Ritter set to dedicate Ludlow Massacre site as national historic landmark

Who says Gov. Bill Ritter doesn’t play well with labor? On Sunday, the governor joins United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts and other union officials at the dedication of the site of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre as a National Historic Landmark, The Associated Press reports.

The site, just off Interstate 25 between Walsenburg and Trinidad, is fabled in labor lore. More than 75 people died during a coal-miners strike that saw the Colorado National Guard attack an encampment of miners and their families with machine guns and torches. One night, 19 died when strike opponents set fire to tents where striking miners were staying.

From the site of the recently published history “Killing for Coal,” by University of Denver professor Thomas G. Andrews, a description of the Ludlow maassacre:

On a spring morning in 1914, in the stark foothills of southern Colorado, members of the United Mine Workers of America clashed with guards employed by the Rockefeller family, and a state militia beholden to Colorado’s industrial barons. When the dust settled, nineteen men, women, and children among the miners’ families lay dead. The strikers had killed at least thirty men, destroyed six mines, and laid waste to two company towns.

Earlier this year, the New Yorker’s Caleb Crain wrote a fascinating review of “Killing for Coal,” saying the author’s “innovation is to wonder whether ‘energy systems might provide a better explanation [for the Ludlow Massacre] than ideology.”

You’ll have to take it on faith that Crain is writing about the Colorado of a hundred years ago, and not the controversies of today, when he observes:

The capitalists expect a smooth hoovering up of hydrocarbons and workers’ rights, but instead violence explodes. People discover, to their dismay, that the desire to exploit an energy resource as cheaply as possible can lead to something like war.

Here’s another long chunk from Crain’s review, describing the role coal played in turn-of-the-century Colorado:

… soon Colorado was living off coal. It was burned to fire bricks, refine sugar, and bake bread, and it powered engines that pumped water, drove tractors, and ground flour. Coal oil was burned in smudge pots to save peaches from spring frost; coal gas lit the street lamps of Denver, Leadville, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs; and coal-generated electricity lit more than thirteen thousand bulbs decorating the façade of the Denver Gas & Electric Company’s headquarters. “We cannot exist without it,” Denver’s Chamber of Commerce declared, in 1907. A Denver beekeeper complained of losing eight or nine colonies of bees within a month because flowers were “continually coated with a deposit from the smoke,” but in those days smoke was welcomed as a sign of prosperity, especially by those with the means to move to suburbs upwind.

And if I may add a bit of personal connection to the mix: When my grandfather’s brother, my Great Uncle Lloyd, was but a toddler, my great-grandparents took the family on a camping trip outside Trinidad. During the night, the family slept in a tent, unaware of the commotion over the next hill. The next morning, they woke up and discovered a bullet lodged in the board Lloyd slept on (in those days, babies slept on boards so their heads would properly mature, or so the family story goes). Later they learned the bullet was a stray from the Ludlow Massacre. It only missed by an inch the head of the sleeping baby, who would go on to live a long life, dying at age 89 just eight years ago.

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Ernest Luning

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