Labor grievances and strikes marred Colorado’s coal mining industry

This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Colorado Front Range coal industry was booming. Between the Northern Coal Field (200 coal mines between Marshall and Frederick) and the Southern Coal Field (between Trinidad and Walsenberg), Colorado also saw its share of labor unrest.
Coal miners had many grievances. Miners had to pay for their own work supplies, such as squibs, fuses, and powder for dynamite. They paid a monthly fee for a blacksmith, resident doctor, and the check weighman, who was often accused of under-weighing the coal. Unions fought long and hard for better wages and an eight-hour day instead of ten- and twelve-hour days. In the early years, miners worked by candlelight. The open flame was dangerous because of coal dust and natural gas in the tunnels. The candles were eventually replaced by oil lamps and then carbide lamps (both also with open flames), and finally the much safer battery-powered lamps.

Mother Jones (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Mother Jones

The famous Mother Jones came to Colorado to organize strikes for the coal miners in 1903. According to “Coal Mining in Colorado’s Northern Field” (Carolyn Conarroe), Mother Jones met with miners in Louisville on November 21, 1903. Her intent was to convince these northern field miners to support a southern coal field strike. The southerners made less money than the northerners. The union members decided to support the strike but non-union miners intervened and the northerners ended up not supporting the southern strike.

Mother Jones and Calvin Coolidge (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Mother Jones and Calvin Coolidge

In 1910, all the mines in the northern region (2,700 miners) went on strike for the longest period in coal mining history – four years. The mine owners brought strikebreakers in to work and these men had to live in guarded compounds. The governor sent in the state militia, which made things worse.

In 1913, miners at Ludlow, Colorado called a strike. During a battle between troops and strikers, some of the tents where miners and their families lived were set on fire. Two women and eleven children were subsequently found in the storage pit below one of the tents – all dead. This event is known as the infamous “Ludlow Massacre.”

Ludlow Colony ruins

Ruins of the Ludlow Colony after troops attacked. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Up north, miners were upset about the massacre and tensions in Louisville increased between striking miners and mine guards. The town of Louisville became a war zone, with bullets hitting homes and buildings. Amazingly, only one man was killed. Federal troops arrived in Louisville May 1, 1914 and restored peace, but the strike continued for another seven months.

breaker boys

"Breaker boys," who separated impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker

Years later, in 1927, miners from the Columbine Mine south of Erie went on strike. In late November, a confrontation between strikers and national guardsmen escalated. The strikers began throwing rocks and the guardsmen began shooting. Six unarmed strikers were killed and thirty-six were wounded. A plaque commemorating the dead is located on the south side of Highway 7, about four miles east of Lafayette, two and a half miles east of County Line road.

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One thought on “Labor grievances and strikes marred Colorado’s coal mining industry

  1. “Fire in the Hole” by Sybil Downing illustrates this event and led me to visit the site of the Ludlow Massacre 17 miles northwest of Trinidad. Your blog post illustrates this topic well.

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