Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School Massacre of 1999. In an odd and unhappy quirk of history, this appalling event shares its name with an earlier mass killing in Colorado—the 1927 Columbine Mine Massacre, which happened only forty miles away. It is even more ironic that the school shooting occurred on the very same date as yet another mass killing in Colorado’s labor wars—one of the most important, and yet seldom-remembered, episodes in American history: the Ludlow Massacre.
On Monday, April 20, 1914, elements of the Colorado National Guard, acting on behalf of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, a Rockefeller concern, and other coal companies, assaulted a tent colony at Ludlow, a small hamlet in southern Colorado, where striking coal miners and their families had taken up residence after being evicted from company-owned housing. After provoking a lengthy gun battle with armed strikers, guardsmen engulfed the colony in gunfire and finally overran it. Their actions that day killed twenty-one men, women, and children, all of them striking miners and their families. Fifteen women and children died in a cellar where they had taken shelter, suffocated when the tent above them was burned down by the guardsmen. Three union men, including Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant who led the strike, were captured and murdered by the guardsmen.
The Ludlow Massacre occurred amid a year-long struggle between striking miners affiliated with the United Mine Workers of America and the coal companies and their allies. The walkout had begun the previous year and extended along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to the Wyoming border. When all was said and done, it left at least seventy-five people, and maybe many more, dead. Notwithstanding the events at Ludlow, the strikers, whose ranks included many well-armed veterans of the Balkan Wars, held their own in the fighting. After Ludlow, they took the offensive, overrunning mine after mine and deploying guerilla tactics to seize control of large parts of strike zone. But when the UMWA finally called off the strike in December 1914, it conceded to the fact that the strikers had already met defeat—not least because President Woodrow Wilson, a Progressive who often professed his support for union people, had dispatched the U.S. Army to bring “peace” in the region.
This episode rivals another labor dispute a few years later in West Virginia as the most serious outbreak of civil disorder in America since the Civil War. The signature event in this conflict, the Ludlow Massacre is also a stunning example of the intensity of class struggle in American history. It should be remembered much better than it is—which is why, if you are ever in southern Colorado, driving along Interstate 25 north of Trinidad, you should take a few minutes to visit the place where this awful event unfolded. Owned by the UMWA and only a couple of minutes from the highway, the site is a National Historic Landmark. Situated on a quiet place on the prairie, just at the edge of the foothills, it features a moving memorial and is a good place to spend time reflecting, as Upton Sinclair once said, on what capitalism really is.