When John D. Rockefeller Opened Fire On Miners, Set Fire To Women And Kids, In The Ludlow Massacre

Class War
When John D. Rockefeller Opened Fire On Miners, Set Fire To Women And Kids, In The Ludlow Massacre
Photo by Rebecca Schoenkopf

On April 20, 1914, members of the Colorado National Guard, along with a strikebreaking militia employed by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company — a corporation owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. — opened fire on a tent camp of strikers at Ludlow, in the coal country of southern Colorado, north of Trinidad. At least 19 people died in the tent camp that day, mostly wives and children of the strikers. The Ludlow Massacre became one of the most notorious incidents in the violent history of American employers crushing unions.

Colorado Fuel and Iron was the largest coal company in the American West. It was part of the Rockefeller empire. The wealthiest family in American history was ruthless in its control over workers. The state of Colorado had passed a significant number of laws concerning the regulation of coal mines but CF&I ensured that none of them were enforced. Workers were not paid for such things as traveling into the mines, shoring up the mine ceilings, or fixing tools; meanwhile they died by the hundreds in mine cave-ins and from disease. Workers lived in company towns; that area of southern Colorado is relatively densely populated for the American West, but there wasn’t anything in Ludlow except for the mines so living in non-company housing wasn’t possible. Moreover, those company houses meant that CF&I agents could enter your home at any time, you had to shop at the company store using company scrip, and company thugs ruled the camp with an iron fist, firing anyone associated with unionism.

The United Mine Workers of America had organized the workers in southern Colorado throughout the early 1910s, despite significant repression. The UMWA overcame significant challenges, including the polyglot workforce, which included large numbers of Greeks, Mexicans, and Italians. The Ludlow Massacre was the culmination of a long struggle among coal miners in southern Colorado for basic working and human rights, including an eight-hour day, the right to choose their own homes and doctors, a pay raise, and enforcement of mine safety laws. In 1913, the union presented these and other demands to CF&I. The company rejected it out of hand and the miners went on strike.


Immediately, the company kicked strikers out of company housing, but the union had anticipated this and leased land near the entrances of canyons for tent cities, the location being important so workers could try and stop scab labor from stealing their jobs. But CF&I did manage to replace some of their labor with scabs and hired the notorious Baldwin-Felts Agency to protect the mines and harass the strikers. We remember the Pinkertons as the union-busting private detective agency but it was only one of many, and none had a greater reputation for violence than Baldwin-Felts.

Tensions mounted quickly. The Baldwin-Felts agents set up snipers to shoot into the camps. They shone spotlights into the camps at night and created an armored car mounted with a machine gun to drive around the tent town and scare strikers. The governor of Colorado, Elias Ammons, came down on the side of CF&I, calling in the National Guard to “restore order” on October 28, 1913. For the rest of the winter, strikers faced major harassment from the state. Once again, the state would show no support for workers.

But by the spring, the state had run out of money to fund the National Guard presence so, leaving two Guard units in Ludlow as support, it pulled out but gave CF&I permission to fund its own security forces. As bad as the state was, a private army was sure to lead to disaster. Indeed, that’s what happened on April 20.

On that morning, the Monday after Easter, the private army lured strike leader Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant, out of camp for a spurious reason. They then began to open fire on the camp, and a day-long battle raged. The well-armed miners (armed both to protect themselves against the strikebreakers and to protect their jobs from scabs) fought back bravely, but they could not match the machine guns of the CF&I forces. That evening, a train conductor stopped his train between the strikers and the private army, allowing most of the residents to escape into the nearby hills. However, Tikas was soon captured by the militia. One of the National Guard commanders, Karl Linderfelt, promptly broke a rifle butt on Tikas’s head; Tikas and two other strikers were later found shot dead. The militia set the camp on fire to destroy it.

That fire killed 15 more people. Fearing the snipers, many camp residents dug cellars underneath the tents to hide. Four women and 11 children, including two infants named Elvira Valdez and Frank Petrucci, went into the cellars during the day. The fire sucked all the oxygen out and they all suffocated to death. It was the death of these 15 innocents that led to the term “Ludlow Massacre.”

The well-armed strikers did not meekly return to work after the Ludlow Massacre. Outraged, they began their own campaign of violence against the militia and scabs. The UMWA openly armed its strikers and a 10-day guerrilla war ensued, with high casualties on both sides; somewhere between 69 and 199 people died. Miners destroyed mine building and tunnels, and even blew up the dam that provided drinking water for the Ludlow mines. Finally, Woodrow Wilson sent in the US Army to end the hostilities; unlike previous examples of federal intervention in strikes, Wilson ordered neutrality and in fact the Army arrested several militia members. By December, however, the UMWA had run out of funds and the strike ended in a total defeat.

Still, the Ludlow Massacre was a public relations disaster for CF&I and for Rockefeller. Rockefeller was vilified in the press for the killing of women and children. He responded to this negative publicity by launching his own “investigation,” flooding the country with pro-coal operator propaganda, etc. It didn’t work. The US Commission on Industrial Relations, empowered by Wilson to investigate the reality of American work and why it led to so much death and violence, savaged Rockefeller and the mine operators in their report, noting that the mine owners were hostile to all unionization and calling Rockefeller’s representative in Colorado, L.M. Bowers, “bitter and prejudiced in the extreme, with an adherence to the individualistic economic doctrines of a century ago that was almost grotesque in its intensity.”

Conditions in the mines did not improve rapidly. Strikes plagued the region through the late 1920s. Rockefeller created a company union that allowed for the presentation of grievances, but it was a sham. Eventually, conditions for miners improved, but all you can say about Ludlow is that it was one event that helped move public opinion to a point that the nation moved to allow working-class people to live decent lives. Unfortunately, we are tearing this down in the early 21st century.

Today, the United Mine Workers of America owns the site of the massacre and there’s a nice monument. I highly recommend going there. It’s just a mile or so off I-25. It should be a National Park site though. It would tell a key story in American labor and industrial history and would give a nice tourism boost to southern Colorado, which could use it. I would also note that it’s interesting to drive on the old mining roads up into the hills to see the old mine ruins and imagine the horrors of the guerrilla war of 1913-14.

FURTHER READING

Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War

Zesse Pappanikolas, Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre

Fawn-Amber Montoya, ed., Making an American Workforce: The Rockefellers and the Legacy of Ludlow

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).

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