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Ludlow Massacre - Roadsigns to Forgotten Heroes

Updated on May 5, 2016
Keep an eye on Interstate road signs, like this one pointing to the spot of the Ludlow massacre, but please keep your hands off your phone!
Keep an eye on Interstate road signs, like this one pointing to the spot of the Ludlow massacre, but please keep your hands off your phone! | Source

Interstate Epiphanies

On a long, exhausting, interstate road trip there is a tendency to view the interminable road signs one passes with a sense of numb lethargy. Okay, here comes another McDonalds and Wal-Mart at this next exit, as expected, next to a Conoco or Texaco or Arco gas station - slight differences in whatever 'co' a particular state has; but really just minor, cosmetic variations on the same theme. Cookie cutter franchises dot cookie cutter freeway towns, and the driving excursion turns the motorist into an insignificant and uninspired ant on a billboard.

Yet even on the massive four lane thruways that connect our major cities, from time to time some rusty, wobbly, ill-maintained metal placard will capture the attention of the curious driver; perhaps causing a bit of dangerous fumbling for the phone for a quick and probably illegal google search. Future generations of Homo sapiens will most certainly evolve a third arm to carry out this function, after the two arm googling drivers, unable to keep both hands on the wheel, have been deselected for reproduction by horrible car crashes. Until then, however, curiosity and marathon automobile excursions continue to be a risky, though sometimes unavoidable combination. Let's face it, sometimes long drives are boring and we need mental stimulation to keep us awake.

Such a situation occurred to me recently while driving southbound on the Interstate 25, somewhere between Pueblo and Trinidad, Colorado. Fortunately, my wife was along to slap my hand away from the phone, so I had to wait until we stopped for the night in Gallup, New Mexico, to investigate the "Ludlow Massacre Memorial" sign I saw.

I fancy myself a student of history, but sometimes I get stumped. Since this sign was located on the open plains on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, land that was once the northern edge of the immeasurable grassland empire of the mighty, free ranging, indomitable Comanche and Kiowa tribes, I assumed that the "massacre" part of "Ludlow Massacre" meant that a few dozen white men had probably been separated from their hairpieces there. One lesson that can be taken from the history of this continent's aboriginal wars is this: If the name of the fight is attached to the word battle in the history books it means the white people won. On the other hand, if it reads massacre on the caption it signifies a white defeat by duplicitous, unprincipled savages. A battle implies something noble, dignified, planned out, fairly fought. A massacre, on the other hand, has overtones of a brutal, wanton slaughter, with an element of dishonorable sneakiness about it.

To my great surprise, I found out that evening that this Ludlow Massacre had nothing at all to do with Native Americans having the audacity and bad manners to defend their home turf by falling upon a party of unsuspecting travelers, or something of the sort. Instead, this pretty much forgotten incident on the Colorado plains took place several decades after the last of the continent's indigenous people had been rounded up and herded onto reservations. The era of the plains warrior was over, but the era of the struggle of working people to stay off the impoverished, corporate sanctioned reservations of tenement houses, lethal working conditions, and brutally long work hours was just beginning.

This road sign along Interstate 25 in southern Colorado was the first place I was exposed to the largely forgotten page of American History known as the Ludlow Massacre. It was not an event that my public school teachers featured alongside the expansive, dramatic conflicts of Yorktown, Gettysburg, Bastogne, and other battles that feature prominently in the curriculum. Who can say whether struggles in places like Ludlow are deliberately suppressed by those who write our textbooks. Whatever the case, we regularly ignore these episodes in history, and have largely forgotten the heroes who fought and died there, all to our detriment. What follows here is an attempt to help us remember.

No matter where you travel in your leisure time, the sign decorations are largely the same.  But who made your leisure time possible?
No matter where you travel in your leisure time, the sign decorations are largely the same. But who made your leisure time possible? | Source

Ludlow Overview

If you want a more in depth description of what happened at Ludlow, I am sure you are quite capable of reading the Wikipedia article for yourself. I'll simply give you a brief summation of events here, in order to round out your understanding of why the massacre was important and what it means to us today.

In 1913, the working conditions in Colorado's coal mines were abysmal. 7 out of 1000 workers were dying in work place accidents, a number twice the national average of about 3 per thousand. Furthermore, miners were paid by the ton of coal and not for the necessary side work they were required to do, like laying track and shoring up unsteady walls. This motivated workers to sometimes take dangerous shortcuts in order to produce more coal; since more coal equaled more pay.

At that time, Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I), an enterprise owned by the Rockefeller family, was the largest coal mining company in Colorado. In the days before legalized pot, coal mining was king in the Centennial State, employing approximately 10 percent of the workforce. I apologize for not resisting the temptation to throw in at least one bad marijuana joke, but these days it seems obligatory in any article about Colorado.

Colliers, as coal miners are called, could not effectively protest bad working conditions, because they were often forced to live in company towns, where the threats of unemployment and expulsion from ones home were ruthlessly employed by armed company thugs to enforce obedience. Admittedly, in company towns miners and their families had improved access to education, medical care, and other amenities, but this came at the exchange of personal freedom - specifically the right to protest the threat to life imposed by horrible mine conditions.

Nonetheless, the Colorado colliers managed to organize in secret and came up with a list of demands that mostly consisted of what was already required by Colorado labor laws. In September, 1913, after having these demands rejected, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called a strike in the coal mines. The strikers were rapidly evicted from their homes in the company towns, and set up a tent city on union-leased public land around Ludlow. Being directed from New York City by John D. Rockefeller Jr., CF&I brought in strikebreakers to intimidate the miners and their families into submission. A machine gun equipped armored car was shipped in from Pueblo, Colorado, to fire random shots into the camp. At least one person was killed, and several wounded by this death dealing device, affectionately dubbed the "Death Special" by its thuggish operators.

In response, the miners dug pits beneath their tents to protect themselves and their families, but the atrocities were only beginning. One outrage the mine owners could not be faulted for was lack of diversify - CF&I deliberately employed non English-speaking colliers of diverse backgrounds who could not communicate with one another, meaning they could not effectively coalesce to fight the company. On April 20th, 1914, taking advantage of the Orthodox Easter revelry celebrated the day before by many of these foreign born miners, the tent city was attacked by CF&I directed militia.

Slaughter, arson and looting ensued. A fortuitous passing freight train blocked the machine gun placements of the strike breakers, allowing many miners and their families to escape to nearby hills. All the same, an estimated 19 to 26 people died. Along with the murder of several union operatives, 4 women and 11 children suffocated in one of the bullet proof pits beneath the tent city when it was set aflame.

News of the tragedy rallied miners throughout Colorado. The resulting Coalfield War; resulting in the death of 75 people, lasted for ten days after the massacre at Ludlow, ending only when Federal troops were called in.

After so much spilled blood and property destruction, the coal miners lost the strike. About 300 of them were indicted for the murder of a handful of strikebreakers. After the brutal death of innocent women and children in the camp, only one of the strikebreakers was found guilty of assault, and was let off with a reprimand.

Learn the History You Weren't Taught in School - Includes Ludlow and More!

The Death Special fired shots into the tent city at Ludlow
The Death Special fired shots into the tent city at Ludlow | Source

Why, Then?

So if the coal miners lost the strike, and the perpetrators of the Ludlow abominations went unpunished, what does this episode of history teach us about the benefits of standing up to greedy corporations and their paid henchmen?

For strikers who resist violence with violence, the answer to this inquiry is probably nothing. Not only does striking mean you lose your job, but it might mean you lose your life too. Your spouse becomes a widow and your children are rendered fatherless, perhaps becoming orphans too if your wife suffers the misfortune of being asphyxiated in a pit.

The strikers knew the risks associated with their resistance but, even so, they resisted. Did they really think they would win a few nickel and dime concessions, or had they reached that point of no return where, to quote Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees? Had it become a war where the principles they were fighting for had become greater than the immediate material benefits? Were they motivated by their own future earnings potential, or with the livelihood, standard of living, and happiness of future generations? If they carried out this struggle entirely for themselves, they either suffered from mass delusion or had been duped by their leaders; because in that era the American working man was friendless and helpless in the face of east coast capitalists and their political allies. Maybe the answer is that they did it out of a sense of duty for their children and their children's children, if this sort of self-sacrifice can be understood at all in our present age of self-centered narcissism.

Ultimately, the deceased coal miners, miners' wives, and miners' children did not die in vain. After the tragedy at Ludlow, many in the public looked upon the Rockefellers as callous murderers, and the family took stringent measures to improve its sullied image. The Colorado mines were reformed. Working conditions were improved. Congressional hearings were heard, and the massacre helped provide impetus to legislate a national eight hour workday and to ban child labor.

...this was the contented, happy, prosperous condition out of which this strike grew … That men have rebelled grows out of the fact that they are men.

— Federal mediator Ethelbert Stewart
Did the Ludlow strikers take the Emiliano Zapata adage - "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees" to heart?
Did the Ludlow strikers take the Emiliano Zapata adage - "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees" to heart? | Source

Lest We Forget - Whoops! We Already Forgot.

In the kind, patriarchal eyes of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and CF&I, the striking workers at Ludlow were ingrates who did not appreciate the beneficence that flowed from the unbounded generosity of the company coffers. They had been given houses to live in; had been provided with churches, schools and public halls. They were free to do whatever they wanted to except, of course, leave the company town or discuss unionizing or labor conditions. In particular, they could not grumble about the ugly fact that 7 out of 1000 among their number would die in mine disasters.

In our fat, dumb and happy age of slick gadgetry and unlimited leisure time, are we in danger of forgetting that things were not always as good for working people as they are now, or have we forgotten this already? Are we really deluded into believing that billionaires; most of whom were enriched through the power of influence peddling, government handouts of public lands and funds, and outright piracy, gave us this standard of living out of the goodness of their hearts, that not a drop of blood was spilled to properly distribute a fair share of American resources among all Americans?

Ironically, it is those same Ludlow strikers and their allies throughout history who created the corporate cookie cutter franchises I drove by on my recent Interstate trip. If not for unionized labor pressing for wage increases, paid vacation, and the eight hour workday, who would have the leisure time and disposable income necessary to take the road trips that are serviced and supplied by the McDonalds, Wal-Marts, and corporate run travel centers along the highways? If anybody has benefited from the struggle in Ludlow and other long forgotten battles fought by working people, it is those corporate franchises that pop up everywhere along the Interstate. Remember this, shareholders - sharing the wealth ultimately pays dividends.

So next time you and your family take a road trip - and hopefully for your own happiness you get off the Interstate beaten path and explore the unsullied back roads a bit; take a moment or two to think about the Ludlow victims. Remember the dead men, women and children plus the several hundred who lost their livelihood there. They didn't win the war but they won the peace. They set the wheels of justice and righteousness in motion so that you could enjoy a relaxing, leisurely moment or two as fair exchange for your labor.

By all means, see the country and tour the battlefields - take a selfie atop the cannons at Gettysburg, relive the last moments of Custer's crew at Little Big Horn, do your grass skirt hula dance in view of Pearl Harbor's Arizona Memorial. But don't neglect the forgotten, fallen heroes at a little place on the high plains known as Ludlow, Colorado.

Ludlow Memorial
Ludlow Memorial | Source

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Legendary Woody Guthrie Sings About Legendary Ludlow - Includes Poignant Pictures of the Disaster

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 14 months ago from Olympia, WA

      This old history teacher thanks you. I've never heard of this moment in history and it was fascinating.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      These little battles probably shaped us more than the big ones did, Bill, but I don't remember making dioramas and pasting pictures on poster board to commemorate it. I really believe there are events the people who control the curriculum don't want to remind us of. Thanks for reading.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 14 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Great job. How interesting. How sad, but worth remembering.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 14 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I Tweeted! Interesting and informative.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Eric. We can either remember, or learn these tough lessons all over again. I fear it might eventually come to that. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      I appreciate you sharing this Devika. Have a wonderful day!

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 14 months ago from Canada

      My gosh Mel, what an incredible story. I had never heard about it prior to reading your article. How awful! A Coalfield War...thank you for bringing this to light!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      Too bad I had to bring it to light Kaili, but I have to admit that a couple of weeks ago I knew nothing about it either. Our society has deliberately suppressed these memories to keep the sheep in line, I think. Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 14 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      We still have to fight these fights, though not in the terrible way they did at Ludlow. Some unions are honest and effective, while others are not exactly looking out for the best interests of others. The upper class seems to want more distance from everyone else, and show little concern for people who continue in their daily struggles. If the middle class continues to be squeezed, everyone will suffer. If nothing else, let's never have another Ludlow.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      Agree, Mills. I hope it never happens, and I agree there are corrupt unions who only fatten their pockets. But things seem to becoming so polarized now - fistfights breaking out between intolerant people at political rallies, thar it seems something is going to snap. Thanks for reading!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 14 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You've described an interesting but very sad event that I knew nothing about. Thank you for sharing the story and the significance of the massacre, Mel. Your "attempt to help us remember" is definitely successful.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda for your nice words. If I can help a little to fill in the gaps in history I guess I'm doing something. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 14 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Wonderful hub Mel. Some of these little known historical subjects need to be brought out in the open. I knew nothing of this. The number of injustices of the powerful that have been suppressed over the years is staggering. Thank you for sharing.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      Yes Jodah, you are right, but it's something that generally doesn't appear in the history books alongside the discovery of American and manned space flight. I really appreciate you dropping in!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 14 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      I had not heard about the Ludlow Massacre until now. By the way, some jobs still don't unionize and are encouraged against it. Oklahoma is one of those states where you can be fired without cause.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      We've given too much away Deb and we have to take it back. The victims of Ludlow roll over in their graves at our complacence. Thanks for reading!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 14 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Mel

      It's okay, we won't have to 'evolve' third arms as we're building cars that are basically wheeled communication devices with voice recognition and soon will be able to dispense with the driver so it'll be safe to fall asleep at the wheel!

      However until that time I wouldn't try it!

      I don't think it that we forget so much as the folks who used to be in control of our information naturally don't like 'bad press' so it gets 'edited' if you know what I mean!

      But today with the internet etc control has been lost to some degree and we can use it to keep these folks 'honest'

      Great hub

      Lawrence

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 14 months ago from San Diego California

      So true, Lawrence. Social media has given us a degree of information freedom back, but how long before they learn how to control that too? Thanks for reading, my friend.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 13 months ago from Oklahoma

      People just don't understand how things can get if corporations run rampant. People aren't brave enough to strike anymore.

      Captivating read.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Maybe so Larry. As long as we are all fat dumb and happy we won't risk it, but lately we're not so fat dumb and happy, which is why guys like Bernie are gathering steam. We might be close to more Ludlows breaking out. Thanks for reading!

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 13 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Mel, a great article, and no it does not suprise me at all. Unions are needed so we do not treat people unfair,like in the Great state of FL. I love Fl., but I am glad I am retired. It makes me sad to see how the people are treated in this state. Working conditions are very poor.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      The problem is that working people don't have a voice, Stella. It would be easy to say vote Hilary and your problems are solved, but the Democrats are just as bad as Republicans. They just hide it better. Something has got to give somewhere, sooner or later. Thanks for reading!

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