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the Battle of Walsenburg

by Brian Orr

HUERFANO- “It’s so quiet and peaceful here!” is a common phrase most Huerfanos have heard, or uttered themselves, but it has not always been so.  Ninety four years ago this month, one of the most violent labor confrontations in modern history took place in Huerfano County.  It was  part of the Great Coalfield War of 1913-1914, which resulted in the Ludlow massacre and culminated in the Battle of Walsenburg.

    A very brief primer here will help explain the battle lines.  American labor at the beginning of the 20th century is very different from what is now.  In a very real sense, the minimum wage, benefits and workplace protection enjoyed by today’s workers were paid for in blood by the men, women and children who fought to obtain these rights.

    The Colorado coalfields produced the fuel that ran the American economic engine.  Steel plants in Pueblo and beyond gobbled up the black diamonds at a stunning pace, and fortunes were based on it.

     The biggest owner of coal mines in southern Colorado was John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Generally, whatever actions he took, the other mine owners followed.  Rockefeller’s business operator in Colorado was a man named Lamont Bowers, who had previously managed the Rockefeller Great Lakes shipping fleet.  Bowers and Rockefeller shared the same burning antipathy towards unions, and Rockefeller felt comfortable leaving the management almost entirely in Bower’s hands.

    The mines at this time were run almost as feudalistic states, with the miners being treated as serfs. Working conditions were dangerous, long and brutal.  Miners did not own their own homes, had to shop at company stores, were paid in company money, called scrip, and had virtually no recourse for complaints about working conditions.  The only freedom a man really had was that he could quit.

    After decades of attempts to organize and strike for better wages and living conditions, by 1913, union organizers felt ready to take on the mine owners in a final show down.  The mine owners were equally ready to break the back of the union problem.

     In September, the majority of miners- both union and non union, walked out of the mines, urged on by Mother Jones’ inflammatory words of “Rise up and strike!  If you are too cowardly to fight, there are enough women in this country to come beat the hell out of you!”

      The mine owners had already agreed amongst themselves to keep the mines running by using “scabs,” or men willing to cross the picket line and face the wrath of their fellow miners.  They believed the trouble was being stirred up by “outside agitators” brought in by the United Mine Workers of America.  They wanted to settle union dealings once and for all.  As Jessie Welborn of Colorado Fuel and Iron, and a Board member of Rockefeller’s said, “If a strike is called, it will be to the finish.”