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'Almost like they massacred them again' 

Ludlow monument's desecration stuns mining community

LUDLOW, Colo. --John Fatur was the first to see it. Caretaker of the Ludlow Massacre Monument for more than a decade, Fatur was making his evening rounds on May 8 when he spotted the broken stone flower vase, one of four at the monument's base.

"I knew then something was wrong," he says.

Fatur looked up at the gray granite figures of the miner and his wife, cradling a child.

"I saw the heads were missing," he recalls. "I just couldn't believe it -- that somebody would do something like that. It took me about 15 minutes to get myself together enough to come back and call the sheriff."

This region is home to thousands of former coal miners and their families, and a lot of them feel like Fatur: shocked, angry, wounded.

Kathryn Garlutzo's father was a miner for half a century before he retired in 1963. Her family, who lives near the memorial, looked after it for 40 years.

"In later years, he had the black lung, so I did a lot of the helping," Garlutzo says. "He was very proud of the monument, and took care of it with loving hands.

"It meant hard work. It meant pride. It meant union, and they believed in the union because it was the union that gave them dignity -- and a pension."

After learning the memorial had been vandalized, "I was crushed," Garlutzo says. "I lose my temper sometimes, and that was one of the times. I said I'd shoot 'em if I saw who did it. And I would have; I'm a darn good shot."

In the 85 years since the miners' monument was dedicated on the burned and bloodied prairie near Trinidad, 115 miles south of Colorado Springs, no vandalism had touched it, not so much as spray paint or graffiti. Now the proud heads -- the soul of the memorial -- are gone, bludgeoned or battered or sawed off, along with the woman's arm and hand, on which her chin rested. A search for the missing pieces turned up nothing.

At a 1964 gathering marking the 50th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, survivor Mary Thomas said the figures' faces looked just like those of "kind Charlie Costa and his pretty wife Sadie."

Union organizer Costa was shot through the head on April 20, 1914 during a fierce battle between striking coal miners and a machine-gun wielding militia; legend has it he asked fellow strikers to sing "Union Forever" as he lay dying. Costa's pregnant wife and two children suffocated in a pit dug beneath the tent colony incinerated that day. Their names and those of 14 others who died -- including nine more children -- endure on a plaque fixed to the monument.

The brutality of the Ludlow Massacre outraged the nation and shamed Colorado, whose co-opted National Guard spearheaded the slaughter. Although weary strikers eventually threw in the towel without winning union recognition, Ludlow became emblematic of industrial wrongs and paved the way for an era of progressive reforms.

To the United Mine Workers of America, and particularly to locals whose families worked in the mines for generations, it remains a potent symbol of courage under fire.

"It was such a monumental event in labor history; it paved the way for many rights workers have today," says Doug Gibson, spokesman for the UMWA's national office in Fairfax, Va. "Our union has a very strong sense of what happened on the plains of Ludlow, the sacrifices that were made."

"I've always said that what the pensioners [old miners] gave us was a silver spoon -- everything they fought and died for," says Mike Romero, a former miner and president of United Mine Workers Local 9856 in Trinidad. "People from all over the country -- all over the world -- come to see the Ludlow."

Among them are former Pueblo steel workers, who feel a particular kinship with the tragedy. The mine workers helped create the steel workers' union, and both, in those early days, worked for the same master -- the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr.

"I had known about Ludlow almost all my life," says Nick Mikatich, who came from a mill family and worked at the now-defunct CF&I Steel for 30 years. "I understood that at Ludlow people got shot by the big corporations for trying to stand up for what they believed in. It meant to me that my people -- the working class -- were persecuted for their beliefs."

The monument's recent desecration strengthens a sense of solidarity, Mikatich says.

"The saying is, 'An injury to one, an injury to all.' The coal miners have been injured by this, so it's personal to them. But it's an injury to everyone in organized labor."

"It's an awful thing," says Gayleen Fatur, John's sister-in-law. "Almost like they massacred them again."

$5,000 reward

Las Animas County Sheriff James Casias has precious little to go on. Despite a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction, no tips have come in.

"We have leads from individuals who have come to me, but it's mostly rumors and hearsay, so we have to be careful," Casias says.

Everyone has a theory. In a recent Trinidad Chronicle-News column, one of the paper's reporters blamed rabid anti-unionists for the damage. But that seems far-fetched. The monument survived previous labor strife unscathed, and the last coal mine in these parts closed down in 1995.

"We had bad times here -- we've struck many times -- but no matter what went on between labor and management, nothing ever happened to it," Romero says.

It's possible, Casias says, that someone driving along I-25 saw the modest sign marking the exit to the memorial -- three-quarters of a mile west of the interstate on a dirt road -- and did the damage on a lark.

But Casias -- a former miner whose father-in-law spent 48 years in the mines -- leans toward homegrown culprits. Kids, maybe, on a drink or a dare.

"They didn't destroy the rest of it, and they took the heads with them, so they would still be intact for their purposes," he notes.

If it was kids, Casias thinks the need to brag will eventually catch up with them. "What goes around, comes around," he says. "It might take a long time, but nothing's important to a kid who did something unless somebody knows about it."

It wouldn't have been hard, for whoever did the damage. Security was never a concern at the 15-foot-high memorial, which sits within an unlocked wrought-iron fence that also contains the infamous "Black Hole of Ludlow" -- the pit where 13 women and children died. Visitors to the site come and go -- sometimes a few a day, sometimes one every few days -- as interest or curiosity compels them. Guests are welcome to write their names and comments in the registry, but that's as formal as it gets.

These particular guests left few clues as to motive or method. Untouched by time or the elements, the surface of the newly exposed necks is ragged and lighter than the rest of the granite -- almost silver, flecked with black and gold. The man's head is off below his undamaged collar line, the woman's arm just below her shoulder. There's a small nick in a monument step, possibly where her head hit as it fell off the body, then struck the flower vase Fatur found broken.

Cryptic clues, but Casias says his office and Trinidad police are committed to catching the vandals.

"The miners' memorial is not only about solving a crime," he says. "As a member of the miners' union myself, it's something that hurts. This was a monument not only to the individuals who died at Ludlow, but to this community, which subsisted on mining. It's a focal point of a lot of generations, and not just one nationality. ...

"These were not just pieces of stone that were damaged or broken. These stones have a feeling to them. These are stones with memories -- of hardship, pain, agony, loss of life. These are the things the memorial stands for."

Grim circumstances

A long lifetime ago, Ludlow was a living place, a small settlement poured out near the mouth of canyons rich with coal. Although several companies operated in the area, the undisputed king of mines was CF&I.

It was near Ludlow, in late September 1913, that some 1,200 miners, wives and children set up housekeeping in 200 tents erected on land leased by the United Mine Workers. It was the largest of a dozen such colonies between Trinidad and Walsenburg, which all told supported more than 12,000 men, women and children in the 14-month strike that followed.

That the state's southern coal miners -- a polyglot contingent of Greeks, Italians, Mexicans, Slavs and other nationalities -- decided to strike on the cusp of the notoriously harsh southern Colorado winter evidenced the grim circumstances of their employ. In walking out, they knew they would lose not only their income -- about $3 a day -- but their homes. Miners of the day were required to rent ramshackle company housing, shop at high-priced company stores, send their children to company schools, pay fixed fees to company doctors and otherwise live within their employer's purview. Those who complained -- particularly union "agitators" -- were summarily dismissed.

"They thought more of the mules than they did the men," says Fatur, whose grandfather was among the strikers and whose miner father was born in a coal camp. Both men eventually died of black lung disease.

Coal barons also controlled the political machinery of Las Animas and Huerfano counties, where sheriffs, judges and juries safeguarded company interests by haranguing labor organizers and derailing lawsuits aimed at recovering damages on behalf of miners injured or killed on the job. (At the time, Colorado's mine fatality rate was more than three times the national average; during one eight-year period, 564 miners died within a 150-mile radius of Trinidad.)

"The Colorado strike was a revolt by whole communities against arbitrary economic, political and social domination by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. and the smaller coal mining companies that followed its lead," concluded the "United States Commission on Industrial Relations Report on the Colorado Strike," published in 1915.

"This domination has been carried to such an extreme that two entire counties of southern Colorado for years have been deprived of popular government, while large groups of their citizens have been stripped of their liberties, robbed of portions of their earnings, subjected to ruthless persecution and abuse, and reduced to a state of economic and political serfdom."

The situation was ripe for a second organizing attempt by the United Mine Workers, which had failed to win recognition in Colorado's coalfields 10 years earlier. This time, the union men made seven demands, including a 10 percent wage increase, an eight-hour workday, the freedom to trade at any store and choose their own boarding and doctors and -- most important -- union recognition. All but two, the wage hike and union recognition, were already written into Colorado law, which mine operators ignored with impunity.

They were equally dismissive of the union. The strike began Sept. 23, 1913, as an icy rain doused the canyons, chilling the bones and miring the weighted wagons of mining families headed for the tent colonies.

Leftist journalist John Reed later wrote in Metropolitan Magazine:

"The strikers ... do not want to confiscate the mines nor destroy the wage system; industrial democracy means nothing to them. They consider the boss almost a god. Humble and patient and easily handled, they had reached a desperation of misery in which they did not know what to do. They had come to America eager for the things they thought the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor seemed to promise them. They came from countries where law is almost divine and here, they thought, was a better law. But the first thing they discovered was that the boss, in whom they trusted, insolently broke the laws."

The Death Special

It was violent from the start, on both sides. Strikers traded fire with mine guards, whom they loathed, and harassed strikebreakers, though many had themselves been strikebreakers during the failed strike of 1903-04.

On Oct. 17, company agents in the "Death Special" -- an armored car mounted with a machine gun -- shot up the Forbes tent colony south of Ludlow, killing a miner and wounding a small boy and a girl. Ten days later, strikers fired on buildings where guards were housed, wounding two children in their beds.

Gov. Elias Ammons dispatched the Colorado National Guard on Oct. 28, a move requested by mine operators and initially welcomed by strikers. But good feeling faded as CF&I wielded its influence to co-opt the supposedly neutral militia, replacing citizen-soldiers with adventurers and company guards.

"Both Trinidad and Walsenburg were controlled by the operators as company towns," wrote Ludlow historian Alvin R. Sunseri in his 1972 account of the massacre. Coal operators fostered the troops' economic dependence by providing free use of company horses, mules and cars and issuing soldiers certificates of indebtedness collectable from the state.

The situation deteriorated further when Gov. Ammons, under pressure from operators, lifted a ban on the importation of strikebreakers and allowed the militia's commander, Gen. John Chase, to militarize the strike zone. Numerous strikers were incarcerated for trumped-up reasons or none at all, including the sweet-faced, salty tongued "Mother" Mary Jones, whose incendiary speeches urged miners to lay down their lives for their cause.

"She seems to have in an exceptional degree the faculty of stirring up and inciting the more ignorant and criminally disposed to deeds of violence and crime," Chase wrote in a statement defending the Guard's action during the first months of the strike. "The fact that she is a woman and advanced in years she uses as a shield, as well as a means of invoking popular sympathetic sentiment in case of her incarceration. She is undoubtedly a most dangerous factor in the peace problem."

Chase went on to emphasize the "splendid conduct" of his soldiers.

"They have promptly and cheerfully responded to the state's call in the hour of danger ... and have discharged their services well, faithfully and patiently," he wrote. "The only visible return for the sacrificing citizenship displayed has been the heaping of reproach and opprobrium, falsehood and scurrility, upon the shoulders of the commonwealth's defenders."

Yet by April 20, 1914, most soldiers who remained in the strike zone were little more than professional thugs. Among them was Lt. Karl Linderfelt, whose conduct during the strike "proved him to be belligerent, hot tempered, domineering and brutal," according to the commission.

It was Linderfelt's company -- perched on a hill above the tent colony, armed with machine guns and repeating rifles -- that fired on Ludlow that morning. Miners streamed from the tents to take up defensive positions while women and children fled or hid.

"The grounds out there looked like ant hills, black with people, some this way, some that way, shouting, 'Run for the hills!'" recalled Mary Thomas, then the young wife of a Welsh miner.

The fighting continued throughout the day, with soldiers occupying the strikers' camp by late evening. Most scholars believe they torched the tents; militia officers conceded that troops helped spread the fire, and afterward looted the smoldering ruins. Although soldiers were credited with rescuing some women and children, beneath their feet were 13 others, suffocated in an 8-by-4-by-6-foot-deep pit dug as a refuge.

Also killed, by militia bullets, were five men, including three unarmed strikers who had been taken prisoner. Among them was Louis Tikas, the colony's popular Greek leader and a particular thorn in Linderfelt's side. After a heated exchange with the defenseless Tikas, Linderfelt broke his rifle stock over the Greek's head, then walked away as troops pumped three bullets into the prostrate man's back.

A frightening pall fell over their Trinidad funerals, according to Thomas. "After the men saw those little coffins with the children laid out ... they went insane and took their rifles, shouting 'Remember Ludlow, remember Ludlow!' "

As word of the deaths spread, miners from throughout the state converged on the area. The resulting 10 Day War turned southern Colorado into a battlefield. Headlines of the day described "wholesale slaughter" and "nothing less than [a] state of anarchy." By the time federal troops arrived and restored the peace, more than 100 lives had been lost and hundreds of thousands of dollars in mine property destroyed.

Some blamed strikers

Contemporary postmortems of the Ludlow tragedy blamed the coal companies, with notable exceptions.

An anti-union tract published by a Denver fraternal society described the strikers as "ignorant, depraved and brutal foreigners" inflamed by outside agitators, and commended soldiers for their "heroic rescue work" of women and children from the already burning tent colony, all the while under fire from strikers.

"From the very beginning of the present trouble, we have done everything we could in good conscience first to prevent and then to heal the breach," declared CF&I chief J.F. Welborn in a letter to President Woodrow Wilson.

Rockefeller himself evinced support for labor unions and pointed to pre-strike improvements his company made in miners' working conditions -- progress confirmed by the state mine inspector.

The industrial relations commission, which heard Rockefeller's testimony, was unimpressed.

"A spirit of accommodation or conciliation at no time actuated the mine owners," it concluded. "The evidence is conclusive that such a spirit, if manifested, would have prevented the strike and all the disastrous events that accompanied it."

Nor did the commission mince words when assessing the state's culpability:

"In all discussion and thought regarding violence in connection with the strike, the seeker after truth must remember that government existed in southern Colorado only as an instrument of tyranny and oppression in the hands of the operators; that, once having dared to oppose that tyranny in a strike, the miners' only protection of themselves lay in the physical force which they could muster."

'We want everyone to see'

The miners' courage was the story of Ludlow, captured in the simple strength of a now-mutilated monument. Union organizers expect a large turnout at their annual commemorative service here Sunday, and plan to remove the black plastic that now shrouds the decapitated figures.

"We want everyone to see how they were damaged," Romero says. "They'll come, take a lot of pictures and take them home with them."

Officials hope the publicity will generate funds to restore the memorial, a painstaking process just underway. UMWA archives show the monument, dedicated in 1918, was made by a Springfield, Ill. company from granite mined in Vermont. That information and detailed photos have been sent to a California stone conservator who will eventually do an on-site assessment and come up with a budget for the restoration.

"If the lost pieces are recovered, it's a much simpler proposition than having to re-create the heads and arm, even if they are damaged," says Denver conservator David Harvey, who at the request of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell consulted with union officials.

"But a major restoration like this takes time ... and sometimes going slow is better. It allows more time to develop ideas and options, as well as to possibly recover the stolen pieces."

Security measures -- now a necessity -- present another expense, says UMWA regional director Bob Butero. But the union is committed to making whole the monument Butero describes as a symbol of American workers' long fight for justice.

"Ludlow gives you a chance to reflect," he says. "These were people who came here as immigrants; very few of them knew the language. And yet they lived on that cold prairie in tents, and died for that struggle."

  • Ludlow monument's desecration stuns mining community

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