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Battle of Walsenburg, third in a series

WALSENBURG- The Battle of Walsenburg began on April 27, when striking miners, outraged at the massacre at Ludlow, coalesced into a makeshift army and set out to burn down the Walsen and McNally mines, and to dynamite the headquarters  of Huerfano County Sheriff Jefferson Farr.

    Farr, widely known as one of the most corrupt men in southern Colorado and a puppet of corporate interests, realized he would not be able to bully his way out of this fight.   He retreated to the County courthouse, mounted a machine gun in the upper tower, and placed his deputies around the perimeter.  He was not going to protect the citizens of the County, but neither was he going to allow the strikers to come and get him.

    Colonel Edward Verdeckberg, leading the Colorado National Guard contingent sent to quell the miners,  established his command post atop Water Tank Hill, just to the south and east of the Hogback.  Verdeckberg ordered his guardsmen to “clear the hills of all strikers at once,” but as the troopers moved forward through Capitol Hill, they immediately came under fire from the Hogback.  The squad commander, Lieutenant Scott was wounded, and as he was being treated, the attending physician, Major Pliney Lester, was shot and killed. More soldiers fell wounded, and a spring snow squall blew in, just to confuse things more.  The squad retreated back downhill, leaving their dead behind.

    The battle had been going, off and on, for two days, and was reaching a stalemate.  The strikers had been unable to take the Walsen mine, and Sheriff Farr was beyond their reach.  The National Guard was unable to make any headway against the natural fortress of the Hogback.  A flanking attempt on the west end of the Hogback had met with similar results on the east end- the soldiers were pinned down and forced to retreat.

    By sundown on Wednesday, a truce had been established between MacGregor and Verdeckberg.  On Thursday morning, peace talks resumed.  The soldiers were allowed to collect Major Lester’s body, and the strikers fetched Frank Angelo’s corpse.

    The two sides retreated back to their strongholds and stayed there, waiting for the promised arrival of the U.S. Army, which was to replace the National Guard.  On Friday afternoon, a troop train carrying 70 soldiers from Fort Leavenworth arrived, under the command of Captain Smith.  As the army units replaced the Guard, the miners along the Hogback melted away.  The situation defused with the departure of Verdeckberg and his men. 

    In the 10 days since the Ludlow Massacre, no fewer then 54 men, women and children, many of them innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, perished.

    In researching this story, the books The Great Coalfield War by George McGovern and Blood Passion by Scott Martelle were a great help.  More information on the Battle of Walsenburg and the Coalfield War is available at the Walsenburg Mining Museum.

Local first-hand accounts-

by William J. Bechaver

WALSENBURG- Times were perilous for all. My grandfathers were boys of the age of ten.  My maternal grandfather, Francis O’Rourke, lived with his family at Walsen Camp just west of town during those days.  Forced from their mine-owned house in the camp, the entire family, with nearly  ten children in tow, moved into town to avoid the hazards.  Following the strike, they would maintain a residence in town from that point on.

    My paternal grandfather, John Bechaver, and his family were forced from their home in Rouse by the events of the strike.  They were relocated and lived in an extensive tent colony that was located at the present site of Washington School, stretching throughout the vacant property to the east.  Also a large family, the Bechavers would remain in town for the duration and later live in Toltec for years following the settlement of the strike.  The details of their activities and experiences in the tent colonies are unfortunately lost to history. 

    Being  young boys, my grandfathers probably looked on the events as a grand adventure.  But the hardships for the families in the tent colonies are well recorded, and the hardships were increased by the size of the families at that time and the number of families displaced by events.

    Another time, my paternal grandmother, Frances Dlugopolsky, was playing with a group of kids in the basement of a building on West Seventh Street. As the kids played downstairs, a young man, Carlo Bak, was brought to the basement.  He had been at a storefront on the street above when a bullet, fired from the bluff above, had passed clean through a pickle barrel striking him.  The adults frantically tended his wounds as the children looked on. Despite their best efforts, nothing could be done to save him, and he died there in the basement. One can only imagine the tragic scene as the children gathered around and watched as their parents worked in vain to save the stricken man.

    These are the histories of my grandparents, the experiences that shaped their lives. These are the experiences of young people growing up in difficult times.