Ludlow: One hundred years of silence
Frank Petrucci’s three brothers and a sister died in the Colorado Coal War. His family and the nation still struggle to talk about it.
For three generations, one topic was out of bounds for the Petrucci family.
What never came up between a mother and her son, and later, between her son and his daughter was what happened 100 years ago next week after an April snow dusted the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.
Fresh snow has a way of quieting the landscape, creating the illusion of a clean slate.
There was among the residents of the miners’ camp a deep yearning for a new start in the spring of 1914 after seven months of striking against Colorado Fuel and Iron, a coal company owned by the Rockefellers and a few other East Coast robber barons and railroad tycoons.
Thomas Petrucci had emigrated from Italy and found work as a boxcar loader to support his wife Mary and four young children. Like most CF&I workers, the family lived in company housing, confined by armed guards to the company town, ordered to keep company-mandated curfews and forced to buy food, clothing and supplies at company stores that charged vastly higher prices than outside businesses. Most all the money they earned from the company went back into the company’s coffers.
“We was not allowed to go to those other places. I knew my husband would be discharged if it was found out,” Margaret Dominiske, the Petrucci’s neighbor and wife of a CF&I miner, testified before a federal commission.
The company intentionally organized shifts of immigrants who spoke different languages to prevent them from unionizing. Still, in the tight underground spaces where they chipped coal for ten to fourteen hours a day, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Bulgarian, Japanese, Mexican, Irish, Portuguese and Greek mine workers managed to communicate in a common language of discontent over long work hours, poor wages, dangerous conditions and the company’s refusal to recognize their union.
At the order of John D. Rockefeller Jr. – whose family was the major shareholder – CF&I refused wage earners’ demands for several years.
The workers started wearing kerchiefs around their necks as a quiet form of solidarity. Their indignation grew when a union organizer was shot on the streets of Trinidad by a detective for Baldwin-Felts, the detective agency hired to bust the union. By September 1913, about 90 percent of CF&I’s workers went on strike.
Like all the strikers’ families, the Petruccis were booted out of company housing when Thomas walked off the job. They settled nearby in Ludlow — about 12 miles northwest of Trinidad — where hundreds of UMWA families banded together with no incomes to survive one of the coldest winters on record. Striking workers built canvas tents where the mountains met the prairie. The women took turns cooking, laundering and watching after kids. They helped birth each other’s babies in a pit the men dug to protect them from the weather and other intrusions. It was, after all, a time of war.
The Colorado Coal War started with months of skirmishes and isolated shootings between strikers armed by the union and company guards, hired mercenaries and members of the Colorado National Guard, which had been dispatched by Gov. Elias Ammons to purportedly “keep the peace.” Many of the guardsmen had participated a decade earlier in breaking the coal strike of 1904, and were intent on quashing strikers again. CF&I motivated less blood-thirsty troops with food from company stores, booze from company saloons and direct cash payments.
Given the steady beat of unrest during the strike, April 20, 1914, started out fairly quietly at Ludlow.
The children of the tent colony built forts out of the snow and sledded down the muddy hills on wood planks and gunnysacks. The Greeks in the community, whose Easter fell the day earlier, were still singing and dancing to their native music played on mandolin and violins miners had brought from the old country.
Busy with her 4-year, 2-year and 6-month-old children, Mary Petrucci was quietly mourning her eldest child, Bernard, who had died weeks earlier at age 6 after guards refused to allow them train passage to Trinidad so he could be treated for a bad cough.
Out of the day’s relative quietness, a firebomb exploded at about 5:30 p.m.
Agents for CF&I had come looking for Louis Tikas, an immigrant from Crete who was one of the union leaders. Uniformed guardsmen and mine guards in civilian clothes surrounded the colony. Some fired machine guns strapped to a nearby railroad car called “the Death Special.” Others stormed the camp, firing shots while the miners ran to grab their guns or flee with their families. Some militia members lit torches out of broomsticks, dousing Kerosene on the miners’ tents and setting them on fire.
The facts of the attack weren’t much in dispute, even by the militia that instigated it.
“By this time, the time of the burning of the tents, the nondescript number of men had passed out of their officers’ control, had ceased to be an army and had become a mob. Doubtless all were seeing red on both sides of the conflict,” wrote Maj. Edward Boughton in a military report commissioned after the incident.
Boughton found that “Men and soldiers swarmed into the colony and deliberately assisted the conflagration of spreading the fire from tent to tent.
”“This too was accompanied by the usual loot. Men and soldiers seized and took from tents whatever appealed to their fancy of the moment. In this way clothes, bedding, articles of jewelry, bicycles, tools and utensils were taken from the tents and conveyed away.”
Mary Petrucci later recounted her own story to a commission on labor relations.
“Well, in the evening when the fire started, I came out of my tent; it was all on fire, and I came out of my tent, and as I was coming out of my tent under that tank there was a lot of militiamen, and I was running out and hollering with my three children, and they hollered at me to get out of the way and they were shooting at me and I ran into this place.”
That “place” was the six-foot earthen pit built to birth babies. Mary, her three kids, eight other children and three other women hid underground while shots fired and tents burned above them. The smoke spread into the hole where the mothers cradled their babies.
Alcarita Pedregone escaped after her two children died beside her. She gave an account to a reporter with The Denver Express that was elaborated on in “Buried Unsung,” a book about the massacre by Zeese Papanikolas.
“…When the tent had caught fire, the children had coughed and cried and the women had tried to pray. The bigger children had tried to climb out of the cellar. They had taken hold of the burning floor, but their fingers were singed and they fell back on the rest of them.
Mary went unconscious from smoke inhalation after about ten minutes. Early the next morning, she testified, she climbed out dazed — “worse than a drunken person.” She found her way to the train tracks, then to a hospital in Trinidad where the reality sunk in that her three remaining children – 4-year-old Joe, 2-year-old Lucy and 6-month-old Frank – were dead. Everyone in the pit besides she and Pedregone had died in a charred heap of mangled bodies.
There were other deaths outside the pit. Eight mine workers were killed in the battle and 11-year-old Frankie Snyder was shot through the head while protecting his little sister from gunfire.
News wires sent dispatches about the attack to newspapers throughout the country. If seven months of news about the exploitation of Colorado miners hadn’t moved Americans, the story of women and children killed from corporate and government arson and gunfire enraged them. By April 21st, the whole country knew about the terror of what The Rocky Mountain News first dubbed the “Ludlow Massacre.”
“Little children roasted alive make a front page story. Dying by inches of starvation and exposure does not,” Mother Jones, the UMWA’s well-known firebrand, wrote in her autobiography.
Ludlow was gone, with only a few tents still standing. An observer noted they were so full of bullet holes that they looked like lace.
After the massacre, union sympathizers in Denver issued a call to arms that read: “Organize the men in your community in companies of volunteers to protect the workers of Colorado against the murder and cremation of men, women and children by armed assassins in the employ of coal corporations serving under the guise of State militiamen.”
For ten days, strikers and workers from other unions destroyed CF&I mines and attacked managers, guards and militia members, killing some of them. Estimates of mortalities widely range from 38 to 100, with an unknown number of wounded.
Gov. Ammons summoned help from President Woodrow Wilson. U.S. Army troops arrived sixteen days after the massacre and confiscated guns from both sides, including the state militia. Wilson tried to settle the strike, but Rockefeller’s proxies walked away from the negotiating table. Union members, many penniless and starving, were divided between those who wanted to end the strike and those who didn’t. Mother Jones tried to rally support to continue.
“I stand facing the far east, sounding the voices of the babes of Ludlow. I stand here bringing their tears, their wasted hopes to you, the heartaches of the mothers, the screams and the agonies of those who gave up their lives there; but they did not die in vain. They stirred the nation from end to end and you never again will see such a condition of slavery in Colorado,” she told union members.
By winter, workers’ support for the strike had waned and the union was broke. The strike ended in December 1914 when UMWA members went back to work, defeated, their union still not recognized by the company.
Mary Petrucci was still in shock and mourning three more of her children when, weeks after the massacre, she was swept up by union bosses and Mother Jones for their campaign to build sympathy for the UMWA. The daughter of a CF&I miner and formally uneducated, she joined the union’s national speaking tour about the mistreatment and exploitation of mine workers and the corruption of a state coopted by mine owners. She rallied crowds in Chicago. She vented her outrage in New York. But she broke down with grief and exhaustion by the time she reached Washington.
“Perhaps it seems strange to you that I want to go back home. But I do,” she told a D.C. reporter.
“My man is there and my children are buried there… I have been so happy there. Why, there wasn’t a happier woman anywhere than I was… You see, I’m Italian, although I was born in this country, and our people are gay of heart. I used to sing around my work and playing with my babies. Well, I don’t sing anymore. And my husband doesn’t laugh as he used to.
“I’m twenty-four years old and I supposed I’ll live a long time but I don’t see how I can ever be happy again. … I try to be cheerful on account of my husband. It is so hard for him when he comes home from work to find only me in the house, and none of the children … But you’re not to think that we could do any differently another time. We are working people – my husband and I – and we’re stronger for the union than we were before the strike. …I can’t have my babies back. But perhaps when everybody knows about them, somebody will be done to make the world a better place for all babies.”
Mary returned to Ludlow, where she and Thomas owned a plot of land close to what became known as ”the death pit.” Thomas built a wood house and chicken coops. He resumed working at CF&I when the strike ended. Eventually, the young couple — still in their mid-20s — had another child and then six more. They named the three eldest after the two boys and one girl who had died in the massacre.
For the Petruccis, life went on at Ludlow.
“It had to,” says Frank Petrucci, the seventh of Mary and Thomas’s children and third to be born after the massacre.
Frank is now 94. “Almost 95,” he clarifies from the recliner in his Central Denver living room. The retired electrician and 70-year member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is stooped and on oxygen, with a full-time caregiver since his wife — also named Mary – died in November 2008.
Frank was born five years after the massacre and raised in Ludlow until age 7, when his dad took a job at another CF&I mine in another town. Of his years in Ludlow, he remembers shooting pheasants with his dad and brother and playing roof ball and kick-the-can.
Mary’s outspokenness ended when she returned to Ludlow and started a new family. There was no talk about what happened in the earthen pit just down the way. She tried to be cheerful. But on occasions, Frank remembers his parents would go off by themselves. They would came back sullen, he says, “and remind us that we had brothers and a sister to keep in our minds.”
The fact that Frank was named after one of them never mattered much, he says.
“I guess I never thought about it. Just accepted it. It’s a name. What’s in a name?”
There’s a pause as he looks at the 100-year-old photos of the brothers and sister he never knew. He smoothes the paper with his bent hands — back and forth and back again over their images as if either to protect them or erase what happened.
“Sometimes I’d wonder,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder why them and not me.”
The Southern Coal Field encompassed an area that broadly runs between Trinidad and Walsenburg. It was rich with seams of soft, high-grade bituminous coal that, at the time, was mainly coked for the steel industry’s production of rails for train systems expanding throughout the country. Coal mining largely fueled Colorado’s economy. As the Denver Chamber of Commerce put it, “We cannot exist without it.”
The Rockefellers and their small consortium of investors had bought Colorado Fuel & Iron in 1903. Three years later, an industry journal estimated that ten percent of the state’s population depended on the company for its livelihood.
With the family’s industrial power came serious political punch.
Two months into the strike, in a letter to John D. Rockefeller Jr., CF&I ‘s board chairman wrote: “You will be interested to know that we have been able to secure the cooperation of all the bankers of the city (Denver) who have had three or four interviews with our little cowboy governor. Another mighty power has been rounded up in behalf of the operators.”
The Rockefellers influenced religious and civil leaders, too. Agents for the family persuaded the Bishop of Colorado to lambaste the strikers in his and his priests’ sermons. And they convinced the president of Colorado College and the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Denver to sign onto a virulently anti-union letter accusing strikers of unprovoked violence and acting in bad faith.
“That the strike is lost, and it being a losing cause, it is not fair to union men in other parts of the country that they should be paying out their hard earned money to support in ‘ridiculous idleness’ the little camps of union men who are still maintaining the nominal strike,” the letter read.
After its publication, the Rockefellers gave $100,000 each to Colorado College and the University of Denver.
In the meantime, records show that by 1912, more than 1,700 miners were killed in Colorado – most of them burned or blasted to death in mine accidents. Colorado miners were killed at twice the national average. Notable among them are the 24 miners killed in 1907 at CF&I’s Primero Mine, not far from Ludlow. The company did nothing to make that mine safer after that accident. Just three years later, Primero exploded again in 1910, killing at least 75 workers. On February 5, 1910 The Summit County Journal reported that “The exact number may never be known, as members of the rescue parties say that all bodies remaining in the mine were torn to pieces by the explosion and it will be practically impossible to determine how many there are.
“These rescuers also say that it is difficult to get men to enter the mine, none being willing to walk over a carpet of mangled flesh and bloody human bones.”
Women begging to view the corpses in hopes of identifying loved ones were turned away because it was too ghastly.
“If you would get me a piece of his shirt, I will wash it, and I can tell whether it is my husband or not, because I made the shirt, and I would know,” one pleaded.
“…He is blown to pieces,” she was told.
On occasions when CF&I learned that inspectors were coming, managers would have the mine entrances sprinkled with water so it appeared that dust was being controlled inside.
Still, the mostly immigrant miners who were willing to risk their lives for a day’s work went back into CF&I’s mines day in and day out. They were easy to exploit, especially for the Rockefellers who, two time zones away, couldn’t hear their wailings.
The Colorado Coal War of 1913-1914 was one the deadliest labor battles in the U.S. It marked a defining point in national industrial relations. From it – as well as other labor tragedies of the early 20th century – sprung a long list of laws and regulations protecting workers’ wages, safety and rights.
“Ludlow changed everything. It was a pivotal moment in the nation’s history,” says Bob Butero, regional director for the UMWA.
Pivotal? Absolutely. But defining? Not so much. Definition requires knowledge. And the thing about Ludlow is that, 100 years later, most folks don’t know what happened there.
Unless you’re a southern Coloradan with roots in the area, or a union member well-versed in the hard-fought rights of fellow workers or a history buff who has delved into books on the topic, you could easily not know that in the height of the so-called Progressive Era, the state of Colorado killed scores of strikers at the behest of the world’s richest family. Most U.S. history schoolbooks don’t mention Ludlow. Those that do generally treat it as a blip.
“The weight of it,” says Frank Sciacca. “I don’t know for sure people understand the weight of what went on here. Or even if they’ve heard of it at all.”
Sciacca is the closest neighbor to “the death pit” and monument at Ludlow less than a mile west of Interstate 25 on what’s now called County Road 44. His grandfather homesteaded Valente Canyon down the road in 1902. Three of his uncles suffered coal-mining injuries, including one who died. As a boy, his dad stood on a nearby hill overlooking the massacre “watching the smoke and hearing the shots fired.”
As Sciacca tells it, about a dozen people come each day to visit the national historic landmark that’s a stone’s throw from his house.
One of them, Jim Miller, stopped by on a recent Saturday after a spring snowstorm like the one that blanketed Ludlow the day before the attack. Miller, 69, is a semi-retired salesman from Paris, Texas. He had never heard of Ludlow until the word “massacre” on the highway sign caught his attention. As he drove toward the monument, he expected another story about cowboys killing Indians.
“In the West, when you hear the word massacre, you think it was Indians, not miners,” he said. “What happened here kinda surprises me, but kind of doesn’t. A corporation got so big, so powerful that it ruled the governor and National Guard. The corporation took over the government. And it’s still happening today.
“You gotta question how that could happen right here in the U.S. where we’re supposed to be so great at democracy.”
Members of the national Commission on Industrial Relations raised the same questions in 1915 when they grilled John D. Rockefeller, Jr. about the Colorado labor war ignited because of his management practices From his office in New York and summer home in Maine, he had delegated control of the coal company to executives 2,000 miles away in Colorado. He had vowed that he’d rather shut down CF&I rather than acquiesce to workers’ demands.
“We have none but words of the highest commendations for the energetic, fair and firm way in which you have handled this very trying matter,” Rockefeller wrote the executives he put in charge of the company. “There can be one outcome, and we only hope it may be speedily attained.”
During a hearing in January 1915, commission chairman Frank P. Walsh asked Rockefeller about his hands-off approach..
“You took what the executive officers said and closed your ears to every development brought out in court, and you closed your eyes to the transcript of the evidence before the coroner’s jury, and you closed your eyes to the evidence given before the military court, and just simply sat in your office in New York and took the word of your executive officers for it?” he asked.
“I have not closed my eyes to anything,” Rockefeller said.
Walsh interrogated Rockefeller for hours. At one point, he held up a postcard bearing on one side a picture of Frankie Snyder, the 11-year-old boy shot in the massacre. On the other side was a letter: “Dear Sir: We wish to inform you that here is one of the little victims that did not smother at Ludlow, but was shot through the head while caressing his little sister. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Snyder.”
Rockefeller had little response.
Walsh’s questions continued: “Did the reports that you got show that they were burned? That the arm of one of the women fell off – that the flesh fell off the bodies in taking them out?”
“I don’t recall that. I might have been true,” said Rockefeller.
“Did you read the coroner’s inquest?” Walsh asked.
“You did not read the account of the testimony any place?”
“And you have not yet?” — nine months after the massacre — Walsh asked.
If Mary Petrucci ever spoke about the smoke-filled pit after her national tour a month later, her son and granddaughter aren’t aware of it. She lived about fifty years after a massacre, that, as far as her surviving family knows, she never mentioned in her motherly and grandmotherly cheerfulness.
“It didn’t come up,” Frank says.
He, too, spent nearly 90 years mum about the brother he was named after, and the other brother and sister who died in the death pit, and the older brother who would have survived his cough had guards let him and his mom on the train to Trinidad.
Frank’s daughter, Mary Elaine Petrucci of Denver learned of her family’s sad history not from her father or grandmother, but from a cousin in Trinidad who spoke of Ludlow in hushed tones when Mary Elaine was about 9. She later read what she could find on the topic, including a book by George McGovern for which her grandmother refused to be interviewed.
As a Petrucci, she learned early on that you didn’t ask about what you weren’t told. And so Mary Elaine knew only what she imagined: That even after decades had passed, it was all too painful for her grandma and her dad to discuss.
We are masters at forgetting, or pretending to forget, or hoping that what hurts us will go away if we don’t speak of it.
Just as Mary remained silent for a half-century after her four children died at Ludlow, Frank Petrucci kept quiet about the death of his own son in 1970. Thomas Petrucci was accidentally electrocuted at age 15 by a plug-in rod to attract night crawlers that his dad, an electrician, had given him. Mary Elaine knew only that much about what happened to her younger brother. But she had lots of questions that, in the tradition of her family, went unasked and unanswered.
“What was it like when they found him? How did they feel? How could they live with it? Did they ever wish it was me and not him?” Mary Elaine asks into an ether that will never answer back.
At 94 – “almost 95” – her dad has dementia. He has trouble remembering not only his youth in Ludlow, but also what he is talking about from one minute to the next. It’s too late, his daughter realizes, to fill in the blanks.
Mary Elaine is a speech pathologist. It’s her job to help people talk, especially about things they’ve forgotten. Sometimes, she says, no matter the reason for your silence, you have to find a way to give voice to what’s inside you.
What’s inside Mary Elaine Petrucci, at age 60, is three generations of unanswered questions, anger and pride, and voices muted by pain. Since the monument was rededicated in 2005 after vandals defaced it, she and her dad have made several visits to the Ludlow memorial. It has become a preoccupation to learn as much as she can about the massacre, to speak as often as possible about the grandmother who briefly stood up and spoke out until she could no longer bear the weight of her words. It’s her responsibility, Mary Elaine figures, to end the silence and help her dad face his own history.
“Ludlow is part our identity. And so is my brother’s death, which I always saw as a continuation of what has happened at Ludlow – losing so many children so fast and so tragically,” she says.
She and her dad are planning to drive south next month when the UMWA will commemorate the massacre’s 100th anniversary at the monument. Frank will be there with his cane, oxygen tank and spotty memory of the days he played kick-the-can on the scrubby land that was his family’s battlefield. Mary Elaine will, as she always does, urge her dad to speak for himself at the ceremony. It’s likely that he’ll start sentences he can’t finish.
The Petrruccis lost their voice in 1914. In 2014, it’s time to get it back.
“Families like mine, we need to let people know our history. We need to tell the story about people who stood up against corruption and exploitation and paved the way for workers’ rights and growing the middle class, which is the reason immigrants move to this country in the first place,” she says.
“I guess you can only stuff this stuff inside for so long until the voices haunt you and the grief gets you,” she continues. “I feel like it’s my job, 100 years after, on behalf of my grandparents, their children that died, the other children who died and the miners, to give voices to people who didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t speak for themselves.”
[ Top photo of Frank Petrucci by James Brennan ]
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