This is the last in the series of articles dealing with Huerfano County’s role in the 1913-14 coal strike, including the Ludlow massacre. It examines the long-term effects of the 15-month coal mine strike during 1913-14.
The strike began in September 1913 and ended in December 1914. The effects on families were most drastic – especially the children – as illustrated by the following excerpts from a paper written by Janet Chatin, “Experience in a Two-room School, 7th Street, Walsenburg, Colo. 1911-1917. The red brick school house on Walsenburg’s Seventh Street was already crowded on Oct. 24, 1913 because so many families had moved to town the month before, when the strike began. These lucky families had relatives or rented a house in town rather than being forced to move into the union tent colonies. The students knew what was going to happen and told the teacher, Janet Chatin, that when the whistle blew about 2 pm, they
were to run home as fast as possible. Chatin prepared; she had all the lessons put away, and told stories to keep the children occupied. At the whistle, mothers rushed in to grab children, and in five minutes the room was empty. The teacher started walking home, the streets were packed and she “had a dreadful time.” This day would be known as the day of the Seventh Street riot. Near the schoolhouse, a non-striking family packed their household goods, with the help of mine guards, into a wagon to move to the safety of Walsen mine camp. A mob of strikers, including women and children, followed the wagon, yelling at the guards, throwing rocks. Shots were fired from behind a house; mine guards fired back. In seconds, two men died and four were wounded. School was closed for weeks and a battle was on; bullets banged from Walsen camp and from Capital Hill. “When we returned back to school, ” Chatin later wrote, “we found the bullet holes in the side of the building … ” Chatin also provides some insight into the thinking of some of the miners. Greek miners took rooms next to the school and asked Chatin to teach them English at her home, offering to pay $5 a lesson. “They seemed refined and polite and they did learn quickly.” Their stories worried her – that Greeks were taken from prison and sent to America to work. The Greeks she taught were brought over free by “Big Shots” to work in the coal camp. During the strike, these Greeks got $5 to get a man to stop working in a mine and then the other side paid $5 for each man they got to go back to work – hence the money for the lessons. The immediate effects on the mining industry were apparently minor, but there were significant long-term effects. The strike’s effect, and particularly the Ludlow massacre, was immense for John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s reputation; he was the largest stockholder in the C.F. & I. coal company. A public relations campaign started. In 1915, he instituted an Employee Representative Plan, one of the nation’s first ER plans used until 1942. Most companies were strongly against unions, but this plan, which gave workers a taste of decision making, was one step along the path that later led to union acceptance and collective bargaining. The ERPs were also called company unions, and stressed that the interests of the workers and the companies would benefit by co-operation. Meanwhile, back in Huerfano County, Robert Mitchell, editor of the Independent newspaper, rival to Sheriff Jeff Farr’s Walsenburg World, was gathering information on election fraud, including the election for sheriff. Mitchell was shot to death at the door of his home. No “burgler” was found; no one charged. The Colorado Supreme Court did find evidence of fraud and Farr was out of office. After the 15 months of strike violence, some 408 striking miners were charged with felonies, mostly murder. Most never went to court, according to the book The Great Coalfield War. The rulings of the four who were convicted were overturned. A great many of the national and state union officials, in one way or another, left leadership positions. One, John Lawson, became vice president of Rocky Mountain Fuel, an enlightened company. The United Mine Workers of America bought land around the Ludlow death pit and began planning a monument. Safety issues had been one of the strikers’ concerns. Four years after the Ludlow massacre, an explosion up the canyon at Hastings mine, killed 121 men. Although Colorado did create a board of labor arbitration, coal strikes continued – in 1919, 1921, 1922 and 1927. In the 1921 strike, Patrick Hamrock, the former militia commander at Ludlow, and now the state’s adjutant general, forbade tent colonies. He knew firsthand that the bonds created in the colonies led to increased violence. The Colorado National Guard was eventually thoroughly discredited; General John Chase, in charge throughout the strike, was forced to resign in 1916. C.F.&I. closed its last mine in the 1980s, and declared bankruptcy in 1993. This series of articles dealing with the 1913-14 coal strike including the Ludlow massacre, did not attempt to tell the complete story. Many excellent books provide the overview, but most books ignore the Huerfano County story. These articles have attempted to remedy that. Information for this article came from a paper written by Janet Chatin, “Experience in a Two-room School, 7th Street, Walsenburg, Colo. 1911-1917” in the Tirey Local History Center; from “Representation and Rebellion: the Rockefeller Plan at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, 1914-1942” by Jonathan H. Rees; The Great Coalfield War by George McGovern and Guttridge; Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War by Thomas G. Andrews.