Wednesday, August 16, 2017

John D. Rockefeller and the Ludlow Massacre

John Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1915
Growing up in New York, the Rockefeller name was pretty much a constant hum in the background.  Nelson Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr.,  was our state governor for no less than four terms and, considering my youth plus the fact that public figures were far less likely at that time to have their dirt dished by the press, I was blissfully unaware that he was anything less than a god.  When I bought my place in Wyoming,  located just five miles from Grand Teton National Park, the Rockefeller name again became synonymous with public service; it was largely John D. Rockefeller, Jr. whose land company was responsible for large swathes of the park.  So imagine my horror to discover that very same man was also responsible for one of the bloodiest episodes in American trade relations and commerce—the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado.
Coal mining had been going on in Colorado since the late 1860s, but with the expansion of the railways, coal became a highly valuable commodity.  The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, purchased by his father in 1902, was under the management of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. with the controlling interest from 1911.  Sitting comfortably in his New York City office, he had high principles by which he lived, and could live securely with his own money.  His workers, on the other hand—mostly immigrants from Italy, Serbia and Greece—had other concerns Rockefeller could not possibly have understood.
Colliers at the time were ‘company men.’  They lived in company housing with curfews, medical care ‘provided’ by the company, unable to shop anywhere but in the company shops, and their children poorly educated if at all.  They worked long hours for low pay by the tonnage, often weighed by cheating employees of the owner, and were not paid for associated work other than the mined coal itself.  The eight hour work day was not enforced.  And these first generation immigrant workers of mixed backgrounds had difficulty communicating with each other, thereby making discourse of their complaints difficult. This mix was done on purpose by management with a ‘divide and conquer’ attitude.
Enter the United Mine Workers Union and a fifteen month strike ensued. Obviously, the Union wanted recognition for itself.  For the miners,  they wanted basic freedoms from this feudalism—freedom to live where they wanted, shop where they wanted, seek medical attention anywhere.  They wanted enforcement of the eight hour day with a ten percent pay increase, as well as payment for the work other than mining such as shoring up the backs (roof) of the cavities, handling the discard of impurities, and laying track.  They desired the weight-checkers to be elected by the colliers and the ton to be 2K instead of the long ton that was in use (2200lbs.) Naturally, the mine owners refused and subsequently, in September 1913, turned out the striking workers.  Tent camps were set up, and the largest was Ludlow, with around one thousand residents, seventeen miles north of Trinidad, CO.

Rockefeller’s thugs hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency whose method in
'Death Car' armored and with gun placement
dealing with the strike was to shine searchlights in the tents and randomly shoot, often killing or maiming the occupants. An armored car was also built at company expense from which snipers did their work. It was then the colliers started digging pits in which women and children hid to avoid the bullets. But without a method of retaliation, and with non-union workers being brought in, it appeared the strike would end.
By the spring of 1914, the National Guard had been called in and dealt with several sites, but the state of Colorado had run out of money to pay them.  Rockefeller’s company proceeded to pick up the bill and a machine gun was placed on a hill overlooking Ludlow. Fighting raged for a day but as a freight train stopped, intervening between the two factions, the miners were able to regroup.  This included hiding some 11 children and several women in a pit under the tent infirmary.
On the evening of April 20th, a day after the Orthodox Easter—the major holy day in that calendar—had been celebrated, the tent camp was torched. All the children and two of the women in the infirmary pit died. While our neighbors in Mexico were undergoing a revolution that held the attention of America, a small revolution had  occurred in Colorado. The Colorado Coalfield War only had a death toll of seventy-five people but its effects were extensive and long-lasting. Although the United Mine Workers of America failed to win recognition and eventually ran out of money, John D. Rockefeller Jr. brought in Mackenzie King—future Canadian Prime Minister and a labor relations expert—to bring in reforms. He also brought in a public relations expert. Under their advice, Rockefeller let the workers unionize, without penalizing those who had taken part in the strikes.  John Jr. actually left the comforting confines of New York and went to Colorado to meet with the miners and their families.  He listened to their grievances, attended social events, and subsequently made improvements—better conditions for working as well as in their homes, paved roads, safety enhancements, better health services and recreational facilities.
Ruins of Ludlow after fire

I won’t go into the politics here of whether this had long-lasting effects—whether the 85,000 miners still working in the USA have sufficient health care against black lung disease and so on. And it’s difficult to sum up Rockefeller’s views in the stance of 1914.  But what I do know is this:  the man made necessary improvements to the lives of his workers in the coal industry, and he went on to purchase some 35,000 acres that now comprise part of Grand Teton National Park.  Maybe that forced trip west opened his eyes to quite a lot.
For more photos and information, you may appreciate listening to Woody Guthrie singing ‘Ludlow Massacre’ at


sumon tripura said...
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K. Lyn Wurth said...

Thanks for sharing this. I grew up in Colorado, but hadn't heard about it until today. Great history!

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks for sharing this little-known story. I've passed by the Ludlow site often on trips through southern Colorado. It's a sad and painful reminder of those brave men and women who came to this country and worked so hard, often giving their lives to make our country what it is today.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

I did know about the Ludlow Massacre, but I didn't know the role Mackenzie King played in resolving the dispute or that Rockfeller softened his stance after visiting the site. Thanks for an interesting post. It's always good to be reminded of historical events even the ones that are painful to revisit.

Andrea Downing said...

Kelly, that truly surprises me, but maybe it was something non-mining communities didn't discuss? Thanks for stopping by.

Rebecca, I was wondering what, if anything, existed of the site now. Thanks for letting usn knw it's still there.

Patti, sadly I think there are an awful lot of historical events that are uncomfortable to visit. One can only wonder what of our contemporary happenings people in the future will look back on with disgust