If you find yourself in Southeastern Colorado, go to Ludlow.
If you possibly can, do as I did and go alone.
I’ve been in Pueblo for the last few days helping with a union organizing drive. Today I had a little free time and I decided to go to Ludlow. I just got back to my hotel knowing I needed some time alone to be with this experience and to try to process by writing. So here I am.
Do go to Ludlow if you can.
I left Pueblo in the late afternoon and drove south through the vast openness of Eastern Colorado. The sky was darkening over the mountains to the west with impending thunderstorms. I passed through a lot of open space and a few scattered small communities. About an hour south of Pueblo I saw the sign for Ludlow and exited. At the end of the off-ramp, it took a moment to see the sign to the Ludlow Memorial. It’s a small sign and not in terribly good repair. I drive up the road a mile or so to the memorial site. It’s not much really – a fenced enclosure, a small covered picnic area, a granite memorial, some explanatory signs.
I knew, at least in a general way, what had happened there.
Others have surely told the story far better than I, but here’s a short synopsis:
This part of Colorado in the early 20th century was coal country. Miners labored under harsh and dangerous conditions, with a death rate that was several times the national average. The mines were isolated from towns and cities and the miners and their families lived in "company towns". They were often paid in scrip only redeemable at the company store and lived in company housing. Naturally, the cost of food and housing and the rate of pay were carefully balanced to keep the miners in a state of virtual indentured servitude. The only law in the company towns was the company rules, enforced by hired gunman.
By 1913, efforts to organize had gone on for some time. The UMW had gained enough strength to present a demand for recognition and various other improvements. The companies rejected the union demands, the miners struck and, in September of 1913 the miners and their families were evicted from their homes. The union had prepared tent villages on leased land near the mine sites and the mineworkers moved into those with winter impending. The miners and their families endured the Colorado winter in those tents and in cellars they dug beneath them – partly for warmth and partly for protection from the sporadic gunfire directed into the camp by company gunman.
There’s more complexity than I want to tell here, and some difference of opinion on the details, but on April 20, 1914, a gun battle broke out between miners in the camp and elements of the Colorado National Guard, which by this time consisted largely of company gunman. Who fired first? What triggered the shooting? No one really knows. The Guard had much heavier weapons, including machine guns. Eventually, a train that stopped on the tracks between the opposing sides allowed many of the miners and their families to escape the gunfire. The guard set the tent village on fire. 2 women and 11 children who were hiding in a basement under a tent died from asphyxiation as the fire consumed their oxygen. A couple of miners had died during the gunfire, two or three more were murdered after the camp was overrun. One Guardsman died. The events of that day became known in labor circles as the Ludlow Massacre. The deaths of the women and children shocked the nation.
In the immediate aftermath, miners from throughout the region armed themselves and went on a rampage, attacking numerous mines in the area. The company gunman fought back and this became the Colorado Coalfield War, which only ended when President Wilson sent in federal troops. An independent commission of inquiry later blamed the Guard for the violence.
On December 10, 1914, with the UMW having run out of money to support the strikers, the strike was called off. In 1916, the UMW bought the site, and eventually erected a permanent memorial.
So, under grey skies, I walked around the site. I read the signs. I opened a steel door set into the ground and went down into the basement where the women and children died. I walked around a little more, feeling the spirits of the dead there with me. No one else came.
I walked slowly back to my car and a tune began to play in my head. The tune continued to play there as I drove north through scattered rain squalls. I thought about what happened there that day. I thought about all those in this country today who would role us back to a world very like that time. A world without unions. A world where no worker has any security. A world where no worker has any comfort beyond bare survival. A world where there are no job safety rules.
I was a dozen or so miles up the highway before the tears finally began.
Forgive me, but I must go out for a little while. Back later for any comments.