The Great Coalfield War, by G.S. McGovern and L.F. Guttridge

Review by Ed Quillen

Mining – September 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Great Coalfield War
by George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge
Originally published in 1972
Republished in 1996 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-381-1

If you’ve driven Interstate 25 between Walsenburg and Trinidad, you’ve seen the sign for the Ludlow Massacre monument. You may have turned off to view an ornate memorial, and nearby, a cellar door with steps down to the tiny chamber where two women and eleven children, seeking refuge, died on April 20, 1914, while soldiers strafed the area with machine guns before setting the tents on fire.

They were not the only fatalities, nor was that the only day of fighting. The Ludlow Massacre was but one incident in a long and brutal labor conflict.

Start with Huerfano and Las Animas counties at the turn of the century. Serving as the coal supply for the steel mills of Pueblo, these counties were fiefdoms controlled by Colorado Fuel & Iron.

Elections were corrupt, with miners led to the polls and told how to vote by their foremen. The elected sheriffs were company agents who enforced company rules rather than any state laws concerning mine inspection and safety. When a miner died in an accident, as 90 did in Huerfano County in 1905-14, the coroner could be trusted to empanel a jury absolving the company. The mangled bodies were carried out from the mines at night, lest a newspaper reporter see them. The miners lived in ramshackle company-owned houses; losing a job meant homelessness, and despite state laws, they were often paid in scrip redeemable only at company stores. The company selected the books and magazines for the library.

In short, the normal checks and balances — politics, media, competition — were not operating in the southern coal fields. Little wonder that miners, despite the network of company spies and goons, turned to the United Mine Workers for relief.

The UMW was less than enthusiastic about organizing these Colorado coal fields. Union strategists preferred to start north of Denver, where the mines of Erie and Lafayette were under diverse owners, and only after they were unionized, move south.

Further, the southern miners were hardly a united group. Greeks and Albanians brought their Balkan hatreds and struggles with them, as well as their experience in guerrilla warfare. Many spoke no English. Much of the UMW hierarchy believe that the union’s limited resources for organizing could be better applied elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the union began to organize. Mother Jones arrived to lead marches and deliver fiery speeches. Land was leased near the coal camps for tent camps to house the striking miners — and the parcels were sited for maximum harassment of strikebreakers, who were often subjected to sniper fire.

Perhaps the state government could have prevented the ensuing year and more of sniping, shooting, burning, and bombing. But Elias Ammons, the Colorado governor, was far from decisive. He vacillated, and when the state treasury could no longer afford to pay the National Guard to maintain order in the coal fields, he turned to the mine owners for funding, thus “privatizing” the part-time soldiers and insuring that the miners would despise them.

Some of the guardsmen were good citizens, helping the state maintain some degree of peace in a tense situation, playing baseball with the miners on Sunday afternoons. Many, though, were a motley lot of sadists who delighted in tormenting the striking miners.

Thus the stage was set for disaster, and The Great Coalfield War tells the full story of one of the most sordid and shameful events in Colorado’s history, of which the Ludlow Massacre is only a part.

The book began almost 50 years ago as a doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University by George S. McGovern, who later went to the U.S. Senate and in 1972, the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Leonard F. Guttridge fleshed out the academic prose to produce a balanced history for the general public.

By and large, they succeeded admirably. We get a rich description of life in the coal camps and how they evolved, as well as of the perturbations in Washington and on Wall Street. There’s the Death Car and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, miners and their families celebrating Orthodox Easter, frightened guardsmen who haven’t been paid in months.

We also meet some fascinating people, some obscure today and others still famous: state auditor Roady Kenehan, a union man, tried to keep the guardsmen from getting paid; Damon Runyan at the start of his writing career; Upton Sinclair at the peak of his; Mother Jones, who “could bore or irritate big labor as much as she enraged any capitalist”; John C. Osgood, once an idealist among coal-mine owners.

Throw in John L. Lewis, two John D. Rockefellers, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and future Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King. Add Louis Tikas, union organizer who kept some order at Ludlow until he was shot down in cold blood; Lt. Karl E. Linderfelt, who saw the extermination of union miners as his duty; Mary Hannah Thomas, whose soprano renditions of union songs angered the guards; and hundreds of women marching for justice in Trinidad before being ridden down by saber-wielding cavalry. No novel ever had so rich a cast as this piece of history offers.

I would have liked to have seen more about Frémont County’s coal mines, which get mentioned only in passing, as well as CF&I’s Big Mine at Crested Butte, which isn’t mentioned at all. But those are peripheral to the story, and what a story it is.

Some books get promoted as “summer reading.” By that seasonal reckoning, The Great Coalfield War is “Labor Day reading” — a time to return to more serious matters, and a reminder that Labor Day should mean more than a long weekend heralding the last days of summer.

–Ed Quillen