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The Ludlow Massacre: The Deadliest Incident in the Deadliest Strike in U.S. History

Organized by the United Mine Workers of America, the strike at the Ludlow mine in 1914 targeted the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company which ran the mine and was itself majority-owned and directed by the Rockefellers, father and son.

The massacre om April resulted in the violent deaths of 19 people when the National Guard attacked Ludlow’s tent colony of 1200 striking coal miners and their families. The mine conditions that led up to the strike were desperate.

Colorado Fuel and Iron Company miners took home $1.68 a day. In some places, clean water was 38 cents a barrel, and typhoid from bad water was endemic. Though Colorado had instituted safe mining practices, they were unenforced and the death rate due to accidents was 3.5 times higher than eastern coal fields. Coal miners everywhere spent most of their workday on their knees or on their back in darkness, and in non-union mines the workday was 10, 12, even 14 hours. Paid by the ton, miners were still cheated on the company scales, which were weighed by company weight-men.

Those who protested unsafe conditions or circumvented the company store (they were forced to shop in company stores) often found themselves transferred to dangerous or waterlogged mine shafts. A birth, serious illness, or death in the family meant that a salary advance would incur a debt almost impossible to work off. Enforced poverty, company corruption, needless deaths, and desperation drove the strike.

The union’s demands included recognition of the union as bargaining agent, an increase in tonnage rates, enforcement of the eight-hour work-day law, payment for “dead work”, weight-checkmen elected by the workers, the right to use any store and to choose their own boarding houses and doctors, strict enforcement of mine safety rules.

Louis Tikas was a Greek-American immigrant born in Loutra, Crete as Elias Anastasiou Spantidakis. He was the main labor union organizer at the Ludlow camp during a 14-month coal strike in southern Colorado from 1913-1914. He spoke good English and had become an American citizen and just six months later was murdered by the militia cold-bloodedly, unarmed. Karl Linderfelt used his rifle as a club to deal a vicious blow to the right side of Tikas’ head, leaving a bloody gash with exposed bone. Linderfelt departed. Soon afterward, Tikas was shot dead on April 20, 1914, the day after Orthodox Christian Easter by the Colorado National Guard and died a martyr, cut off from both his past and his posterity.

He was one of the authentic heroes of the American West. He gave his life to save a colony of striking miners’ families in Ludlow. On April 27 he was buried in Trinidad by Fr. Paschopoulos, the Greek priest from Denver who served the funeral.

In his early 20’s Louis Tikas had emigrated to Denver and become part-owner of a Greek coffee-shop, not unlike the one his father owned in Loutra, Crete.

On September 23, as Ludlow’s 1200 striking miners were evicted with their families from company homes, the 27-year-old Tikas arrived to help them set up a tent colony to live in through the brutal Colorado winter. In the below-freezing record-breaking winter temperatures of 1913-14, women and children would spend days huddled together in bed for warmth in the canvas tents.

The miners held out over a year, during which time nearly 200 people died. Ludlow was the largest colony, and it became the striking miners’ de facto capital.

The climax of the violence came when state militia fired with machine guns on the tent colonies where striking miners and their families lived. The shooting was punctuated by shouts, frantic screams, and wailing babies.

Four women and 11 children had been hiding from the crossfire of bullets in the pit beneath one tent (the miners dug cellars beneath the floorboards of their tents to shelter women and children). They were trapped when the militia set the tent colony on fire. As the fire raged above, they (all but two women) suffocated, the oxygen they needed to survive being consumed instead by the fire. The militia committed arson with a blatant disregard for life. The camp was a charred jumble of metal bed frames, cook stoves, pots and pans. Here and there parts of a doll or child’s toy stuck out of the rubble. The canvas tents were so full of bullet holes they looked like lace.

The reason it was named ‘massacre’ is to convey how outrageous the killing and destruction was. The soldiers set fire to the tents with kerosene, torches and coal oil. They torched the camps and used oil cans to extend the fire and make it complete without concern to check for anyone in the pits.

Although Colorado was a functioning democracy in 1914, the military arm of the state, which had made violence a central strategy in their efforts to break strikes before, again employed violence and intimidation.

In both Crete and among the strikers, Louis was remembered as a courteous man and a gentleman. He could preserve order even under the most provoking circumstances. He was the single greatest force for peace in the strike. Always dressed very smart, he took pride in his appearance, and at times he would display his knee-length baggy Cretan pants.

As news of the massacre spread, workers from around the country went on strike to show solidarity with the remaining Colorado strikers. In the aftermath of the massacre, some National Guard units laid down their arms and refused to fight. The union, however, was close to bankruptcy. Unable to sustain the strike, the miners failed to obtain their demands and were replaced with non-union workers.

Although 66 people had been killed by the time the Colorado coalfield violence ended, no National Guardsman was ever prosecuted. Despite regular telegrams informing him of strike events, at a federal inquiry by the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations John D. Rockefeller Jr. protested his innocence and ignorance of the Ludlow massacre. He refused to answer questions about the violence, reading instead a list of his family’s philanthropic projects.

Despite the heavy loss of lives and property, the striker’s efforts and losses weren’t entirely in vain. The effects of the strike and the violence encouraged state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation that, in the long run, would help hasten improvements in conditions for working miners. Because of this, a remote southern Colorado prairie at Ludlow will always be deeply etched in the annals of coal mining history. A stone monument honoring those who died is located there. Just a few yards away from the monument, there’s a cellar door where visitors can walk down steep stairs to a dark chamber. This is the ‘death pit’, where the women and children died.

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