On November 21, 1927, members of a Colorado militia fired into a crowd of hundreds of striking miners in the Weld County town of Serene, killing six and wounding twenty. The Columbine Massacre showed that little had changed in Colorado in terms of relations between workers and companies, as well as between labor and the state, in the thirteen years since the Ludlow Massacre, the deadliest labor conflict in state history.
Coal Mining in Colorado
Mining in Colorado is often associated with precious metals such as gold and silver, but by the late nineteenth century, coal had become the state’s most important commodity. It underwrote the entire industrial economy, from gold mining and smelting to construction and railroads. Coal also heated hundreds of homes in cities such as Denver. Unlike coal operations in the eastern United States, coal mining in Colorado was dominated by only a handful of large companies, with the two most prominent being Colorado Fuel & Iron and the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company.
Working in coal mines was dirty and dangerous. Even in the 1920s, after decades of labor activism had resulted in some gains for workers, coal miners still worked up to twelve hours a day, six days a week. They inhaled coal dust all day long, which led to the devastating respiratory disease known as black lung. Mine shafts could collapse or flood. Rock slides and fires were also common. Flammable methane gas released from coal beds often built up in the mines, and each morning an inspector had to check the air quality before work could begin. If this was not done properly, explosions could occur, such as when the Jokerville Mine exploded near Crested Butte in 1884 or when the Vulcan Mine in Garfield County blew up three times between 1896 and 1918.
Rise of the Colorado Wobblies
Given the slew of accidents, injuries, and deaths at the state’s coal mines, it is no wonder that many miners turned to unions to advocate for better working conditions in the early twentieth century. At Ludlow in 1914, workers were represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The UMWA largely withdrew from Colorado by the 1920s after its lack of success in the previous decade. In its place came a more radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose members were known as “Wobblies” and explicitly embraced Communism. This position made the union a major target of local newspapers and state officials during the late 1910s and 1920s, when anti-Communist sentiment ran rampant across the country. In 1919, for instance, famous IWW leader William “Big Bill” Haywood was jailed along with several other union leaders; these actions, however, only resulted in other members stepping into the leadership void.
Strike of 1927
In 1927 the catalyst for union activity in Colorado actually came from far beyond the state’s borders. On August 23, two Italian immigrants and anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were wrongfully executed for murder in Massachusetts. In response, the IWW—made up of immigrant workers from dozens of nations—urged coal miners in Colorado to go on a strike in solidarity with Sacco and Vanzetti. Some 10,000 responded in a daylong walkout, indicating that conditions were ripe for further union activity in the state. Mine owners and state officials retaliated by firing some of the solidarity strikers and closing common meeting grounds for miners, such as pool halls.
Despite those measures, in early September IWW leaders met in Aguilar, in southern Colorado, to finalize demands for a strike. They wanted wages upped from about $6 to $7.50 per day, employment of union check weigh men (who verified each miner’s tonnage, which figured into how much they were paid), and the recognition of pit committees (groups of employer and worker representatives who dealt with labor problems at mines).
The strike officially got under way in October, with some 8,400 workers leaving mines across the state. Governor William H. “Billy” Adams refused to recognize the IWW and declared the strike illegal.
Conflict at the Columbine Mine
While the bulk of the state’s coal industry was crippled by the walkouts, the Columbine Mine near Lafayette was able to remain in operation by hiring 150 strikebreakers. Opened by the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company in 1919, the Columbine had quickly become one of the largest and most productive coal mines in the state, employing hundreds and leading Colorado in tonnage by 1923. Such production came at a price, however: by 1927 workers had experienced dozens of accidents there, many of them fatal.
During the strike, conditions at the Columbine quickly grew tense. To protect the strikebreakers and keep out union agitators, armed company guards converted the Columbine Mine town of Serene into “an armed camp,” complete with barbed-wire fencing and gates. Meanwhile, to recruit more workers to its cause, the IWW sent out carloads of singing agitators from Lafayette who made the rounds of the state’s coalfields, belting out the union’s anthem, “Solidarity Forever.”
On the morning of November 14, the quiet of Serene was broken by a demonstration of, according to the Longmont Daily Times, “four hundred striking miners, led by their wives, who waved flags and sang patriotic airs.” They then piled into fifty cars and drove around the coalfields of Boulder County in a show of solidarity. With no end to the strike in sight and a diminishing coal supply as winter approached, the Longmont Daily Times gravely noted that “the situation is getting serious, to say the least.”
The disputed events of the next week would prove the Daily Times tragically correct. On the morning of November 21, a crowd of about 500 striking miners and their wives marched to the gates of Serene, intending to go on to the Columbine Mine to prevent strikebreakers from working. They were met by armed mine guards, and, at mine owners’ request, members of the Colorado Rangers—also known then as the Colorado State Police—a volunteer law enforcement group modeled after the Texas Rangers and ordered to Serene by Governor Adams.
When Colorado Rangers leader Louis Scherf ordered the crowd to halt, IWW leader Adam Bell went to the gate and asked it to be unlocked. Instead, he was taunted and struck with a club, and a sixteen-year-old boy next to him had an American flag ripped out of his hand. The strikers surged forward, with some climbing over the gate, and Rangers launched tear gas canisters into the crowd, striking one woman in the back. A bloody brawl ensued, with strikers wielding rocks, fists, and knives and Rangers swinging clubs and firing tear gas. The state police then fell back and opened fire on the crowd, which had intentionally left its firearms behind. Miners claimed a mounted machine gun also created a crossfire. Two men were killed instantly, while four more later died of their wounds and some twenty additional men and women were injured. Several guards and state policemen were also hurt.
The slain miners were John Eastenes, Nick Spanudakhis, Rene Jacques, Frank Kovich, Mike Vidovich, and Jerry Davis. The last names reflect the varied nationalities and backgrounds of the miners, all of whom pledged solidarity to one another under an American flag that was now, as one 1989 account of the massacre put it, “riddled with bullets and stained with blood.”
The massacre prompted Governor Adams to organize the National Guard in preparation for a statewide battle, similar to the aftermath of Ludlow. However, the guard never left Denver; somewhat surprisingly, there were no reprisal attacks in the northern or southern coalfields, suggesting strikers had tired of violence. Thereafter, the strike lost momentum, as workers and other unions distanced themselves from the IWW and resumed negotiations with the state’s industrial board. The board had refused to recognize the IWW but otherwise recognized miners’ right to petition. After several more outbursts of violence between the state police and IWW strikers across Colorado’s southern coalfields, the strike finally ended in May 1928. New Rocky Mountain Fuel owner Josephine Roche was a prominent union sympathizer, and she instituted a $7 wage and recognized the UMWA as the company’s official union.
The strike that led to the Columbine Massacre shows that coal miners’ working conditions had changed little despite decades of organizing, while the massacre itself indicates that state officials’ contempt for organized labor had not dissipated in the roughly fourteen years since Ludlow. The events of 1927–28 were in many ways a reprise of Ludlow, except without much retaliatory aggression by miners. Still, no Rangers or mine guards were held responsible for their actions on November 21. The massacre also sounded the death knell for the IWW in Colorado, as workers came to realize that the union did not have the political sway to get them what they needed.
Today, a sign at a rest area east of Lafayette off State Highway 7 pays tribute to the events of November 21, 1927. In 1989 local historical societies and labor organizations dedicated a memorial to the massacre victims at the Lafayette Cemetery. Left out of most Colorado history books, the Columbine Mine Massacre nonetheless remains one of the most tragic events in the state’s long and brutal struggle between workers and their corporate exploiters.