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Learning from the Past, No Matter How Painful

2011/10/16

My world is ruled by the study of history and statistics. This is both a curse and a blessing. It is a blessing, because I have a strong foundation rooted in the history of this country and I take the information gained from the past to help me make decisions about the future. The curse comes when I can see the same paths being taken, because I’ve seen it happen before, and I know how that path will end.

Twice this week, I came to the realization that the past was repeating itself, and neither of the events I was reminded of ended well. What follows is the first of those realizations.

Earlier this week, the Governor of Colorado ordered the removal of a tent city, filled with people protesting unfair practices and unbalanced treatment of major corporations. This has happened before.

For those not familiar with Colorado history, I will try to give you a brief lesson about a event which has been called the Ludlow Massacre. Colorado was home to rich deposits of coal and iron ore, leading to the development of a very profitable smelting and coal mining industry in Southeastern Colorado, operated primarily by three companies. The largest of these companies, Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I), was owned by the Rockefellers of New York, and at one time it controlled more than seventy-one thousand acres of coal land, and employing more than seven thousand people.

Coal mining, traditionally, is a dangerous endeavor, but the geology of Colorado made that more so. However, in 1913 the death rate of workers in the Colorado coal mining industry was more than twice that of the national average. The main contributing factor this was the complete lack of enforcement of the safety standards. According to the United States House Committee on Mines and Mining, “Colorado has good mining laws and such that ought to afford protection to the miners as to safety in the mine if they were enforced, yet in this State the percentage of fatalities is larger than any other, showing there is undoubtedly something wrong in reference to the management of its coal mines,” from their 1914 report.

All of this leads to the start of a labor movement in Colorado, and the creation of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). However, because of the “company town” setups of most mining camps, any and all attempts to organize labor movement were met with swift and often violent reactions by the company. Finally, the workers organized enough to present the companies with a list of demands.

When, in September of 1913, after the companies rejected the workers’ list of demands, the company’s reaction was to evict the workers of the Ludlow Mine and their families from their homes. In preparation for such an action, the UMWA leased lands for the workers to erect a tent city. From this tent city, the striking workers could watch for the strike breakers and the replacement workers. It was also home to their families, who suffered right alongside the strikers.

The Tent City at Ludlow (Lou Dold Photographs)

Winter in the Camp (Lou Dold Photographs)

The Children of Ludlow (Lou Dold Photographs)

In order to restore the status quo, the companies hired the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, well known for their forceful strike breaking tactics. These tactics included shining searchlights into the camps and firing blindly into the tents, occasionally killing or maiming the inhabitants. In response to the frequent sniper attacks, many of the families dug pits into the ground below the tents, hoping the ground would provide them better protection from the stray bullets.

As the violence escalated, in October of 1913, Colorado Governor, Elias M. Ammons ordered in the Colorado National Guard to keep the peace. However, the peace was short-lived when the pro-company Guard  Adjutant-General John Chase began his own campaign to break the strike. This included ordering the destruction of the Forbes Camp while its inhabitants were attending the funeral of some infants who had died days earlier.

With the strength of their convictions, the strikers managed to hold out through the winter and the violence and into the spring. In April of 1914, while distracting one of the leaders of the Ludlow tent city, two companies of militia installed a machine gun on a ridge near the camp and setup a position along the rail line. A firefight soon broke out, and lasted the entire day. The only break came at dusk, when a freight train stopped along the tracks, affording many of the inhabitants of the tent city a chance to escape into the hills. However, by 7:00PM, the village was engulfed in flames, and the militia moved in to loot the remains of the tent city.

The machine gun placement above the Ludlow Mine Tent City. (Lou Dold Photograph)

Militiaman taking cover among the ruins of Ludlow. (Lou Dold Photograph)

“After The Battle At Southwestern Mine” (Lou Dold Photographs)

“Ruins of Ludlow Tent Colony” (Lou Dold Photograph)

The infamous “Death Pit” where 11 children & 2 women died. (Lou Dold Photograph)

In the end, the camp leader and two captured miners were shot dead (with the leader found shot in the back) and left to rot on the tracks until a member of the railway union demanded they be taken away and buried. But the worst casualty of the event which would come to be known as the Ludlow Massacre was the discovery of the bodies of eleven children and two women, trapped and asphyxiated by the fire in one of the pits created to shield them from the nightly gunfire. In addition to the nineteen victims from the camp, three militiamen and one uninvolved passerby were killed, all of which resulted in further fighting raging on for ten days along the fourty mile stretch between Trinidad and Walsenburg, making this one of the worst labor disputes in American history.

Only two men were held ultimately accountable for their actions during that ten day lapse into violent chaos, one from each side. The courts failed us all in this case.

Today, a beautiful memorial rests over the ground where the Ludlow Mine incident occurred. A recent archeological dig revealed the real cost of that day; the loss of life, both real and the idea of it, of a group of American citizens in the name of corporate greed. A corporate greed which was not only ignored by a government elected to protect the rights of the people, but actually defended by that same government through the use of force.

I pray that we can find a more peaceful solution to the current strife facing our country today. I don’t want to reach old age paying homage to stone memorials marking the places the dedicated have fallen to protect my rights, and remembering the dead I have known who fell there. Please, let us learn from these mistakes from the past, and find better solutions, hold the guilty accountable, and truly make this a better place.

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