope and defiance. The strikers had their own ballfield and barbershop, and a paymaster who doled out the bare weekly stipend the union provided to keep body and soul intact: three dollars per miner, a dollar per woman, fifty cents per child. They had each other, and supporters across the country. They also had guns.

It was all wiped out on a single day: April 20, 1914. Only the pit, the infamous Death Pit, remains.

This Sunday marks the hundredth anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, the day the strike entered into a desperate endgame and became the deadliest labor struggle in American history. A shootout between strikers and members of the Colorado National Guard claimed nineteen lives — most of them noncombatant women and children — and ended in the tent colony being burned to the ground. The strikers retaliated by attacking several mine operations over the next ten days, resulting in dozens more deaths and plunging southern Colorado into chaos read more…

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