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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Killing for Coal

Air Date: Week of

In 1914, a battle between striking coal miners and a Rockefeller-owned mining company claimed 20 lives, and went down in history as part of the epic struggle between capitalist and laborer. But the story of the Ludlow Massacre can be told a different way. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Thomas G. Andrews about his new book "Killing for Coal" and about the role that coal played in setting the scene for America's bloodiest labor war.


GELLERMAN: Coal's been generating controversy for about as long as it's been generating energy.

On April 20th 1914, coal was at the epicenter of the bloodiest battle in US labor history. It’s called the Ludlow Massacre, after the mining town in Southern Colorado where coal miners went on strike demanding better conditions. The Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of striking miners and their families - 20 people were killed - most, women and children.

Thomas Andrews teaches history at the University of Colorado Denver. He chronicles the epic strike and its aftermath in his new book, "Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War." Professor Andrews, welcome to Living on Earth.

Author Thomas G. Andrews.

ANDREWS: Thank you. Great to be here.

GELLERMAN: Let’s talk about the importance of coal, the rock that burns. It basically sets the stage for what you wind up calling an inevitable disaster.

ANDREWS: Right. Coal sort of enabled people to tap into the energy of ancient suns, massive reserves of energy that had been synthesized by the marshlands that had once flourished about 70 million years ago as the Rocky Mountains started to emerge. It actually provided this sort of vast reserve of energy that fueled the development of the western economy. You know, Colorado during the indigenous period and even sort of the early frontier period had been fairly energy scarce. Water power was very difficult to use. Not a lot of timber, so given this sort of energy scarcity, coal turned out to be an economic godsend at least from a capitalist perspective.

GELLERMAN: You site a report by the Denver chamber of Commerce in 1907, that says, “we can not exist without it.”

ANDREWS: Yeah, by the early 20th century, the people of this region had become totally dependent on it. Almost everybody in the region was either a direct or an indirect consumer of coal.

GELLERMAN: I want you to read from your book, if you might, page 84, see where it says, “Had coal suddenly vanished on a winter’s day.”

ANDREWS: Yep. “Had coal suddenly vanished on a winter’s day around 1900, a long forgotten silence would have replaced the clanking, whistling, screeching world of steam. Virtually all train traffic in the West would have stopped, halting the flow of people and goods between hinterlands and metropolis, western cities sand outside markets. Country folk, cut off from so many necessities of life, would have scurried to the pantries and cellars to see how long their stores of food and fuel could last. City dwellers meanwhile would have maneuvered around street cars stopped dead on their tracks. For a time, horse drawn wagons and buggies cob webby with disuse might have been drawn into service. But before long horses, livestock and poultry would have devoured every last vestige of browse, grass and refuse. If the hungry human population had not eaten the animals first that is. Only the trees guarded by force would have remained standing, for people would have needed wood not simply to stave off the cold, but only to cook their diminishing food supplies.”

GELLERMAN: So coal becomes a resource, very rapidly, of life or death.

ANDREWS: Yeah, basically.

GELLERMAN: The coal is discovered there by a geologist called William Jackson Palmer, and he has a real talent for finding coal in these out crops of rocks. And when he looks at the rock he sees in them what he calls an industrial utopia.

ANDREWS: Right. He had this sort of idea that he could create industries where harmony would prevail between capitalist and workers. As he put it there would never be any strikes or hard feelings. And he had this really sort of amazing diverse contradictory background. He had been a highest ranking Quaker in either army during the Civil War. He had a very good background as a businessman , he was also a mining engineer, well versed in geology. But he was also sort of a romantic, a dreamer. And Palmer was the first to sort of confirm the extent and quality of the coal deposits. And he was the first to sort of dream this sort of utopian future for the region, and coal was central to his vision of what the mountain west could become.

GELLERMAN: It was anything but a utopia for the workers, though.

ANDREWS: Yeah. Conditions were very, very difficult. Both underground and on the surface. You know I liken going into a coal mine to going down in a submarine or going out into outer space. These men were going down into places that hadn’t had oxygen for tens of millions of years. And so they were surrounded by this alien environment that posed incredible dangers to them. They were trying to systematically remove an entire strata of the earth without it falling down on top of their heads. When coal dust got into mine air, it sort of dried out and became very explosive. A lot of the mines contained large amounts of methane, falls of rock and coal felled miners almost every day. And they were only paid for work that directly extracted coal. Anything else, all those tasks that might help safe guard their life like setting a proper of timber to hold the roof up over their heads, they didn’t get paid for that for their labor. They always had to make these very very difficult calculations. You know, I mean should they play it safe and at the end of the month have less pay in their envelope to take home to their families. So I think it was a very tense and sort of fraught way of living.

GELLERMAN: I want to fast forward to about 1914. The miners were on strike for months. And the National Guard had been called out by the Governor. You’ve got these goon squads hired by the mines. You have the miners who are armed to the teeth. And then on April 20th 1914, things come to a head, things just ignite. I wonder if you could describe what happened.

ANDREWS: Yeah, I think it was, in my interpretation, this was a situation where both sides had come to expect the very worst from each other. And so you had a fairly small contingent of militiamen. You had a large tent colony. Shots broke out. It’s not clear who fired the first shot, but both sides were basically primed to fight. And at that point it was pretty much go time. Several people were shot over the course of the day. But most of the killing actually consisted of women and children who were asphyxiated when the tent above the cellar in which they’d been sort of secreted away caught fire. There were eleven children and two women who were killed as the fire raged above. And it was really the discovery of those bodies the next day that elevated this into a, you know, sort of event of national significance, and national outrage.

GELLERMAN: And then what ensues is The Great Coalfield War. The miners take revenge.

ANDREWS: Yeah, very much so. A lot of these miners had military backgrounds, you know, from all over the world. They’d fought in the Spanish American War, Italian North African campaigns, the Balkan Wars, other label battles. According to some militia men, the miners were actually better fighters than they were. And it’s remarkable how coordinated the miners were. For ten days they really sort of wreaked havoc in Southern Colorado. Really the sort of, you know, outburst of these pent up grievances.

GELLERMAN: And they take it out on coal.

ANDREWS: Yeah, they do. I mean, I think they were very sort of purposeful in the places that they attacked. So they destroyed six mines. They wiped two company towns off the face of the earth. And they killed upwards of thirty people. And they were well aware of sort of the metabolism of this industrial society. They understood that their labor, you know it was really their labor that made this world go around. And so they understood that by cutting off the flow of energy to the broader society, that was really the best, the strongest lever that they had to secure what they wanted.

GELLERMAN: I didn’t realize what a pivotal role women had played in this. There’s mother Jones, who’s a labor organizer for mines from the East. She comes there and she winds up getting you know arrested. And it’s the women who march onto the governor’s house and in the state capitol and basically bring things to a peaceful end.

ANDREWS: Yeah, there’s this remarkable, essentially a cross-class coalition of women- everyone from the sort of, you know, mucky muck of Denver’s elite to garment workers and people like that and this group of women formed and marched on the capitol and you know, insisted that Governor Elias Ammons telegraph President Woodrow Wilson and you know, the press coverage of this event was really sort of wonderful. They point out that this was sort of what women’s suffrage could really bring, because Colorado had granted women suffrage in 1893, and the popular press kind of took this as a shining example of what politically engaged women could achieve. And they sort of contrasted what women were accomplishing with, you know, the fighting the men were conducting at the same time.

GELLERMAN: And very quickly after that in 1920, women get the right o vote.

ANDREWS: Right, nationwide.

GELLERMAN: It’s interesting that coal bisects so much of the American southwest story and the American story.

ANDREWS: Yeah, you know, I think coal is incredibly significant in American history. And given its significance I’m always shocked when I, you know, open a synthesis of American history or college textbook – coal often isn’t there are all. When it is there it’s just sort of in bits and pieces. And so we have this incredibly crucial substance in our past and in our present and likely in our future that we, I think for the most part, don’t understand particularly well.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor Andrew, thanks a lot. I really appreciate your time.

ANDREWS: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

GELLERMAN: Thomas G. Andrews is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado Denver. His new book about the Ludlow Massacre is called "Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War."

[MUSIC: Woody Guthrie “Ludlow Massacre” from Hard Travelin: The Asch recordings Vol 3 (Smithsonian 1998)]


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in the company of the Bornean Bristlehead. Try saying that THREE times fast!


GELLERMAN: The Bornean Bristlehead is a relative of the wood-swallow – but its head is a covered with bright red bristly feathers, with an orange top-knot. Bristleheads call out continuously as they travel deep into Borneo’s lush rainforest.

Their song comes to us from the Natural History Publications CD, “Voices of the Borneo Rainforest.”



For more about the book “Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War,” click here

For more about Thomas G. Andrews, click here


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