A few days after my father had passed away unexpectedly, my brother and I decided we needed a road trip to clear our heads, reminisce about the old man, and share some laughs. My brother asked me if we could visit southern Colorado, an area he had never seen before, and I gladly obliged. We hopped in the car and headed for the foothills in the area between Pueblo and Trinidad- Colorado’s great coal belt. I’d visited the region several times on my own, and I knew my brother would enjoy the scenery and history of the area.
We buzzed south down I-25 passing the huge, dormant, Colorado Fuel and Iron steel mills of Pueblo which line the interstate. These huge rusty, dilapidated, structures with their towering red brick smokestacks were once the backbone of Pueblo- Employing thousands of men through the years and providing a “life” for many families, families whose descendants still call the area home. Today, the giants are silent, their smokestacks crumbling, and the neighborhoods of tiny houses around them, still occupied by the proud families who sprang from the mills, sit in a state of slow, but steady decay, the windows of their corner stores and saloons boarded up, and one more empty house each time I visit.
Crossing the Arkansas River the Colorado scenery changes, and the arid rolling hills give off a totally different feeling than the rocky, pine covered slopes of the area closer to Denver. Here, Colorado takes on a definite high desert, “wild west” aspect. There is also a distinctly Hispanic culture in this area- This land was Mexico for many years, and prior to that it was Spain’s northernmost territory in the new world. The first settlers of the region, dating back to the 1700’s with a few roaming shepherds and ranchers, were of Spanish origin, and that culture remains strong to this day in these parts.
It is down in the narrow canyons and bluffs of this area, where the mountains meet the plains, that we found Colorado’s coal belt, or, more accurately, the remains of Colorado’s coal belt. West of I-25, and south of Walsenburg to Trinidad lays an enormous coal pocket, and throughout these hills we find the trace remnants of the company towns that once stood here. Places like- Tabasco, Berwind, Starkville, Morley, Hastings, Tollerburg, Tioga, Cokedale…the list goes on and on. But one name stands out among the rest “Ludlow”.
A simple sign along the interstate a few miles north of Trinidad reads “Ludlow Massacre Memorial Exit 27” I’d visited Ludlow once before, and snapped off a few pictures in haste as the sun sank behind the mountains in the west, but I’d wanted to come back and spend more time in this place. I thought my brother would appreciate these hallowed grounds as well, so we took Exit 27 and just a mile or two west of bustling I-25 Ludlow came into view. A few tumbledown buildings marked what was left of the main street in town, and the railroad tracks that hauled the coal out of the dumps here still pass by.
To the north of Ludlow there is a small picnic ground with a few tall trees and a couple of sheds and a parking lot. Most people probably stop by just to use the public restrooms and to get out of the hot Colorado sun without ever noticing the fenced in area just beyond the picnic tables, and the monument of a man, woman and child within the fence. This is the Ludlow Massacre Memorial erected by the United Mine Workers of America to honor those who died in the massacre of April 20, 1914. There is also a strange steel door, painted white on the ground, within the fenced in area of the memorial. When opened there are stairs leading down into a dark abyss.
What was the Ludlow Massacre? And why is it important that we all remember it? Why is it not taught in our school system? Because Ludlow was dangerous to the ruling class of big businessmen. What happened at Ludlow changed the way American businesses treated their labor.
To simplify a long and complex story, the Ludlow Massacre was the tragic culmination of tensions between the working class and the managing class/governing class in what became known as the “Coal Wars” of 1913-1914. Massive social, political, and economic changes swept the country from the mid-1800’s through the early 1900’s as a result of the industrial revolution. Some got rich, some lost everything, while most toiled away for just enough to barely scrape by. Among the people most affected by these changes were coal miners across the country. The widening gap between the “haves” (mine owners, managers, and politicians in their pay) and the “have nots” (the miners and their families) led to strikes, confrontations and armed clashes between the two groups, culminating in the April 20, 1914 massacre at Ludlow where eighteen people (mostly children) were murdered by the Colorado National Guard sent to protect mine owners and break the strike.
Colorado National Guard and Mine Goon Squad at Ludlow 1914
Miners and their families were forced to live in “company towns” which were small private kingdoms bought and paid for by the mine owners. In these company towns, the mine owners controlled nearly every aspect of the lives of their employees. Mine employees were paid in virtually worthless “scrip” which were tokens or paper “money” that were only valid at the company store or saloon. The company store and saloon, were owned by the mine owners and they were generally stocked with cheap, poor quality goods that were sold at tremendously inflated prices to the workers. Often, the miners did not have enough scrip to pay for the necessities of life, so the mine bosses benevolently extended lines of credit to the miners and their families. These lines of credit were often over extended, and the miner had no choice but work whatever hours and shifts the mine owners demanded, because they were in such in deep debt to the boss. This was a way mine owners and their cronies turned the working class into indentured servants with no way out. The miners had little choice but to tolerate the conditions, as everything they had from their homes to the shoes on their feet and the food on their table was owned by the mine bosses.
Ludlow Railroad Station and Company Store
On top of the crippling economic practices inside the company towns, mine bosses also limited the freedom of speech, religion and education- Churches and schools were set up in the company towns, but they were staffed by preachers and teachers hand selected by the bosses. Private police patrolled the company towns and cracked down on anyone critical of the mine owners or the conditions in the town. These police were nothing more than brutal thugs and bullies who kept order and silence through fear.
Conditions inside most company towns were awful. The powerful mine owners were allowed to get away with outright abuses and borderline slavery because, as is all too familiar today, the bosses had the money to pay off politicians and police who would then look the other way.
In 1913 and 1914 life in the Colorado coal camps became intolerable, and the miners went on strike. A series of skirmishes and confrontations ensued, and finally, the mine owners called on their paid off politician friends to intervene. The Colorado National Guard arrived by rail to the numerous coal camps and company towns that lined Berwind Canyon, among them Ludlow.
The striking mine workers and their families were living largely in a tent city at the time, and when hostilities boiled over between the striking miners, the company goon squads, and the Colorado National Guard, chaos ensued. Members of the Colorado National Guard and the company thugs who were aching for a fight opened fire on the striking miners, many of whom were armed as well. The gun battle between the two sides sent the wives and children of the tent colony running for cover. Many had dug pits under their tents as makeshift shelters in anticipation of such an event.
A fire soon broke out in the tent colony, and amidst the smoke, flames and mayhem troops of the militia opened fire into the tent colony with an assortment of outdated military rifles and a few Colt-Browining M1895 “Potato Digger” machine guns. The screams of the wounded and dying permeated the miner’s camp.
When the bullets stopped flying, and the fires had been put out, the Red Cross arrived on the scene to find the charred battlefield still smoldering. As the miners and the Red Cross began to survey the damage, they came across a scene of unspeakable horror, when they found the scorched bodies of eleven children and two women in one of the makeshift pit shelters under a burned tent. The youngest victims of the massacre were found here, aged three months and six months old. In future accounts of the tragedy this became known as “The Pit of Death”. In all, eighteen men, women and children died in the Ludlow Massacre- some by bullets, some by fire. Among the dead lay the entire Costa Family.
“The Pit of Death”
Public outrage and unrest ensued throughout the region as news of the slaughter spread as fast as the flames did across the tents of Ludlow. Riots, beatings, gun battles, and overall maniacal rage between the warring factions over the following days became known as the “Ten Day War”. Order was finally restored when the United States Army was called in to disperse the Colorado National Guard and the hired goon squads of the mine bosses.
The repulsive slaughter of the innocents at Ludlow turned the tables in favor of organized labor, and in following years working conditions for the “average” American greatly improved. The eight hour work day became industry standard. Overtime was paid for any hours over eight you worked in a day, and overtime was paid for any hours over forty in a week. Gone were the abusive company towns and the cut throat company store. Working conditions and safety measures improved across mines, mills and factories nationwide. Wages and benefits were drastically improved.
For a few sweet decades following Ludlow, largely in part due to the efforts of labor unions and Federal legislation, life became better, and in many cases good for the average American worker. It seemed the only people unhappy with the changes were the large employers who saw a small dip in their profits as they were required to start treating their employees like humans.
As always, things change. The average American, enjoying unprecedented wealth and free time to enjoy it, became more and more materialistic and competitive with their neighbors, who were also enjoying new found wealth and freedom. The rat race was born, and our great lust as Americans to “out do” or “one up” our neighbor to show them that we were the “best” or “more successful” then them began to alter our minds on a deep level.
More and more American workers two or three generations removed from Ludlow began to ask for more hours, more overtime, a second job…because, driven by our own profane consumerism and “need” to be the best, we became willing to give up the eight hour day, or forty hour work week the families of Ludlow died for. Few of us had ever heard of Ludlow. Fewer of us cared. We wanted the biggest and the best of everything. No, we didn’t want it, we NEEDED it. We absolutely, under any circumstances, HAD to have it.
So, we burned the hard won rights of the Ludlow miners to fuel our incessant lust for new gadgets and status symbols. In the 1990’s, many generations removed from Ludlow, Congress quietly did away with the laws requiring employers to pay overtime for anything more than eight hours in a day. Almost overnight across industrial America, the twelve hour shift reappeared after many years under moth balls. With the twelve hour shift, only two shifts are needed, and the business owner saves money even if they pay overtime to the workers- Because the entire second shift of workers can be eliminated. No more hourly wages for the second shift, no more benefits packages, no more vacation time- By reverting to the two-twelve hour shift model, the business owner gets fat raking in the money that would have otherwise been spent providing a stable job with livable wages to the entire second shift.
Sadly, we American workers, blinded and driven by our consumerism, greed, and societal expectation that we participate in the rat race wound up collectively in a mountain of insurmountable debt. So, when the big boys in the suits behind the scenes dictated that the workers would be required to work twelve hour shifts, those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs gladly accepted the offer. The bosses “rewarded” us with a four day work week in most cases, and blind to the monumental shaft we were getting, we all flocked forward with smiles on our faces thinking “Wow, eight hours of overtime every week and a three day weekend! This is the best!”
The fat cats got fatter, the middle class shrank with the elimination of the second shift, and those of us who held on to our jobs greedily accepted our “new deal” thinking we were doing alright. But, just like before, greed and materialism blinded many. “Maybe I’ll start working a few Saturdays and Sundays, the boss always needs help, and I can use some more cash to pay down some of the bills…or better yet, to buy that new boat!” No boss has ever turned down someone willing to work seven days a week for half of the money they would have made on the old “anything over eight is overtime” law. So the average American thinks they are getting a good deal and making tons of money, when in fact they are earning less than they would have under the old laws, and the entire second shift is standing in the unemployment line sucking up welfare that comes out of, you guessed it! YOUR paycheck! Taxes give you less money, which means you have to work more hours to pay for the boat and the bigger house and the newest phone to “one up” your neighbor…and the only person making any money at all is your boss.
Our societal illness has led us to back into the shackles of indentured servitude to our Employer-Masters. Without our Employer-Masters we are nothing, so we willingly accept their corrupt and one-sided “new deals” justifying the immense screwing we are allowing ourselves to get, because of our own greed. We stand blank-eyed and emotionless as our employers cut our benefits each year, and we jump for joy and dance like excited puppies, tails wagging when our Employer-Masters toss us a bonus now and then, or benevolently “offer” us overtime which we suck up gladly like the money driven whores we have all become. In the mean time our Employer-Masters are busy making deals behind the scenes with politicians and regulating agencies which allow them to keep pumping us full of chemicals and poisons long banned in other countries as known carcinogens. Safety measures are skirted by the suits, and we all think they care for us because they give us ear plugs and safety glasses and paint yellow lines on the floor so we don’t get run over by forklifts, all the while the walls, roofs and pipes of America’s factories are crumbling and just months away from caving in a crushing the workers beneath them. All those bonuses and overtime wages represent but a small fraction of what the boss man is pocketing each month in savings by working us like dogs, eliminating the second shift, skirting environmental and safety laws, and allowing our nation’s facilities to crumble in order to save a buck or two.
Our yearly wages, bonuses, overtime and benefits are but a small fraction of what we COULD HAVE all made if we had remembered the lessons of Ludlow and stood up for the rights won following the massacre. Instead, we became complacent. We allowed the laws to be changed, we allowed ourselves to become blinded by consumerism and greed, and now, we’ve allowed ourselves to become indentured servants again- Like the miners of Ludlow.
Unlike the miners of Ludlow, I don’t think the average American worker today has the backbone to stand up for what is right, and to put their life on the line for it. The rich will get richer, the middle class will continue to shrink, and the poor will grow by leaps and bounds. Perhaps, sometime in the distant future, when things get so bad again as they were at Ludlow, the American worker will rise up and fight, but it won’t happen today in our current mindset- The lesson of Ludlow has been lost, and the few who know of Ludlow don’t care…at least not right now at this moment.
It is my personal opinion that everyone, especially those with children, before working that next day of overtime, or three more hours because the boss asked you to, go visit the memorial at Ludlow. Read the names of those who died at the hands of their employers. Pause and stare hard at the names of the innocent children, some so new to this life they had yet to speak their first words. Then, open that heavy white steel door on the ground and gaze long into the black abyss- “The Pit of Death” where those eleven children were found dead. Then ask yourself what is truly important in your life- Overtime for that next toy to impress the neighbors or spending the day on the back porch grilling hot dogs with your kids instead of being at work? Does that black pit you just looked into represent the abyss of your own greed and materialism? Will you stand up and say enough is enough? Or will your insatiable greed for “things” enable the monster that will one day eat your children?
“Remember when one gazes long into the abyss, the abyss gazes long into you.” -Nietzsche