by Carolyn Newman
WALSENBURG — Somewhere around West Sixth and Hendren in Walsenburg, about 400 National Guardsmen set up their tents. Gov. Elias Ammons sent them to the southern Colorado strike zone to keep the peace after he realized the local law enforcement could not handle the situation between the striking coal miners, the non-striking miners and the mine guards.
The situation seemed especially dire after two died at the scene of the Seventh Street clash Oct. 24, 1913, and one died later.
Major P.P. Lester, a respected Walsenburg physician and surgeon, but also a major in the medical corp of the National Guard, planned the Walsenburg camp near the railroad tracks. The site was within 200 yards of the Seventh Street shootings. Colonel Edward Verdeckberg and Major Lester felt the site would be in the center of the trouble zone and officers did not want long forced marches. The railroad site was important also because men, horses, weapons and supplies all arrived by train. Trucks were rarely used at this time in Colorado history for transportation.
Major Lester arranged that 1500 feet of water pipe was laid with three hydrants – for the camp, the cook tents and one for the horse corral. “Very good quality of water,” wrote Lester.
The National Guard used mine slag and sand hauled in to make paths between tents and to level the ground. Straddle latrines were put in temporarily, and then latrines were constructed. For sanitary reasons, the latrines were burned out with hay or straw and crude oil every two days. Quick lime was used to control odor.
As this was late October and the camp lasted throughout the winter, flies were not a problem, Lester wrote in his report. Garbage was hauled away regularly by men feeding hogs. A barrel-like incinerator was built for other waste.
Wash sinks (probably a type of hole in the ground) were dug between each two tents for dirty wash water.
Open fires with wash tubs of hot water were set out – one with soap and one with clean water for rinsing of dishes. A ditch was dug above the camp to catch run-off rain water.
However during December’s heavy snows, sometimes four feet deep, the immense amount of water melting off, ran into tents in places. The men dug 8 or 10 feet down into the gravel to drain off the moisture. Every Sunday morning, an inspection of the camp was made by the commanding officer and the medical officer.
The young guardsmen came from all over Colorado; the Walsenburg men came from Ault, Greeley, Fort Collins, Akron, Brush, Fort Morgan, Cripple Creek, Durango, Montrose, Delta and Boulder. What a job it must have been to make a cohesive group of these small Guard units. And then there were the men who joined the Guard because of Denver Post ads promising $2 a day pay for the first 20 days and $1 a day after that plus all clothing, food and supplies provided. Unfortunately clothing and supplies were sometimes not available.
When the Guard arrived, the coal miners’ union headquarters changed its tactics. Earlier the headquarters had been openly displaying guns and cartridge belts. They disappeared after the militia arrived.
The miners’ tent colony at Pryor, south of Walsenburg, had been used as a sort of recruiting station for the miners. Pryor miners would pour into Walsenburg to aid in the attacks against mine guards or non-union miners.
The statistics for the first 37 days of the strike, according to the Trinidad newspaper, included 1,100 militiamen in southern Colorado, 7,000 strikers, 600 special deputies, 13 tent colonies, 3,000 families in the tent colonies, 65 mines in Huerfano and Las Animas counties, 9 killed during the strike and 18 wounded.
The photo is of Major P.P. Lester, Walsenburg physician and surgeon, and an officer in the National Guard Medical Corp. Information is from Major Lester’s report in the Western History Department, Denver Public Library; from the Oct. 29, 1913, Denver Times; Oct. 28 and Oct. 30, 1913, of the Trinidad Chronicle-News; and from a railroad map in the book, The Rio Grande’s La Veta Pass Route.
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