Diarmuid Breatnach

On April 20th 1914, Colorado National Guardsmen and mining company guards opened fire on a striking coal miners’ camp, with rifles and machine gun, killing up to 26 people, including women and children. They had set fire to the camp before opening fire and some of the casualties died of smoke inhalation.


The event and the response of the workers were the inspiration for the song The Ludlow Massacre,  composed by Woody Guthrie, the socialist troubadour from Oklahoma, around 30 years later. Here in Ireland it was recorded by Christy Moore in 1971 on the Prosperous album and it has long been a favourite of mine (I’ll be singing it as part of the selection for Songs of Struggle 1913-1923, part of the 1916 Festival at Liberty Hall on Saturday 26th April 2014).


Ludlow Strikers & tents
Colorado Strikers and families in front of tent town

The massacre took place during the great Southern Colorado Coal Strike which began in September 1913, a month after the strike of the IT&G
WU tram workers began the eight month-long Dublin Lockout. But the Southern Colorado Strike lasted until December 1914 – sixteen months. And, in common with many industrial struggles in the USA, it was very violent.

The chief antagonists in this strike were the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., of which John D. Rockefeller was the main owner; the Rocky Mountain Fuel Co. and the Victor-American Fuel Co.  As events were to show, the mine-owners could also draw on the armed force of the state of Colorado, as well as on their own hired gunmen.

Opposing them was the United Mineworkers of America trade union. The UMA presented seven demands:

  1. Recognition of the union as bargaining agent

  2. An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase)

  3. Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law

  4. Payment for “dead work” (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)

  5. Weight-checkmen elected by the workers (to keep company weightmen honest)

  6. The right to use any store, and choose their boarding houses and doctors

  7. Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of subs), and an end to the company guard system

The employers rejected the demands and prepared to bring in scab labour.

Living in company houses

As in a number of other countries, many mineworkers rented rooms or houses in company “towns” served by company shops, from which the miners also had to buy their equipment. Apart from that, they were also overcharged, so that often at the end of the week’s work the deductions left little pay to collect. This is the meaning behind the song Sixteen Tons (by either Merle Travis in 1946 or by George S. Davis in the 1930s the origin is disputed):

You shift sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cos I can’t come —
I owe my soul to the company store.”

Living in company houses often meant eviction when workers struck work, as happened in Dublin in 1913 to a number of strikers, including those of the Merchant Co. in Merchant Street, near North Wall.

The evicted miners in Colorado set up a tent town of 1,200 people which was being harassed by company guards and then, when the workers resisted, by Colorado state’s National Guard. Pot-shots were taken at the camp and stragglers were beaten up; eventually strike leaders were assassinated.

On April 20th 1914, about eight months into the strike, the Colorado National Guard and company guards set fire to tents and as people scrambled around, opened fire on the camp. Some workers claimed a loss of life of 26 while others numbered it at 19; the lack of municipal or government recording meant that there were no “official” counts of the dead.

Officers Colorado National Guard
Officers of the Colorado National Guard

After the massacre — the workers’ response

 In the aftermath of the massacre the workers armed themselves (union officials were seen openly handing out weapons) and fought back over a 40-mile front, from the town of Trinidad to Walsenburg (both of which are mentioned in the song). The death toll is recorded as between 69 and 199. The lack of municipal or government recording has already been mentioned; biased newspaper reporting was another problem and these two factors probably accounted for most of the discrepancies in accounting for the workers’ dead. 


The UMA eventually lost the strike but the union survived that defeat and went on to fight and win other victories; in addition Congressional investigations into the events did result in improvement in miners’ conditions, the enforcement of the eight-hour day and legislation limiting employment of child labour. Today the Ludlow tent colony site is a USA National Historic Landmark and the area is owned by the UMA. 


The lessons

The strike showed the ferocity of the US mine-owners in defence of their high profits as well as the readiness of municipal and government authorities in a prosperous democracy to collude with them — in the case of Colorado State, most actively and murderously.  Also apparent was the heroism and solidarity of the workers in that long strike and the readiness of at least many of them to meet the capitalists’ violence with their own and to sacrifice their lives if necessary.

Like the Dublin Lockout, which was also a defeat for the ITG&WU, the Southern Colorado Coal Strike showed the necessity for workers and their organisations on occasion to fight losing battles. Apart from it not being possible at the outset to predict the outcome of all struggles, hard fights teach lessons and steel the class in its battles. If workers were to avoid all battles except those they were certain to win, they would fight very few, become weak and lose the ability to fight, to say nothing of carrying out a successful revolution. 

A hundred years ago, the mineworkers in the Southern Colorado coalfields and their families wrote a great chapter in the history of workers’ struggles, even if a lot of the blood in which it was written was their own.

Ludlow Massacre Monument
The Ludlow Massacre Monument, erected by the union 1916
woody guthrie
Woody Guthrie, socialist troubadour, composed the Ludlow Massacre song about 1944.

The Ludlow Massacre by Woody Guthrie

(The lyrics accuse “they” sometimes and “you” at others; I sing “they” or “their” all through, along with a few other minor changes)

It was early springtime that the strike was on
They moved us miners out of doors
Out from the houses that the company owned
We moved into tents at old Ludlow

I was worried bad about my children
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge
Every once in a while a bullet would fly
Kick up gravel under my feet

We were so afraid they would kill our children
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep
Carried our young ones and a pregnant woman
Down inside the cave to sleep

That very night the soldiers waited
Until us miners were asleep
They snuck around our little tent town
Soaked our tents with your kerosene

They struck a match and the blaze it started
They pulled the triggers of their Gatling guns
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me
Thirteen children died from their guns

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner
Watched the fire till the blaze died down
I helped some people grab their belongings
While their bullets killed us all around

I will never forget the looks on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day
When we stood around to preach their funerals
And lay the corpses of the dead away

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President
Tell him to call off his National Guard
But the National Guard belong to the Governor
So he didn’t try so very hard

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back
And put a gun in every hand

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corner
They did not know that we had these guns
And the red neck miners mowed down them troopers
You should have seen those poor boys run

We took some cement and walled that cave up
Where those thirteen children died
I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union”
And then I hung my head and cried.


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