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Coal workers suffered

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
The next time you travel north toward Denver, take a break at the Ludlow Exit just north of Trinidad, Colo.

A good paved road leads west about two miles to the huge and educational Ludlow Massacre Monument. I promise an interesting visit.

On this spot on April 20, 1914, 20 people, including two women and 13 children, died during violence associated with a coal mine strike. All were shot or consumed by fire when the strikers' tent community came under fire by a mining company and Colorado Militia machine guns.

Earlier, on Sept. 23, 1913, 9,000 miners walked out of the company-owned camp. They settled in tent cities located on private land. They were protesting poor mine safety conditions, low wages of $1.68 per 10-hour day, being forced to use company-owned stores with inflated prices, company controlled schools and churches. The song "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford described the conditions protested.

Colorado Fuel & Iron and other coal and steel companies were owned by John D. Rockefeller, who became the most despised man in America. All of these conditions were eventually improved, but only after being forced by federal or state laws and after extreme suffering by the mine workers and their families.

Originally, the Colorado areas where the coal formations existed were thinly settled. As the coal and steel industry grew, thousands of workers were brought in from all over the world.

In 1900, two-thirds of the 9,000 workers were immigrants from Europe, and approximately 16 percent were Hispanic. In all, 32 nationalities were represented on the company payrolls with 27 different languages spoken. Since a large percentage of workers could not speak English, communication was difficult, further complicating negotiation.

The fatality rate in these Colorado mines was three times the national average and was caused by poor safety conditions, poor ventilation, disobedience of the law, and criminal negligence of the mine operators. Only after several mine disasters did the state crack down on violators.

Time and again the national unions tried to organize the coal mine workers but company-hired thugs and strike-breakers using spies among the workers plus constantly changing company rules kept the unions at bay.

Life in the camps was depressing, exhausting and dangerous much of the time. Other times it was tedious, somewhat enjoyable but heart-wrenching as neighbors tired to help neighbors during hard times and tragedy.

As we travel daily about the country today, it's hard to believe that many coal people spent their entire lives within a five-mile radius of the mine where they worked. Most of us have never experienced personal violence or watched violent death of friends and family like these miners.

I encourage you to call up The Ludlow Massacre on your computer or read the book titled "Coal People" by Rick J. Clyne to learn about these important historical events happening close to home and which eventually changed American history.

Also keep in mind, many of these immigrants, both Anglo and Hispanic, were fleeing from the same type of exploitation and violence in their own respective home countries. They were already a tough and hardy bunch.


August 31, 2010
Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" February 12, 2007 column
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by e-mail at trewblue@centramedia.net. For books see DelbertTrew.com. His column appears weekly.
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