Danger has always surrounded the coal miner’s profession, but in the early years of the Colorado coal fields, it was almost as risky for a worker to stay above ground and face the wrath of the company as it was to toil in the tunnels below. Bill Moyers presents the memories of the people who worked those mines and the depths of their struggles including the 1913 United Mine Workers’ strike and the infamous 1914 Ludlow Massacre.
SONG: On the east side of the Rockies
Colorado is rich in coal
And the story of the miners
Of Colorado should be told.
WILLIAM LLOYD: My name is William Henry Lloyd, and I’m 84 years old going on 85. I was born in 1893 in England.
ALEX BISULCO: There was a lot of hardship and everything. They was broke. A miner never could save anything.
JIM DIAMANTE: But if you take it step-by-step, it’s been really a rough go. We’ve had some very, very lean years. Very lean years.
Colorado, it was a poor place
To raise a family in the 1910’s
And the miners of Colorado
Were poor, hard-working men.
MARTHA TODD: Coal miners lived a hard life, a very hard life. They played hard. Everything pertaining to their lives was hard.
ALFRED OWENS: They would have dances and things like that. You’d have places to go to. And well, of course, it isn’t like now. The mines are all shut down. There’s nothing here, but just old people.
BILL MOYERS: Just old people, but where there are old people, there are memories, and through these memories run the veins of the American past like seams of coal winding deep within the rock of the earth. In this broadcast you’ll meet some people who helped to build America by putting the pick to that rock, and freeing its treasure for the industrial expansion of the 20th century. This is their story. It’s the story of struggle. They had to wrest their livelihood from the stubborn earth, and their rights from men even more obstinate. I’m Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Our story takes place in that part of the Old West where the Rockies meet the prairies in Southern Colorado. If you don’t live there, and not many of us do, your idea of that country was perhaps forged as mine was by the tales of Kit Carson, and Jim Bridger, and cowboys and Indians of Hollywood. It was the wild, wild West. Bat Masterson was the sheriff at Trinidad, the biggest town around. Farmers fought cattlemen, cattlemen fought sheep herders, and there were shoot-outs just like those in the movies. But there was in those parts another way of life that doesn’t fit the romanticized images of the Old West. I mean the life of the coal miner.
BILL MOYERS: Few people remember that by the turn of the century, Colorado was one of the most important coal-producing states in the Union. The first nine had opened just after the Civil War. And when the railroad arrived in 1879, Trinidad became a boom town. There was a shortage of labor in those vast spaces, so thousands of newcomers flocked in to do the work.
Many of them were immigrants. They came directly from the Old World to this remote corner of the new, where the shimmering dreams of El Dorado, gold in them thar hills, Pike’s Peak or bust had given way to the dark shaft in which men and mules brought forth coal to feed the growing appetite of industrialization. They drilled a rock face with a breast auger like that one, and then filled the hole with explosives. They used the pick to extract the coal. And there are days were numbered, literally.
BILL MOYERS: When the miner had filled the coal car, he put his number on it, so that the check weighman outside could measure the fruits of his labor and record it. His total determined his pay. Number five, number 30, number 47 and so on, these were the coin of their lives. The numbers remain, the miners are gone. The boom towns went bust. But although the mines are gone we have the memories of the miners and their families.
The University of Colorado recently set out to record an oral history of these men and women, and we’ve worked with the university with Eric Margolis and his colleagues to bring you their story. Listen carefully. The events happened early in our century. Our narrators are old. Their many different accents testify to the multitudinous making of America.
AMICARELLA: On June the 3rd, I graduated out of eighth grade. On June the 6th, my mother had my lunch pail ready work in the mine.
JIM DIAMANTE: I started in the mining business, not in the business itself as a miner, at the age of 13. Actually, I was so young I was afraid of the dark.
Come all you young people,
So young and so fine
And seek not your fortune
In the dark, dreary mine
It will form as a habit
And seep in your soul
Till the blood of your body
Runs black as the coal
For it’s dark as a dungeon
And damp as the dew
Where the dangers are double
And the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls
And the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mines.
EARL STUCKER: I like to look back and think of the families, and the type quality of people. We had all nationalities, I think, up there except probably Eskimos. We had many from Europe, Italian, Slav, and people, first and second generation people from Europe working in the mines.
MAE BIKAKIS: When we come in this country, me and my mother and my sister, we’d come into New York, and we were staying at Ellis Island. You know where that is? Over there, we stayed there one month until we get a permission to proceed.
ALEX BISULCO: Oh, my gosh, they had a difficult time. I think it took over a month on that ship. It was a long, long miserable ride. They was glad to land that’s all. They were happy when they finally got off of them boats.
MAE BIKAKIS: There was agencies then, and if you wanted to come, you’d write to these fellows, and they’d make all the arrangements for you and bring you here. And they’d have a job for you. Because I was talking to my father one time and I said, how come you passed all these big cities and you come to Preiss? He says because I come COD. That’s my destination. He said when I got on, I had to stop in Preiss. This fellow had made all the arrangements, sent him his ticket to come out. Then they come out, and get a job, and work so long, pay him off, and then they were on their own.
JIM DIAMANTE: I had a large percentage of people that came from Europe, really, came here because they had daughters or sisters. They came over here to work to get enough money for a dowry. They just didn’t have enough money. That’s the reason they came. They were going to work a year or two and go back. And, of course, they stayed and stayed. A lot of them wound up in the cemeteries.
ALEX BISULCO: These mines were all just getting started then. They was just opening up, and there was a lot of work. They was building the camps, and railroads, and mine. And so they start sending for each other, and they worked their way up to Colorado.
AMICARELLA: My dad used to tell me that he worked in Austria or Siberia somewheres, but when he came here, he was a foreigner. He couldn’t talk English. So they’d let him go with somebody that couldn’t talk very much either. When he went to get his pay, he didn’t know what the hell he was getting paid for, how much he was supposed to receive. Right? So they did him neck and neck tie. That’s the way it was in them days. And where we lived there at Sunlight, you built your own log cabin. And you paid rent on the goddamn thing. How do you like that?
THOMAS BIGGS: My dad could get more money in England before he left there than he could when he got here. Didn’t have to live in the same old kind of shacks they had here either. Didn’t have to put up with all the guff. If you looked the wrong way, down the canyon for you.
JAMES DIAMANTI: Of course, you’ve got to understand in those days, foreigners weren’t accepted. Especially the Greeks, and Italians. The goddamn Greeks and the dirty dagos. They were not accepted. If you didn’t dare to step out of line to talk to, you weren’t even classified as being white.
AMICARELLA: Here’s another thing. These guys would come over from England, didn’t have their citizenship papers. They’d make more money, they lived in the best houses, and had the best conditions, because they could defend themselves. My dad couldn’t defend himself, because he didn’t know the English language. My grandfather couldn’t defend himself.
BILL MOYERS: Whatever dreams of a new life drove them here, the immigrants soon found they were part of a system that resembled the feudalism of Medieval Europe, trapped like vassals and hostage to the Lord of the Manor. Only this was industrial feudalism. To mine coal in such isolated areas, the big companies like Colorado Fuel and Iron had to build their own towns.
They expected to make a profit on the capital invested in the mines, and profits as well from the housing and services they provided the workers. Immigrants arriving with little except the clothes on their backs had to buy their tools, rent a place to live, and put food on the table for their families. The only place to buy anything was the company store.
BARRON BESHOAR: Everything in these canyons was company. There was the company store, the company-sponsored band. The company minister. Everything was paid for and owned by the company.
JOHN VALDEZ: When I started in, it was pretty damn rough, I tell you. And then we used to trade a the company store. Well, you had to eat. Statement made sometimes you got a dollar, dollar and a half, and then you got a snake. And that happened many a times.
JOHN VALDEZ: A snake. Nothing coming. The company kept it all.
QUESTION Why you’d call it a snake.
JOHN VALDEZ: Because they’d just put a line like that. Just like that right off where it says balance, what you’re supposed to get. Because they take your car buy, they take your potter, they take your grocery for whatever you bought. Everything came out of there. Lights and all and everything. House rent, everything if you rented a house. They take everything before you’ve seen your statement.
AMICARELLA: The first paycheck I got in 1916 was script, a five cent piece looks like a $5 bill. The bigger the denominations, the smaller the bill.
KATE LIVODA: When my father got paid, he got paid in script, because he was not supposed to buy out of the camp. So he would get what we could get there at the company store, and they can charge you whatever they wanted, and you were always in the red with them.
STEVE SURISKY: Everything was cheap, yes. You get a pound of bacon for $0.15, $0.20. Beans $0.10 a pound. But you didn’t have the $0.10 or $0.25 to get the stuff. You didn’t have the money.
JAMES DIAMANTI: We’ve had some very, very lean years. I remember when we were kids, we ate potatoes and macaroni. And the only eggs we ate, we got out of our chicken coop, and we had a cow we milked.
ALEX BISULCO: We had spaghetti pretty near every night, because you had to like it. And the only meat we saw when they go down and catch a jack rabbit, something like that.
MARTHA TODD: Coal miners lived a hard life, a very hard life. They played hard. Everything pertaining to their lives was hard. And we took some mighty brave women to have lived with it, through it all. And I have marveled and my grandmother. When she came across to the United States from Pennsylvania to Walsenburg with a little tiny baby in her arms, she didn’t know what she was coming to.
The coal miners, as a rule, all had big families. The family of five was a small family. I’ve heard of families of 12 and 15 children. Though women washed clothes on the washboard. They baked their own bread. They did their canning, and all the cooking, the sewing.
ALEX BISULCO: When I look back and see how those women could raise those kids, and do those housework, I can’t see how they did it. I don’t see how they could not go bugs. Washing clothes by hand on the board. Go haul the water, go haul the buckets and things. No hydrants, no water in the house, no two-seater can out there and all that kind of stuff. I don’t see how they did it.
MARTHA TODD: The girls, just as soon as they were able to take care of a baby, were kept home. They didn’t get to go to school very much. The girls could help mama wash the clothes. And, of course, just as soon as the girls would reach an age where they could get away from home, they would go into the boarding houses to work. And I know a woman that worked for $1.25 a week as a girl. She worked for that until she was married. There was no child labor laws in those days, and the boys were taken into the mine 11, 12, 13 years old.
EARL STUCKER: The present day miner wouldn’t recognize what it was like. We were pick miners. We used picks. There were no machines. And we blasted our coal, we’d undercut it or side cut it, and then blast it, and load it. With that, we had to lay our own track, do our own drilling, set our own props.
JACK MILLER: You done your own drilling. You drilled your own holes with the breast auger. This is all hand, muscle work.
SHINE MILLER: And there was none of this here stuff like nowadays. Electric primers and all that crap. You shot with a squib, a needle. You tamp…put the needle in your powder, see, back the hole, a long copper needle. And then you took and wet some slack, and threw it in with your hand, and tamp it with a tamping board. Well, then you laid your squib in the hole, and lit it with a carbide light and took off.
JACK MILLER: Sometimes you got away far enough, and sometimes you didn’t.
SHINE MILLER: Got sprinkled a little.
JACK MILLER: If it went off, what you done, you fell down and covered you face up like this, and that coal would hit you in the back and the rear end, and everywhere else.
ALEX BISULCO: A lot of miners don’t know what a squib is, because that was about the oldest style of shooting with a squib. But these are like a firecracker. We’d put them in a hole here, and that’s what set the powder off. You see here, we’d bend this tail down like this, and put it in front of the hole like this. And we’d get the carbide lamp and light it like that, and this thing would take off and go blast the powder, the black powder. And we had to work in all that smoke and everything, and dust. You couldn’t see in front of you, but we worked anyhow, and that’s how we got it done.
Well I got up one morning
The sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel
And I went to the mine
I loaded 16 tons of that number 4 coal
The face boss said, “well bless my soul.”
Sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me
For I can’t go
‘Cause I owe my soul to the company store.
ALEX BISULCO: I was one of the smallest drivers in the whole mine, and I had the biggest mule in the mine, Sam mule. It was a beautiful thing. I had a steep place to pull out of, and I had to have a good, big strong mule. And I had the biggest mule in the mines. They kept them in there all the time. They had a big stable with lights and everything in there. We harnessed them and unharnessed them, and they stayed in there all the time. There was one mule named, Jack. He used to come there while we’d eat lunch, and he’d eat all the sandwiches, bananas, everything we gave him. They were just beautiful. There was some mean ones.
We drivers wore these around our necks like that. And if the mule needed whipping, well, they sure got it. And some of us could hit a grasshopper from here to over there with a popper like that. Yeah, them old style. They made us quit using these after. They wouldn’t let us. It was inhumane. And so they made us quit using them.
ALEX BISULCO:All we could use was this fag. That’s all they’d let us use on the mules then. But some of the drivers lose their patience, and they’d beat them over the head even with this thing. We used to have balking mules. They’d balk. They refused to walk. They was unionized before some of us.
We’d drivers had maybe six or 10 men, and we had to keep up our turn, and maybe beat our miners out of a car or two. That meant a lot. And so, having this old balky mule and make me fall behind with the turn with the men. And so, by jingle, I just lose my patience sometimes, and I’d really beat up on her. And she’d just stall there, and bite around and everything. And all at once she’d take off, and I had to jump on the car and catch her. And oh, that was terrible. There was balky mules was awful, worse than any balking woman you ever saw.
My sweetheart’s the mule of the mines
I drive her without any lines
On the bumper I set
And I chew and I spit
All over my sweetheart’s behind.
AMICARELLA: If a mule was accidentally killed…Boy, you got hell. You got hell, and they closed that end of the mine down. Let a miner get hurt, and they say, oh well, they’ll hire another next day. That’s right. Ah, that’s just the way it happened fellas. There was no respect given at all.
BARRON BESHOAR: The men worked long hours. They were underpaid. They lived in closed camps. They could have no personal freedom. They couldn’t vote as they pleased. They were captives, literally, captives in the coal camps in these canyons. They were cheated at the weigh scales. They were cheated on what they loaded underground. They were cheated dead work. They had to pay for the dead work themselves. And conditions were, generally abominable.
JAMES DIAMANTI: I recall when I was working underground, 10 hours at the face. You walked in on your own time, or you went in on your own time. You ate a lunch on your own time. Came out on your own time.
EARL STUCKER: We had to do all the dead work. Pick the bone and rock, and keep the coal clean. If a substantial amount of rock, a bone would show up in coal, you were docked. They docked you.
JACK MILLER If your car went out, and they found a chunk of rock, all big as a silver dollar round and that thick, the first time they fined you $0.50. They had a bucket, and they’d put your check number on there, and put this rock in that bucket. The second time, if they found any rock in your coal like that, they charged you $1. The third time, put your tools on the car, you’re through. You cleaned that coal for nothing. For nothing.
EARL STUCKER: You had no recourse. The company weighed the coal, and we didn’t know how much it weighed. We didn’t have a check weighman. I think there was an antique law that said you were entitled to a check weighman, but god help you if you tried to get one, because you didn’t have any Union to represent you.
AMICARELLA: When that car hit the scales, it went 5,000 pounds, right? Well, they’d give you 4,800. Or if it went 5,200, they’d give you 5,000. Until the miners got their own check weighman. See they used to pay for their damn operating of the mine off of the sweat of the miner.
You’ve been docked and docked again boys
You’ve been loading two for one
What have you to show for working
Since this mining has begun
Watch the rocks they’re falling daily
Careless miners always fail
Keep your hand upon the dollar
And your eye upon the scale.
BARRON BESHOAR: All these mines were gaseous and dangerous. And they had a great many explosions. Many, many, many hundreds of miners were killed in this field over the course of its life.
HENRY LLOYD: Well, there was two killed in Boncarbo while I was there. One was a timber man, and the other one was a nipper see. This timber man had no business getting killed. See he went in and pulled the timber out of the places, and he’d stand around watching it like a big dummy. And when the darn place started to come in, then he started to run. And when a big rock come down a cross cut there, and slid across and hit him on the side of the head and broke his neck. See, as he went to turn, see when he went to turn, with that force you see, it broke his neck. Before he died, he had a chewed tobacco in his mouth, and the fellas were right there, and he said take this chewing tobacco out of my mouth. So they took the chewing tobacco out of his mouth, and that was it.
JACK MILLER: And all at once, there was a roar, and it was what they call a chimney of this soapstone formed right over where we was at. And that all broke loose and caved in. I don’t know how I got up against the face, the solid, but there was a little overhang about that much solid that didn’t break off.
About 65 ton of rock come down, and I was against that base. It caught my legs, feet, knocked my lamp, broke my hat, but I was still alive. And I didn’t know what happened to the other guys see. So I listened real close to see if I could hear any rock giving higher up, see. And it kept a dripping and falling, and dripping and falling until this fall of rock was, oh hell, almost as high as that house there.
JACK MILLER: And the entry was about eight feet, about nine feet wide right there, I guess. And it just come down and filled that all up but this one little place to go over. And I worked my legs loose and feet, and I listened. And she let up. She kind of eased. I couldn’t hear anything. And I made a run for the top of that, and hit the top, and I just fell and rolled downhill the side.
And I don’t know, maybe 20, 25 cars more give way up there and filled her up right where I just got out of there. It wasn’t my time, see, my number wasn’t up yet. When I got out, asked this one fellow, Tony Cruz was his name. I said Tony, where’s Jim at? He said, well, Jim went by here running that way. And I went down there, and I couldn’t find Jim no place.
JACK MILLER: And I come back, and I looked all over, and I went to the next — there was a machine working below us, and I went down there, and I asked them fellas if they’d seen Jim. No, they hadn’t see Jim. They said, what happened? I said the place caved in up there, and I think he’s under. I think it caught him. And we started digging him out. I went and got that crew down there, and we loaded that rock out. And they found him along the right-hand wall.
BARRON BESHOAR: When a miner was killed in one of these mines either in an explosion or a car got away and he was hit by it, or some other cars, And, of course, there are all sorts of ways to get yourself maimed or killed in a coal mine. They had a beautiful system. The coroner who owed his office to the coal company, would select a coroner’s jury, and he would select coal company superintendents, people who were beholding to the coal company, to serve on that jury. And invariably, and I use that word advisedly, they found with the miner came to his death through his own negligence. And there was one period in there — I’ve forgotten the exact number of years, but 15, 20 years, there was not a single exception to that. All of them died by their own negligence.
BILL MOYERS: There was no job more dangerous than the work of these men. Almost 3,000 miners lost their lives in 1913 alone. But although there’d been statewide strike since 1884, conditions remained much the same. So more miners begin to agitate. What they wanted seems now so modest. Better safety, an eight hour day, a check weighman to assure honesty on the scales, and an end to the company store and the tyranny of scrip.
The way to get these things they thought was to organize, to join up with the United Mine Workers of America. But to talk about it was risky, and actually, working as a union organizer could get you beaten or even killed. Some men dared it, nonetheless, men like Mike Lavoda. He’d been a union man in Montana.
BILL MOYERS: When he came to Colorado 1910, he worked at what was called an inside man. Someone who went into the mines to dig for coal while secretly keeping his eyes and ears open for sympathizers. If he heard miners grumbling about conditions and wishing for a union, he would pass their names on to an outside organizer who would then try to sign up the prospects. Management has its spies, too, and Mike Lavoda paid for his efforts with a nighttime beating. He was lucky. Others paid with their lives. But by now, 1913, the organizers felt strong enough to strike back.
MIKE LIVODA: I talked with a fella that was connected with the Union. I said you think we ought to do something with these men? He said will you? I said, well, I’ll try. And I took the job to organize the miners. It was dangerous. I got caught one night in the camp.
I went in about 7 o’clock, and decided to over. I used to go in and get out at night. And I decided to stay over to see some men at 4 o’clock in the morning, before they went into the mine. But midnight, here comes the five thugs in there, and cut me up. And the first thing is a guy hit me and he broke my nose, and kicking and hitting head. They thought, possibly, that I would — but I was pretty rough myself at that time. And the only thing that they did is broke my nose, but I got it fixed up, and paid $75 to get it fixed.
BARRON BESHOAR: Secret meetings were held in these hills at night. And, of course, as more and more came into the Union, why the thing became more and more open. The organization of the Southern Colorado field here didn’t happen overnight. It took a matter of many, many months, ran into two or three years to really get the thing organized to the point where the Union felt that it was strong enough to face the companies.
When the strike was called, the Unions were prepared to have their people evicted from the coal camps. And in advance, they had purchased tents, and stoves, and everything to set up tent colonies down on the prairies on free ground. It was not company ground.
BARRON BESHOAR: So when the time came, the company did evict them. And the guards came to the houses, and they’d throw their beds and everything out into the street, and tell them to get moving. And then began the sorrowful processions down these canyons. And it was exodus. Once in the camps, they were organized.
They had officers in charge. For example, at Ludlow, the Greek miner, Louis Tikas. They had regular routines set up as to how they would feed, how they had wash days. It was set up very much like an army camp. And they had a large recreation tent. They gave concerts, the various nationalities. They had their own musical instruments, and then played Bocce, the Italian ball game. They played baseball. They had all sorts of things, activities for all ages.
BARRON BESHOAR: Each camp being at the mouth of the canyon where the coal was mined by the company was in itself a picket line. It was an intimidating sort of thing to have these camps with dozens and dozens of tents, and thousands of miners and their families in them blocking, you might say, the entrance to the canyon going up to the mine.
BILL MOYERS: When the miners of Southern Colorado voted to strike in September, 1913, the operators vowed to run the mines with nonunion labor. They had the advantage, actually, because the coal market was in a slump, and with production already cut substantially, the companies could afford a protracted struggle. Neither side budged. And all through one of the worst winters in Colorado history, the strikers held on in their ragged tent colonies.
More than once, deep snows collapsed the tents. Then, when the thaws came, the ground turned to mud, mud up to the knees. When the company ordered strike breakers into the mines, the men in the camps resisted, and there were frequent clashes with company guards. The Union organized picket marches to try to arouse public support and parades were held in Trinidad and Denver.
BILL MOYERS: Who should turn up at the head of the march than the little woman in the black bonnet, Mary Harris Jones, the legendary Mother Jones. She was 83 years old now. She’d come as a child from Ireland to the United States in 1835. She taught school, married a member of the Iron Motors Union in Tennessee. And after the death of her husband and four children in the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, she had dedicated her life to the labor movement.
The industrialists and capitalists of the day never had a more resolute adversary. When she showed up in the earlier coal fuel strikes, the miners had called her their angel. Mother Jones said, nothing doing, she was there to raise hell. Nothing scared her as long as she could help her boys wherever there was a fight. Well, there was a fight in Southern Colorado, and Mother Jones was there.
WILLIAM LLOYD: She was a good fighter for laboring men, and she was fighting for the laborer all the time, Mother Jones. And, of course, she may have not done no dirty dishes, but she sure did a lot of good work for the Union.
KATE LIVODA: She was a little woman, very small. And when she made a speech, you could hear everywhere. Her voice just carried. She had a very strong voice, but sometimes she would condemn the women for not standing back of their men as they should. But a lot of those women were people from the old country, too, and they were not accustomed to going forward with things. There’s a hill between Aguilar and Ludlow, and we call it Mother Jones’ hill. She got up there and made a talk to all of them. And everyone listened to Mother Jones. And she wasn’t afraid of the devil. She’d walk right in front of the horses or anything. She didn’t have any fear for anyone.
WILLIAM LLOYD: I was in Denver, and they had a meeting at the Union Hall in Denver down on, I forget what street it was on now. It was a long time ago. Mother Jones was there. And the day before, we had this meeting. She wanted them to march on the State Capital to Governor Ammons. They wouldn’t do it, and Mother Jones got up, and she took that little old cape — she wore a little black cape, and she took that off, and beat her fists on the desk there, and she said, damn the governor, damn you, she said. If you had listened to me we would have marched on the Capital this morning. Tomorrow morning we’re marching. When we started out, there wasn’t very many at the time. We got the State Capital, we were about 500 strong. With the Ludlow flag on one side, and the American flag on the other, and Mother Jones in the lead singing, Union Forever.
MOTHER JONES: We are going to stay here in Southern Colorado until the banner of industrial freedom floats over every coal mine. We are going to stand together and never surrender.
BILL MOYERS: After the rally in Denver, Mother Jones announced that she was returning to the southern coal fields. General chase at the Colorado militia banned her from Trinidad. She is dangerous, because she inflames the minds of the strikers, he said. She scoffed at their fear of an old woman, and then slipped into Trinidad at night. But the next morning, she was arrested and held in a hospital room under military guard.
BARRON BESHOAR: On January 23rd, the women of Los Angeles County organized a demonstration and parade on behalf of Mother Jones. Parade permission was obtained from General Chase after great difficulty. The long line of shabbily dressed women and children moved across the picket wire river bridge and up to Trinidad’s commercial street.
Three blocks east on Main Street, a line of cavalry was drawn across the street. General Chase mounted on a fine looking cavalry horse sat in front of his men facing the oncoming parade. The head of the parade reached the cavalry men. Part of the women were making their way between the mounted troopers, several women gave a triumphant yell. An officer rode up to Chase, but before he could speak, the general’s horse became frightened and backed into a parked buggy. General Chase fell off. Red-faced and angry, General Chase climbed stiffly to his feet, and yelled at his men, ride down the women. The riot aroused the state as nothing had before.
EARL STUCKER: The 1913, ’14 strike was, in effect, a battle. It was a war. 20,000 rifles, Winchester rifles were sent to Colorado, by Friends of the Miners in Colorado to protect themselves against gun thugs, company guards, state militia, where they had actual war in Southern Colorado.
ALEX BISULCO: They sent a lot of rifles for the strikers from back East.
BARRON BESHOAR: 30-30s.
BARRON BESHOAR: Yeah, 30-30s.
BARRON BESHOAR: Trinte-trinte.
ALEX BISULCO: I helped unpack and everything. Us kids was into everything. And every time they’d shoot a scab, we’d run down and see. And I seen some bloody heads, and some dead ones.
FRANK HARENBER: I saw three or four men shot right on Commercial and Main Streets.
ERIC MARGOLIS: Really?
FRANK HARENBER: Oh yeah. Well, they had, I think they called it some detective agency from Virginia had some of their men in here. And I saw two or three of their men shot and killed. And I saw any number of murders around.
BARRON BESHOAR: The armed guards, and the thugs employed by the coal companies were on the streets. So they were harassing miners and their families. The CF&I Company had gone to Virginia and imported the, made a contract with the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, which had gone into the slums of New York, and Chicago, and hired gunmen and thugs and brought them out to Colorado.
WILLIAM LLOYD: Me and George Harman were with the first guy that was killed in the Southern Colorado coal strike.
QUESTION: Where was that?
WILLIAM LLOYD: We got off the train in Trinidad and walked up to Commercial Street, and we started up Commercial Street. And we were going up through there, and a fella by the name of Lippiatt who had come down from Denver. He was an organizer. And two fellows walked out with guns out from the pawn shop there, stepped out with guns and stopped Lippiatt. But me and George walked on up the street a little. We hadn’t walked very far until they started to shooting. And they shot Lippiatt down, and he fell in the middle of the street.
BARRON BESHOAR: 11 days after the strike began a Camp Marshall in Segundo was killed in retaliation for a miner who’d been killed earlier in Trinidad. Two days later began the first phase of the operators campaign to have the State Militia sent to the coal fields.
WILLIAM LLOYD: Oh, they were nothing but a bunch of scrums. That’s all the militia was, a bunch of scrums they pick up off the streets. There weren’t no trained men. Just because they had that uniform on, they thought everybody down there had to recognize the uniform. I’ve got no use for the militia. I never will have. Because one of them hit my dad over the head, and he was walking on the Main Street in Trinidad. Just walking.
FRANK HARENBER: You’d be walking down the street, and somebody would step out and shoot somebody. Just because they were a striker, a militia, and they didn’t kill any militia men that I know of. But they were all — the miners didn’t like the militia, of course, because the militia was brought in to protect the CF&I or the property owners, you see.
BARRON BESHOAR: The militia were intimidating the people at the tent colony. They would ride by on their horses, and shout implications at them. They would go by in their cars and fire into the tents. And they did such little tricks as getting rusty barbed wire and stuffing it down the wells where the people got their water.
CAROLINE TOMSIC: You had to go out to the wells to get your drinking water. You had to carry it in in a pail. And she said the militia would sit there, and sneak out at night to try to get their drinking water, and they’d shoot holes in their buckets.
BARRON BESHOAR: Anything went as far as they were concerned if it intimidated the people. This caused the people in the tent colony to dig pits under their tents. And then put a flooring over them, and a trap door. And whenever they heard shots going through their tents, then they would drop into these pits, so that bullets crossing through the colony couldn’t hit them, and they were protected.
On March 10, 1914, a nonunion miner was found dead on the railroad tracks near the tent colony at Forbes. General Chase announcing the strike breaker had been murdered used the incident as an excuse to totally destroy the Forbes’ tent colony. Eight miles away, the 1,200 strikers at the Ludlow colony watch the smoke rise from the burning tents at Forbes. Would Ludlow be the next to suffer?
DONALD MITCHELL Well I heard it was going to happen by that radio man. He told me, he said, there’s going to be trouble at Ludlow in the morning. And I said, what do you mean, trouble? He said, I seen them planting machine guns. It was a moonlight night, see, along the railroad track. Well, the railroad track, if you noticed down there, right here, when that tent colony was right here, see. Right here, and the railroad track here. He said they was planting machine guns along there.
BARRON BESHOAR: Suddenly, firing started. It was 10:01 AM exactly.
STEVE SURISKY: A bullet hit the rail, lands from the rail, and comes back and hit me in the heel. But it just hit me through the heavy part of my shoe, and it stuck right there.
KATE LIVODA: Tikas, he wanted to have them honor the women and children for their safety. And he started over, and he had a white flag on a little stick. And they kept telling him come on, come on, they’d talk to him. And when he got close enough they killed him.
ALEX BISULCO: And one of the men was up along the railroad track, and all that shooting. He was shooting it out with them, while some of these guys sneaked in with brooms and things flaming, and they set the tent colony on fire.
JOHN TOMSIC: When they burnt this tent colony, why these kids, the whole families of them went down this one place. It was a pretty big cellar. When they come there, and started pouring this gas and stuff on these tents, why these kids and women tried to come up out of there. They just shoved them back down in there.
DAN DESANTIS: And then the floor started to burn, and the smoke got down there, so they were forced to come out. When they come out of there, there was women with the children. There was one woman with a three or four months baby. Those god-darned guys, they…when the women come out, he was to hit them with a bayonet, he kill them all. And he hold him up in the air with it. And that was a disgrace.
ALEX BISULCO: The train man realized what was going on, and that’s what saved a lot of women and children. He slowed the train down. It was just at a slow walking pace, and all these guys, strikers and everything, they followed the train, and that’s the way they escaped. Until they got two of those ditches. There was a deep ditch there, and they all got in that ditch, and they beat it down to the Black Hills they call that.
BARRON BESHOAR: Now a lot of things happened. Ludlow is still smoking. The rescue teams and the Red Cross people are starting to get in there, and they began to remove the bodies.
ALEX BISULCO: We went down the next day. There was nothing but smoke and ruins, old coal stoves, bed springs, bed stands, and wash tubs, and things like that. Meager things that they had. It was a miserable, terrible sight. Looked like a graveyard.
BARRON BESHOAR: I saw the funeral of the Ludlow victims. There were white coffins of the children were put on a large grave pulled by horses. And they were taken to the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Trinidad for the requiem, and I can see the grave moving through the cemetery. And as the bells tolled, there was more than 1,000 fierce faced men were moving through the hills of Las Animas and Huerfano county. At one point there, after the massacre at Ludlow, the miners took Trinidad. And my sight, the thing I see, is my father who was a very young man. He took my mother and me in his car, open car, and he drove proudly around Trinidad. And on each corner, there’s stood a stalwart miner with his red bandana and his rifle.
Yea… we’ll remember bloody Ludlow
As the miners’ victory
‘Cause they fought back
Yeah, we’ll remember bloody Ludlow
As the miners’ victory
‘Cause they fought back.
BARRON BESHOAR: The Union’s forever.
ALEX BISULCO: You better believe it. That’s right. Union Forever.
BARRON BESHOAR: Down with the militia and up with the law. Can you sing it?
ALEX BISULCO:We sang that song until my tonsils hurt.
BARRON BESHOAR: There were a lot of different versions of that song, weren’t there?
ALEX BISULCO: I’d say there was. Yes, there was.
BARRON BESHOAR: Sometimes it was down with the militia. To hell with the law.
ALEX BISULCO:That’s right, that’s right.
BARRON BESHOAR: We’re coming Colorado.
ALEX BISULCO: And we’re coming all the way.
BARRON BESHOAR: Shouting —
ALEX BISULCO: The battle —
BARRON BESHOAR: Cry? On Union. You remember?
ALEX BISULCO: Right. Yeah, I sure a number of us sang it and sang it.
BARRON BESHOAR: Good days.
ALEX BISULCO: Yeah, great days.
BILL MOYERS: 53 people were killed in the Ludlow massacre, including two women and 11 children. The news spurred an almost universal revulsion toward the mine operators. Unions all over the country sent money, and in some cases, guns to aid the strikers. In their rage at the killing of women and children, the miners attacked and burned company properties up and down Colorado’s front range. Dozens of mine guards, militia, and strike breakers were killed in pitched battles.
The 10-days War as it came to be known was open class warfare, and the miners seemed to be winning. The governor of Colorado was forced to appeal to President Woodrow Wilson who dispatched federal troops to restore peace to the coal fields. Both miners and militia would disarm by the regular army, and uneasy truce was imposed.
BILL MOYERS: The tent colony at Ludlow was rebuilt. But the Union ran out of funds, and on the 7th of December, 1914 the strike ended with no concessions from the companies. Conditions in the Colorado mines didn’t begin to improve very much until many years later, in the 1930s, when the right to collective bargaining was established by law, and the miners voted in the United Mine Workers.
It was a long hard fight for a better way of life. And we forget today how bad conditions were then, and how the men and their families struggled to change them. Today the fires have quenched in the great blast furnaces and open hearths of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The coal mines are closed. Little remains to remind us of those bloody, bitter times, except a ghost town or two and the memories of a few people old enough to remember. Soon, they will be gone, too. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.