Illustration by Patrick Faricy

It’s a lonely place now, a forlorn and mostly forgotten spot a half-mile west of the interstate and twelve miles north of Trinidad. Flanked by cottonwoods, surrounded by windswept prairie studded with piñon and tumbleweeds, it has an unfinished look, like a roadside attraction somebody started to build and then abandoned.

There’s an iron fence, a cinder-block meeting hall, a tattered guest book, some storyboards about what took place here, and a granite monument, featuring a heroic sculpture of a miner and his wife and child.

And the pit. Unless you read all the signs, it’s easy to miss the pit. You have to pull open the metal door in the ground, a few feet in front of the monument, and descend a dozen steps into a small, dark, empty space. Now you understand: What had seemed unfinished is actually the end of something. A tomb. A return to the earth.

Traffic is sparse at the Ludlow Memorial. The place has seen some improvements since the monument’s statuary was vandalized in 2003, the miner and his wife neatly decapitated — a desecration that prompted outrage from the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America and a painstaking restoration. But aside from the commemorative services held here by the UMWA, the flow of visitors to the site remains more a trickle than a stream. Few linger long enough to sign the guest book.

It’s hard to imagine that such desolate ground was ever anything else. Yet a century ago Ludlow was alive, densely packed with men and women from nearly two dozen cultures, an international community chattering in a Babel of native tongues: Spanish, Greek, Italian, German, Polish, Russian and more. They had come to Colorado to work in the infernal coal mines and coking ovens of Las Animas and Huerfano counties, some of the most dangerous jobs in the hemisphere. In the fall of 1913, more than 11,000 of them went on strike, demanding a living wage and a fair chance of surviving the job. Evicted from the company towns, they poured out of the canyons with their families and set up tent colonies along the railroad lines, determined to block strikebreakers from reaching the mines.

Ludlow was the largest colony of them all, a makeshift town of 1,200 people. To the unbelievers, it was simply a clump of canvas tents and wooden privies; to those who endured months of hardship in those tents, it was a nucleus of hope and defiance. The strikers had their own ballfield and barbershop, and a paymaster who doled out the bare weekly stipend the union provided to keep body and soul intact: three dollars per miner, a dollar per woman, fifty cents per child. They had each other, and supporters across the country. They also had guns.

It was all wiped out on a single day: April 20, 1914. Only the pit, the infamous Death Pit, remains.

This Sunday marks the hundredth anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, the day the strike entered into a desperate endgame and became the deadliest labor struggle in American history. A shootout between strikers and members of the Colorado National Guard claimed nineteen lives — most of them noncombatant women and children — and ended in the tent colony being burned to the ground. The strikers retaliated by attacking several mine operations over the next ten days, resulting in dozens more deaths and plunging southern Colorado into chaos.

The event will be marked by speeches and ceremonies. There are songs, poems, plays, academic studies and even a verse novel about Ludlow — the tale recast and reshaped, to varying degrees, in the image of the teller. Union leaders revere it as a watershed moment of martyrdom, a sacrifice of the innocents in the struggle for workers’ rights. For others, it’s a tragic parable about race and immigrants, about corporate feudalism and class warfare, that resonates through generations.

Some of the most impressive research on the coal wars has emerged in the last decade or so. Yet the subject remains an oddly neglected chapter in state history, a missing piece in the story of Colorado’s evolution, like a deviant uncle whose portrait has been snipped out of the family album. Many younger residents have never heard of Ludlow, have no idea that a state now known for ski resorts, marijuana shops and craft beer was once dominated by the mining industry. Colorado’s period of breakneck industrialization — a time when corrupt politicians kowtowed to the Rockefeller empire, when 10 percent of the state’s workers owed their livelihood to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company — is still a shameful secret, not taught in schools. But there are good reasons to remember.

“This was a heavily industrial place,” notes University of Colorado at Boulder history professor Thomas G. Andrews, author of Killing for Coal, a 2008 epic study of Ludlow and the coal industry. “People generally don’t see it and don’t want to see it. But it’s amazing how many people have ties back to the coal camps, relatives who came here to work in the mines. This is the family history of a surprising number of Coloradans.”

Six-foot-three, with the shoulders of a circus strongman, John Lawson arrived in Walsenburg in the spring of 1907, looking to do some good. But trouble had a way of following the big man, the kind of trouble that came with being a union organizer. In Huerfano County, the fiefdom of a crooked sheriff who stooged for the coal companies, it caught up with him in no time at all.

The son of a Scottish miner, Lawson had started working as a “breaker boy” in Pennsylvania coal country at the age of eight, sorting rocks from coal for fifty cents a day. By the age of ten, he was working underground. He had come west, sweated in Colorado Fuel and Iron’s Walsen mine, and moved on to the Western Slope, where he emerged as a UMWA organizer with a remarkable talent for survival.

During a failed statewide strike in 1903, Lawson’s home was dynamited. The blast barely missed his wife and infant daughter. He was blackballed and prevented from getting other work. A mine owner confronted him on a street in New Castle and shot him in the belly with a shotgun. The attack was never prosecuted. Lawson recovered.

By the time he came back to the southern fields, in ’07, Lawson was a member of the union’s international board and determined to organize men who faced some of the worst working conditions in the country. The death rate in Colorado mines was more than double the national average; 272 miners died in explosions over a single five-year span. The average compensation paid to their families, the going price for a life, was $350. But even if you didn’t perish instantly in an ignition of coal dust or from bad timbering or stinkdamp, there were a thousand other ways the work stripped you of your health and your dignity.

Laws already on the books guaranteed workers’ rights to organize and trade where they pleased, but many of the companies routinely ignored those laws. Miners were paid by each ton of coal produced rather than by the hour; they received no compensation for “dead work,” such as timbering and laying track, and were often cheated on the tonnage by the company’s check-weightmen. Some of the operators still paid in company scrip, worthless except at the company store, which charged inflated prices for its goods; men were fired if they shopped elsewhere. The miners also shelled out inflated rent for the privilege of living in company towns. Company deductions for equipment and other “supplies” ate away at whatever was left of the paycheck.

The situation was particularly grim in the southern fields, where a few large companies called the shots, led by the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron; most of the coal extracted from the region went to CF&I’s steel mill in Pueblo, fueling the rapid expansion of rail lines and American industry. The companies ran closed camps and wielded enormous influence over state and local government.

The most obvious benefit of such tremendous power was the utter lack of anything resembling government regulation. Colorado had only three mine inspectors, and even less oversight of the numerous deadly accidents in CF&I’s steelworks. Out of ninety coroner investigations into mine deaths in Huerfano County during a single decade, only one found negligence on the part of the mine operator. It was always the dead guy’s fault that he was dead.

Lawson soon saw firsthand how the industry had its way with local government in Walsenburg. Sheriff Jeff Farr had a controlling interest in the town’s saloons, brothels and gambling operations; he even owned one of its newspapers. But he also worked hand-in-glove with mine guards and management to keep union agitators out of his county. Lawson had been in town only a few days, arranging secret meetings with miners in the hills, when he was warned to get out of town, then threatened, then arrested. One of Farr’s men braced him on the street, stuck a revolver in his coat pocket, and charged him with carrying a concealed weapon.

Lawson told his accuser that the stunt was so old it had whiskers on it. He spent a week in jail before a lawyer could get him out. By that time, other UMWA organizers who’d accompanied him had been attacked by hired goons, scared out of town or arrested. It was clear that bringing the union to Colorado mines was going to be hazardous and delicate work.

Over the next six years, the big man and his colleagues ran a covert campaign in the southern fields, sending organizers in pairs. One would be a highly visible union recruiter; the other would denounce the union and try to ingratiate himself with management as a “spotter,” someone who informs on possible union members. Employees who rejected the recruiter’s overtures would be reported to management by the undercover spotter as union sympathizers, while those who secretly joined the union would be praised as loyal employees. Of course, the companies had their own double agents inside the union — but gradually the ranks of UMWA supporters grew, even in the most tightly closed camps.

The mine owners weren’t interested in negotiating. Their attitude toward their employees was summed up by CF&I executive Lamont Montgomery Bowers, in a letter explaining why he didn’t feel bad about cutting mill workers’ wages. Two-thirds of them weren’t even Americans, he noted, and there were thousands more begging to take the place of any malcontents, “these foreigners who do not intend to make America their home, and who live like rats in order to save money.”

The companies brought in additional camp guards and private detectives from the Baldwin-Felts agency, which specialized in crushing labor uprisings. Many of the new faces were quickly deputized by Farr and the sheriff of Las Animas County, giving them the authority of the state. By the summer of 1913, Trinidad had devolved into a frontier town, full of pistol-packing desperadoes. In the midst of a state labor convention in August, a UMWA organizer died in a shootout in the street with two private dicks wearing badges.

Lawson and a committee of UMWA officials made one last appeal to the coal operators to avoid a strike. “Colorado cannot stand alone in opposition to our movement,” they wrote. “The operators of Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Iowa, embracing all the important coal producing states west of the Mississippi River, have been working under contracts with our union for years.... Why oppose us here, spending millions of dollars in an industrial conflict for no purpose?”

By the standards of this century, the union’s demands seem modest, even meek. Recognition of the union. A minimum daily wage for each type of mining job, from shot-firers to trappers to pumpmen. An eight-hour work day. Pay for dead work and fair weights for coal produced. The right of miners and their families to shop and live where they pleased.

The owners rejected every demand.

The strike began on September 23, 1913. For those who lived in company towns, the decision to strike was a decision to become homeless — but it’s estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of the miners in the southern fields joined the strike. Rain and snow pounded the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos that day, giving the scene a biblical cast: thousands of immigrants trudging from the company towns in a muddy exodus, hauling wagons heaped with furniture, pots and children, headed down the canyons for strike camps on empty range, where many of the promised tents and stoves had yet to arrive. Hundreds camped out in the storm.

The first woman to arrive at Ludlow was a fiery Welsh redhead named Mary Thomas. In a memoir published nearly sixty years later, Those Damn Foreigners, she remembered the strike as a glimpse into a new world: “Looking back now on those bitter days, I can see a wonderful thing in them despite the terror, the disappointments, the deprivations. Our suffering with the extreme cold and hunger had brought us all together.... We had become a ‘family’ of world citizens, petitioning for the right to make an honest living as free human beings.”

There was nothing free or honest about the Colorado mines. The 20,000 men, women and children who joined the strike had little left to lose. But some would lose even that.

The strike had barely begun when a strange, boxy contraption began roaming the winding county roads that snaked between the railroad stations and the mines. It was an armored car with a machine gun mounted in the back, and it was CF&I’s way of telling the miners that the strike was doomed. The newspapers called it the Death Special.

The strikers at Ludlow soon learned not to go to the nearby depot or into Trinidad except in groups, in order to avoid being jumped and beaten. Random shots from unseen snipers occasionally whistled into the colony. Alarmed, Lawson made sure each colony had its own armed, volunteer police force, men who could defend the area from pits or arroyos at the edge of the colony, where they could draw fire away from their families. Some occupants dug cellars beneath their tents, partly for extra storage or living space, but also as a place of refuge in case of attack.

On October 17, the Death Special strafed one of the tent colonies at Forbes, killing one man and wounding another. The strikers said a mine guard got out of the vehicle waving a flag of truce, then signaled for the gunner to open fire, snarling, “We’re going to teach you damned rednecks a lesson!” (The term referred to the red bandanna a miner wore around his neck to wipe away dust and sweat; it was also a common term for “anarchist.”) The CF&I men claimed that the strikers provoked the attack.

The violence went both ways. The town marshal of Segundo, known for abusing miners and harassing their women, was soon killed in a confrontation with strikers. Scabs were beaten and threatened, and trains suspected of carrying strikebreakers were fired upon. Gun battles between strikers and deputies escorting new workers to the mines raged in the canyons. CF&I guards opened fire on a union crowd in Walsenburg, killing three; the mob had gathered to jeer scabs moving to safer quarters.

Under mounting pressure from the coal companies to intervene, Governor Elias Ammons called out the Colorado National Guard under the command of General John Chase, a portly Denver eye doctor. More than a thousand troops arrived in the southern fields at the end of October, setting up in the main towns and establishing an outpost just a few hundred yards from the Ludlow tent colony.

Captain Philip Van Cise, a Denver attorney leading a company of college-educated reservists, would later recall that the strikers turned out to greet his men with a band and union songs. The Ludlow colonists seemed relieved to have a peacekeeping force next door, and even played football with Van Cise’s men.

The good feelings didn’t last long. The militia was supposed to be a neutral presence, but that facade soon eroded. Chase, who’d been involved in the suppression of a strike in Cripple Creek a decade earlier, ordered the colonies searched and any weapons seized. Since nobody was disarming the mine guards, the strikers took to hiding guns in cellars and smuggling in many more.

Within a few weeks, Ammons rescinded an order that prohibited the troops from escorting trainloads of strikebreakers into the region; the mines were just too important to shut down. Even more alarming, some of the mine guards the strikers considered their worst enemies, such as the man who’d waved the flag of truce during the Death Special attack on Forbes, started showing up in militia uniforms. The state was hiring, and the company men were happy to oblige.

Although there had been no formal declaration of martial law, Chase didn’t think he needed one. He began issuing orders as the supreme commander of what he called the Military District of Colorado, a dictatorship contiguous with the coal country. He ordered the warrantless arrests of scores of suspected radicals and kept them in the jails of Trinidad and Walsenburg without charges or bond. When local prosecutors released some of them, he threatened to have those officials jailed, too.

Men came out of the jails telling stories about beatings and torture. A Serbian striker named Andrew Colnar, whose crime was writing a letter to a scab friend urging him to join the right side, was forced to dig a hole and told it was to be his grave. The soldiers insisted they were just joking with the redneck, but other men went through the same panic-inducing treatment — and were even urged to write farewell letters to loved ones, thinking they were about to be executed. (“Dear Louisa: Best regards from your broken hearted Carlo. This is the last letter I am writing. That’s all I have to say. Sorrow. Goodbye. Goodbye.”)

Mario Zeni, a 29-year-old Austrian, was held in jail for six weeks as a suspect in the murder of George Belcher, a much-despised Baldwin-Felts gunman. On the day of his release, Zeni testified before a State Federation of Labor panel, organized by Lawson and others to investigate the mounting complaints about the militia. Zeni — whose roommate would later be convicted of the murder — described being kept awake for five days straight by guards who threw water on him and poked a bayonet at him through the cell bars:

“I say, ‘Why do you got to keep me awake?’

“He say, ‘You got to confess.’

“‘What you want me to confess, if I never do nothing?’

“‘Well, you that man in Ludlow; you come here in Trinidad to kill Belcher and Felts.’

“I say, ‘You son of a bitch. Shoot me. I like best to die. Don’t make me suffer that way.’

“No, sir, he won’t do it. I say, ‘I will never forget you.’

“I say, ‘I got six hundred thousand brothers outside. If I ever get out of this cell, don’t you forget me.’”

Lawson’s panel heard testimony from 163 witnesses. They told of drunken and belligerent soldiers who busted up saloons and looted homes, insulted and groped women, searched people in the street and relieved them of their cash, assaulted citizens and arrested them for no reason. His group wrote a scathing report to Governor Ammons, demanding the resignation of Chase and the removal of several of the worst troublemakers.

The most dangerous of them all, in Lawson’s view, was Lieutenant Karl “Monte” Linderfelt, an Army veteran who’d seen combat in the Philippines and as a mercenary in Mexico. He’d been working as a deputy in Las Animas County — in other words, in service to the mine owners — when he’d been called back to active duty in the militia, along with his two brothers. A glowering, foul-mouthed hothead who had little use for rednecks, Monte Linderfelt had threatened or assaulted several strikers and earned particular ill will from the Greeks in the Ludlow colony. “He rages violently upon little or no provocation, and is wholly unfit to bear arms and command men, as he has no control over himself,” Lawson’s group wrote, urging Ammons to recall him.

But by the time the group’s report was issued, in late January, the governor had plenty of other concerns. Efforts to keep the mines open were failing; convincing workers to cross a strike line this bloody was almost impossible. The operators had resorted to outright deception, recruiting rubes back east, promising them some land to work, loading them into trains, then dumping them in the company towns and making them work off their “expenses” in the mines. When some of those men escaped the troops guarding them and began squawking about indentured servitude, it didn’t help the companies’ cause — or the militia’s deteriorating image.

Worse, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones had stuck her Irish beak in. The aged activist was making incendiary speeches throughout the region in support of the union. Chase intercepted her train in Trinidad and sent her packing, but she snuck back a few days later. This time the general had her held under guard in a local hospital.

He might as well have forced her to dig her own grave. Editorial writers decried the unjust imprisonment of a labor icon. Women from the tent colonies joined with city ladies to protest Mother’s detention. On January 22, they marched through the cobblestone streets of downtown Trinidad until — like a scene out of Doctor Zhivago — a group of soldiers on horseback, led by Chase, blocked their way.

Trying to maneuver his steed, Chase kicked a young woman in the breast. He fell to the ground amid roars of laughter. He climbed back up and ordered his men to “ride down the women.” Pandemonium ensued as soldiers waded into the procession, whacking the protesters with the flat side of their sabers and injuring several.

The press went to town, mocking the Cossack charge and the ignoble “Czar” Chase. From the Denver Express: “A craven general tumbled from his nag in a street of Trinidad Thursday, like Humpty-Dumpty from the wall! In fifteen minutes there was turmoil, soldiers with swords were striking at fleeing women and children; all in the name of the Sovereign State of Colorado.”

The rednecks were ecstatic. The fat man had fallen off his horse. Maybe the whole rotten empire of coal would collapse just as easily.

There is no definitive account of how the massacre started. The self-serving version presented by members of the militia, in the meandering testimony of court martial hearings, heaps the blame on a contingent of uppity Greeks in the colony and their cunning trickster of a leader, a man known as Louis Tikas. But that version, strongly at odds with what the strikers saw and heard, is riddled with contradictions and absurdities. It’s a bit like blaming the dead for all those mine explosions, just because they happened to be the ones who got blasted into oblivion.

The truth is more complicated. Tikas was an enigma. He’d run a coffee shop on Market Street in Denver, a kind of Greek social club, and led a walkout at a mine in Frederick. He first showed up in the southern fields as a translator for Lawson, one of the few Greeks who spoke English. He became the spokesman for the Greeks at Ludlow and, as far as the militia was concerned, the head man of the colony — the one they expected to keep a lid on things.

That was no easy job. The Greeks at Ludlow tended to be young men without families. Many were fresh from the Balkan Wars, and they were more likely to be armed than the other colonists. They were disinclined to give up their guns or endure humiliation from the militia. Tikas was a quiet yet commanding presence, able to defuse many tense situations, but the militia’s continuing provocations left the camp’s palikaria aching for the chance to strike back.

Bad blood between the Greeks and Monte Linderfelt had been building for months. After a soldier and his horse were injured by a tangle of barbed wire in the road, an enraged Linderfelt confronted Tikas, reviled him and accused him of rigging a booby trap. He tried to beat Tikas with his pistol outside the Ludlow train depot, until another soldier pulled him off. The next day he was back, berating other colonists and loudly proclaiming, “I am Jesus Christ, and my men are Jesus Christ, and we must be obeyed.”

For his part, Linderfelt insisted that he’d said something along the lines of, “Jesus Christ would have to have a pass to get through here.” He claimed the Greeks gave him menacing looks whenever he encountered them and promised to “get him” some day. And if you want to talk about foul language, how about what was coming out of the mouths of the women of Ludlow? They called him a “bastard scab-herding cocksucker” and worse. For pure cussedness, “an Apache Indian belonging to the WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] couldn’t compare with these people,” he said.

As spring arrived, several events seemed to conspire to ratchet up the mutual dread and mistrust, the feel of an impending showdown. After the body of a scab was found near the Forbes tent colony, Chase ordered the men of that colony arrested and the tents dismantled. The Ludlow strikers feared they might be next.

But Linderfelt’s men had reason to be scared, too. The six-month military occupation of two counties had come close to bankrupting the state. Believing the situation much improved, Governor Ammons began recalling the troops. The first to go were the nice college boys like Captain Van Cise, leaving the Linderfelt bunch increasingly isolated — and more on their guard than ever against reprisals.

By Sunday, April 19, the militia encampment next to Ludlow and one at Cedar Hill, less than two miles away, had been reduced to a skeleton force of 44, with another hundred or so soldiers stationed in Trinidad and elsewhere. The Ludlow colony itself had dwindled to perhaps 800 or 900 people. Those figures would later be mangled by Colorado Attorney General Frederick Farrar, in explaining to federal officials why the militia couldn’t be held responsible for the battle that followed: “It is against all probability that 35 men — who would have been ordered home, and would have been home in the next two or three days — would have commenced an attack upon two or three hundred armed men, among whom were Greeks, Serbians, Romanians, Italians, and Austrians — men known to be armed and men who were desperate, some being men who were brought back here, or did return here, from the Balkan War.”

But the colonists, who probably had far fewer guns than Farrar claimed, had no reason to take on a well-armed militia, either. That Sunday was Greek Easter, and the people of Ludlow celebrated with mandolin music, dancing and roasted lamb. During an afternoon game of baseball, a few soldiers on horses came over and tried to cause trouble. The women jeered at them. “They stood right in the diamond with their rifles,” Pearl Jolly, a miner’s wife, would later recall. Before they left, Jolly heard one of them say something like, “That’s all right, girlie — you have your big Sunday, but we will have our roast tomorrow.”

The next morning, Major Patrick Hamrock, the commander of the remaining troops, phoned Tikas. A woman claimed her husband was being held at Ludlow against his will because he wanted to go back to work, and Hamrock wanted him released. Tikas insisted the man wasn’t in the colony.

Hamrock wanted Tikas to come over to the militia’s camp to discuss the matter. Wary after his previous beating and arrest by Linderfelt, Tikas suggested that the major meet him at the train depot. By the time Tikas got there, around nine, it was clear that both sides were gearing up for trouble. Hamrock had already contacted Linderfelt at Cedar Hill and told him to bring his men and “put the baby in the buggy” — a reference to one of the militia’s two machine guns. And men were swarming out of the colony, armed with rifles, heading east toward a railroad cut. Whether they were anticipating a raid on the colony or concerned that Tikas was about to be captured isn’t clear.

No one knows who fired the first shot. Some soldiers would later testify that the strikers’ bullets were already whizzing at them when an officer set off the three explosive charges that had been prepared as a signal for battle. Others would recall hearing the explosions before any shots. Witnesses on both sides remember a lone figure, Louis Tikas, waving a white handkerchief and running frantically back to the tents, trying to head off disaster.

It was already too late. The militia opened fire on the men in the railroad cut. Linderfelt arrived, and the machine gun was installed on a slight rise overlooking the colony. As the day wore on, shots issued from the tents, and the militia returned fire. Officers would later testify that they’d seen women fleeing earlier and didn’t know there were any noncombatants left in the colony, but it seems hard to believe that the soldiers weren’t aware that the flimsy tents contained scores of the defenseless and unarmed.

As troops tried to close in on the shooters in the railroad cut, Private Alfred Martin was shot in the neck — the first and only militia fatality of the day. A passerby, trying to negotiate the road between the colony and the militia, was killed instantly. Eleven-year-old Frank Snyder, who’d left the protection of a cellar during a lull in the shooting, caught a bullet in the head as he sat in his family’s tent.

More troops arrived that afternoon from Trinidad. Lawson, too, came roaring up from the city, waving a white flag, but the gunfire was too intense. He had to leave his car and take cover before he could reach the colony.

Toward evening, the tents began to burn. The fire started at the southern edge of the colony — the area the troops would have reached first — and spread across the entire camp. Hamrock and his men would blame the blaze on a stray bullet striking a lamp, or perhaps someone overturning one of those redneck stoves, but the strikers knew better. The conflagration was too complete, and they had their own witnesses. Ludlow survivor Margaret Dominiske would testify under oath that she saw “five militiamen cross from the tents that was burning over to those that was not burning, and three of them had torches and two had cans. I don’t know what was in the cans, but I think it was oil.”

That evening, Tikas and two other men were captured and brought to a rampaging Lieutenant Linderfelt, who’d just learned that the body of Private Martin had been mutilated before it could be recovered from the field of battle. Linderfelt would later claim that he exchanged a few words with Tikas, struck him in the shoulder with his rifle butt, then turned the prisoners over to a sergeant.

The dawn of the next day found the bullet-riddled bodies of all three men sprawled on the cold ground near the depot. Tikas had been shot three times in the back, his skull fractured by a heavy blow.

A greater horror was discovered a few hours later in the smoldering ruins of the colony. Reeking of smoke and disoriented, a young woman named Mary Petrucci stumbled into the depot. Once searchers figured out which tent she’d come from, they found a cellar containing the bodies of two women and eleven children, including Petrucci’s two sons and one daughter: Joe, four years old; Lucy, three; and Frank, six months.

Fourteen of them had hidden there as the battle raged, trying to escape the machine gun and the fire, crammed into an earthen chamber of 350 cubic feet — about the size of a cell at Alcatraz. All of them but Mary had suffocated there, in what the papers called the Death Pit.

The names of the dead children trapped in the pit, the Petruccis and Valdezes and Costas, can be found with a click or two of the mouse. Less well known — perhaps because the data runs counter to our notions of bullies and underdogs — are the casualties of the ten-day war that followed, as the strikers exacted a terrible vengeance for the destruction of Ludlow.

While the militia awaited reinforcements, the strikers tried to annihilate an industry. They marched on the mines, dynamited the entrances, torched the equipment and shot suspected scabs, striking as far north as Cañon City. They took over parts of Trinidad and engaged the militia in an epic battle on the hogback above Walsenburg. It was one of the most violent insurrections since the Civil War, claiming the lives of at least six strikers and 24 mine employees, and it didn’t stop until President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops.

One of the avengers was a Ludlow refugee named Demitri Peros. He had been a miner until he was fired for daring to buy his shoes in town rather than at the company store. He had been a friend of Tikas’s, and then a guerrilla fighter, using a rifle he’d taken from a member of the militia to wage war on the mines. When the fighting stopped, he went over La Veta Pass and laid low in Fort Garland for six months, until he was sure nobody was looking for him. He was a veteran of the Balkan campaigns, “but he always said the worst war he fought in was right here in Colorado,” recalls his son, Jim Peros.

It’s difficult to put a precise end date to that war. The shorthand version of Ludlow is that the tragedy shocked the public conscience, shamed the mine operators, embarrassed state leaders and helped trigger some of the most far-reaching reforms of the Progressive era. But the immediate aftermath was something quite different.

The strike was an utter failure and left the UMWA in disarray. Alarmed by the attacks on the mines, authorities issued hundreds of indictments against union members. Soldiers claimed to have found thousands of rounds of ammunition stored in a Ludlow tent used by Lawson, an assertion Lawson dismissed as another frame job. The big man was charged, along with several others, for the murder of a mine guard in one of the skirmishes before the Ludlow shootout. Almost none of the cases went anywhere, but it took Lawson two years to get his conviction overturned.

Efforts to hold the Colorado National Guard accountable also went nowhere. Of the numerous charges brought against Monte Linderfelt, only one was upheld — that he had struck Tikas with his rifle butt, breaking the stock in the process. But there was no “criminality” found in that assault, possibly because Major Hamrock helpfully testified that a Springfield stock was so fragile that it could crack with little effort, and with little damage to the person being struck. The finding conveniently ignored the autopsy report, which strongly indicated that Linderfelt had smashed the man’s skull, and cemented the fiction that all three prisoners had been shot by unknown parties while trying to escape a nonexistent civilian lynch mob.

Captain Van Cise, who would go on to become a crusading district attorney in Denver, had no doubt that Linderfelt was responsible for Tikas’s death. Four days after the tent colony burned, he arrived at the Ludlow depot to make his own inquiries. “I was accosted by several enlisted men from Linderfelt’s company,” he later testified. “One enlisted man said, ‘My God, Captain, we are not responsible for the deaths of the women and children — that is an accident — but we did murder three prisoners, and if this thing is coming up, I don’t intend to string for it. But I was present, and it was done under the orders of Lieutenant Linderfelt.’”

Van Cise was part of a three-man panel appointed to investigate the Colorado National Guard after the court martial farce had already absolved individual officers of any wrongdoing. But his views of the endemic corruption and misconduct in the militia were excised by the panel’s senior officer, Major Edward Boughton. The group’s final report attributed the battle of Ludlow to “an attack upon soldiers by the Greek inhabitants of the tent colony, who misinterpreted a movement of troops on a neighboring hill.”

Some blame, the report added, “lies with the coal operators, who established in an American industrial community a numerous class of ignorant, lawless and savage south-European peasants.”

Van Cise denounced the whole mess as a whitewash. It’s hard to argue with that assessment; when he wasn’t in uniform, Boughton was an attorney for mining interests. Attorney General Farrar, who also fought hard to absolve the militia and damn the union, went on to a lucrative career in the private sector as chief counsel for CF&I.

For a time, competing narratives about Ludlow vied for public attention. Several women from the tent colony, including the deeply traumatized Mary Petrucci, went on speaking tours on behalf of the union. In a campaign that’s often regarded as the birth of modern public relations, John D. Rockefeller Jr. emerged from luxuriant slumber to meet with government commissions and reporters, touting his philanthropy, his plan for a company union, the company schools that instructed his benighted workers’ children in everything from citizenship to hygiene — and revealing his general cluelessness about the actual state of affairs in his company’s coal mines.

By itself, Ludlow changed nothing. The reforms that would finally ensure unions the rights and leverage that Lawson craved were still decades — and many bitter strikes — away. “People want to think of Ludlow as a precursor to the New Deal, but it was more of a precursor to the outpouring of labor militancy at the end of World War I,” says CU historian Andrews.

In Colorado, Andrews notes, revulsion at the strike violence encouraged political paranoia about immigrants and race, laying the groundwork for the surprising rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which took control of the Statehouse and the governor’s office for a grim time in the 1920s. “Ludlow really brought about a rightward turn,” he says. “It set the stage for the rise of the Klan.”

Yet over generations, it has been the story of Ludlow as told by the battle’s losers — the miners and their families — that has prevailed. UMWA regional director Rob Butero remembers being hauled to services at the Ludlow Memorial as a kid by his father, a Trinidad coal miner. Now he’s a member of the Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper, and immersed in planning for a series of events over the next few weeks designed to raise public awareness of the tragedy and the memorial, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009.

“For years it sat out there, and a lot of people didn’t give it much attention,” Butero says. “Then when it was vandalized, we got calls from all over. We’ve made an effort to connect historians and family members. There’s been more interest, but not enough.

“The way I look at it, you need to know where you come from. The mines are one reason this state developed as fast as it did. What happened at Ludlow helped create the middle class. It played a big role in this country in giving people the right to unionize.”

The hundredth anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre falls on Easter Sunday, the most sacred day in the Christian calendar. It’s the day that Mary Magdalene found the tomb of Jesus empty, the rock rolled aside, the dead man risen.

One place can serve many purposes. Before it was a tomb, the Death Pit of Ludlow was a clean, well-timbered maternity room, with a bed and a lamp. It was a place where women of the colony went to deliver their babies in relative comfort. Children died in that room, but others took their first breaths there.

A century after Ludlow, we are still learning what was lost in that dark, airless place — and what began there, born in blood.

 

 

For more on Ludlow, go to westword.com.

E-mail the author at alan.prendergast@westword.com.

Greeted as a peacekeeping force, Colorado National Guard troops were soon jeered by the strikers as "scab herders."

Vandalized in 2003, the Ludlow Memorial is now a National Historic Landmark.

The Death Special: CF&I guards pose with their armored car.

Militia officers, including Lt. Karl E. "Monte" Linderfelt (center), set up an outpost near the Ludlow tent colony.

"Put the baby in the buggy": One of the militia's machine guns.

April 27, 1914: Hundreds of miners marched through the streets of Trinidad in the funeral procession for Louis Tikas.

Three women and eleven children sought refuge from the shooting in a cellar beneath a tent. Only one survived.

General John Chase, supreme commander of the Military District of Colorado.

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Photos: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Photos: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Photos: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

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