Note to Editors: Author Kirk Hallahan’s 1,500-word retrospective, “Chaos and Controversy Followed the ‘Ludlow Massacre,'” is available for publication as a feature and can be reviewed/downloaded on the Web at www.welcome.colostate.edu. Hallahan, an expert in events following ‘Bloody Ludlow,’ is available for interviews by contacting Brad Bohlander at (970) 491-1545.
Ninety years ago this week, on April 20, 1914, Colorado was home to one of the most violent and controversial events in the state’s history – the "Ludlow Massacre," a bloody confrontation that took place in a now abandoned field 12 miles north of Trinidad. According to Colorado State University professor and author Kirk Hallahan, through a series of calculated and strategic union actions, responsibility for the massacre shifted from the Colorado coal industry to one unlikely, distant investor, John D. Rockefeller Jr.
"Historians can only speculate whether the Ludlow Massacre would be such a celebrated event if it had not been for the effectiveness of the union in promoting its cause and the bumbling manner in which the coal operators and John D. Rockefeller Jr. initially responded," said Hallahan, professor of journalism and technical communication at Colorado State. "Had events not followed the course they did, the incident might have been forgotten altogether – or, we might be observing the anniversary of the "Ludlow Blaze" or the "Ludlow Suffocation."
Although most historical accounts focus on the bitter labor dispute and the military action, Hallahan’s research examines key events that followed "Bloody Ludlow" and helped shape it as the controversial event remembered today.
The dispute began in 1913 when the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) District 15, headquartered in Denver and Trinidad, renewed its efforts to unionize 14,000 poor, mostly immigrant miners in the coalfields of southern Colorado between Walsenburg and Trinidad. When a union walkout was called in September 1913, striking miners were promptly evicted from their homes in company towns and forced to relocate their families to nearby union-operated tent colonies.
Violence soon broke out between the displaced miners and the coal companies, and the state militia was deployed to maintain order. However, due to a lack of state funds, only two small companies of militiamen remained on active duty by spring 1914 when tensions peaked and a fierce gun battle broke out between 35 militiamen and about 200 miners in the tent colony at Ludlow.
Accounts vary about who fired the first shot on April 20 depending on which side told the story. However, by the end of the all-day battle, seven men and a boy had been shot and killed.
"The real tragedy was the asphyxiation of two innocent women and 11 children who had hidden in an underground earthen pit to avoid the crossfire," said Hallahan. "The victims had covered the pit with a mattress and suffocated after the tent colony was set on fire. Rumors and exaggerated stories ran rampant. One early, errant newspaper report, for example, said that the suffocated victims had been skewered and roasted to death."
In the ten days that followed, Colorado became a virtual war zone as disgruntled strikers armed themselves, engaged in gun battles, and destroyed mine properties throughout the state’s mining districts. At least two dozen people were killed and numerous others wounded. Colorado Gov. Elias Ammons and other state leaders took nearly 10 days to persuade a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson to send federal soldiers and finally disarm the combatants and restore civil order. Troops remained in Colorado for the rest of 1914-an unprecedented occupation of a state’s jurisdiction.
Press coverage strongly shaped public perceptions when reporters and photographers from Denver swarmed Ludlow and Trinidad to chronicle the devastation, subsequent fighting and funerals of victims, and defined the "Ludlow Massacre" as the event remembered today. According to Hallahan, two of Denver’s leading newspapers – the Denver Post and Denver Times – provided reasonably balanced newspaper coverage. However, the Denver Express, a socialist newspaper, stepped up its continuing condemnation of the strike with sensationalized coverage from Ludlow. The Express was the first newspaper to label the incident a massacre.
"The Rocky Mountain News had sought a settlement of the strike the previous fall under the leadership of its new owner-editor, John C. Shaffer of Chicago. But the editors in Denver couldn’t resist sensationalizing the Ludlow story to attract readers while Shaffer was away in Europe," said Hallahan. "William Chenery’s famous editorial, ‘The Ludlow Massacre’ would define the tragedy for posterity."
Hallahan explained that the UMWA seized the opportunity and union leaders were instrumental in spreading the idea that Ludlow was a massacre and for ascribing blame to greedy, callous and corrupt coalmine owners.
Union leaders quickly launched a massive telegram and letter writing campaign pleading for help from government officials. Walter H. Fink, a publicist for District 15, skillfully supplied information about the victims to the press. He also stepped up a nationwide program of publicity and produced promoted a booklet titled "The Ludlow Massacre" that recounted events from a pro-labor perspective. Advertisements in union publications guaranteed a wide circulation.
"The coal operators in Denver were virtually silent, leaving the union free to define the controversy," Hallahan said.
The burden of telling the coal operators’ side of the story fell to a most unlikely source – John D. Rockefeller Jr. in New York. The Rockefellers owned a 40 percent, non-controlling interest in the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the state’s largest coal operator. Although he was a CF&I director, Rockefeller had paid little attention to the company and had not been in Colorado since 1903.
However, the UWMA recognized that Rockefeller was an attractive target. He and his father were singled out as rich, greedy, absentee owners and painted as responsible for the entire affair, including the death of innocent women and children.
"Obviously the Rockefellers had little or no direct responsibility. Indeed, the Rockefeller family’s ownership of CF&I had been rarely mentioned during the strike," said Hallahan. "Yet attacks on Rockefeller began almost immediately – and were abetted by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s own missteps in the week following Bloody Ludlow."
Rockefeller refused to intercede with the coal operators when an emissary of President Wilson visited him. Rockefeller told Congressman Martin Foster that, consistent with the family’s long-standing practice, responsibility for labor issues and related matters were to be left to CF&I’s managers. In earlier testimony, Rockefeller had absolved himself of any responsibility for the strike in Colorado, stating, "My conscience will acquit me."
Rockefeller’s words would haunt him when press reports were published about his refusal to intercede. Newspaper editorial writers, clergymen, and members of Congress chastised the young Rockefeller for being unsympathetic, uncaring and unpatriotic. Rockefeller later found himself in an all-out effort to vindicate the family’s name and correct the labor problems that had led to the call for union representation.
Hallahan is currently completing a book on John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s response.