The 1914 Ludlow Massacre

On the morning of April 20, 1914, gunfire broke out at the Ludlow tent colony. The ensuing eleven-hour gun battle between the state militia and the strikers left at least twenty dead, including two women and twelve children. Later dubbed the “Ludlow Massacre” by union advocates, this tragedy capped one of the darkest chapters in American labor relations.

At nearly 9:00 that morning, Mary Thomas O’Neal and her children finished their breakfast of oatmeal within the flaps of one of the many union-issued tents at the Ludlow tent colony. The seven-month coal miners’ strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CFI) had not been as successful as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had initially expected, but hopes of a satisfactory settlement remained high. Most troops from the Colorado National Guard had been recalled a week earlier by Governor Elias Ammons, leaving only a small company of militiamen under the command of Lieutenant Karl E. Linderfelt.

While O’Neal cleaned up breakfast, Linderfelt and union leader Louis Tikas argued on the ridge overlooking Ludlow. Below, strikers felt increasingly uneasy as Linderfelt’s soldiers began pointing machine guns and cannons directly at the camp. A few strikers, fearing an attack, ran towards a more defensible position. Militiamen set off one of three warning bombs, but no one in the camp knew that the loud explosion was just a warning. Assuming that they were under attack, strikers began shooting back. Louis Tikas’s voice boomed over the megaphone, “All women and children, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” As women and children fled from the camp, militiamen tried to hasten them along by shooting at their heels. One of these bullets struck O’Neal in the wrist. Though compelled to flee, the firefight at the camp had become so intense that many chose to remain bunkered down rather than face certain death. Twelve-year-old Frank Snyder was in his parents’ tent, clutching his three-year-old sister, when a bullet struck his head and killed him instantly.

Nearby, three women and eleven children sought refuge in a tent’s subterranean cellar. While they huddled together, praying that the battle would stop, the militia looted and then set fire to the tents. The fire above the women and children sucked the air out of the cellar, suffocating everyone but Mrs. Alcarita Pedregon. By April 21, more than twenty people lay dead on the high Colorado Plateau. More than 400 strikers were later indicted on charges of murder and other crimes, while all court-martialed militiamen were exonerated.