350px-Ludlow_Death_CarThe United Mine Workers of America were an important force in the labor movement during the years prior to WWI. By 1910, a third of all mine workers were organized (compared with a tenth of the US workforce as a whole); mining, unlike most industries with strong union representation, employed many African American and immigrant workers, and the UMWA (like the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World) sought to organize across racial and ethnic lines.

John D. Rockefeller and other Colorado mine owners spearheaded an “open shop campaign” in 1913, hoping to ensure that workers could enter the mines without being members of the union. In late September 1913, 10-12,000 mostly foreign-born miners struck against Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) among others. Workers’ complaints were simple and predictable to anyone who had ever choked out a living in America’s mines. Miners were not being properly compensated for all the coal they were extracting and were being cheated out of pay on at least 400 pounds per ton; state laws allowing miners to elect their own checkweighmen were flagrantly ignored by the companies, who refused to concede any democratic terrain to their employees; workers were paid in company scrip worth 90 cents on the dollar, which they could only spend at company stores; they found themselves being forced by superintendents to cast votes for approved local and national candidates; they were beaten or fired for complaining and were overseen by private dectectives from the notorious Baldwin-Felts Agency. And so on and so forth, world without end.

Intended to keep the miners compliant and helpless, these and other indignities enraged them further, leading to one of the most protracted labor disputes of the early 20th century. When 90 percent of Southern Colorado’s coal miners struck in September 1913, Baldwin-Felts detectives roamed the strikers’ tent camps in an armor-plated sedan built in Pueblo by CF&I. The car, which was equipped with a machine gun, was nicknamed the “Death Special” by miners, who dug pits to shield their families and themselves from the spray of bullets that became routine in Ludlow, Forbes, Trinidad, and other tent colonies.

On 17 October 1913, Baldwin-Felts agents unleashed the “Death Special” on the encamptent at Forbes, killing one miner and hitting a young girl in the face. A young boy fleeing the attack was shot nine times in one leg; one of the tents was discovered to have between 85 and 150 holes (depending on the account) — the riddled tent was shipped east to publicize the conditions under which the miners were living.

The assault at Forbes was merely one opening skirmish in the Colorado Coalfield War, which lasted until early May 1914 and ultimately took the lives of scores of miners and their family members.