The Reverend John O. Ferris (d. 1942) was a spiritual leader in Trinidad during the Coalfield War and Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Ferris was one of the few people permitted to search the ruined Ludlow tent city for the bodies of slain miners, women, and children, and his account of the days after the massacre remains one of the better primary sources of the event today.
John Ferris graduated from St. Stephen’s College, an Episcopal school in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and completed seminary studies at Nashotah House in Wisconsin in 1887. He had been an Episcopal priest for twenty-five years, serving churches in Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Colorado. In 1913, after accepting an assignment in Trinidad—the heart of the state’s coal mining industry—Ferris and his family lived in a two-story Victorian rectory. Trinity Episcopal Church in Trinidad was an undistinguished wooden box, with only a rooftop cross to advertise its purpose.
Ferris immersed himself in his pastoral duties. He conducted three services on Sundays and officiated baptisms, marriages, and burials. He held vestry meetings, prepared new members for confirmation, and met with Sunday school teachers, choir members, women’s guilds, and the Trinidad Ministerial Association. Within a year, the congregation approved plans to remodel and expand the church to match the architectural standards of its neighbors. Ferris envisioned a renovated church that would resemble the traditional churches of the English countryside: Tudor in style, cruciform in shape, and boasting a handsome set of buttresses and a tower. Under Ferris’s supervision, construction began in summer 1913.
The Strike Begins
On September 23, 1913, area coal miners at nearby Ludlow began their strike, demanding union recognition, eight-hour workdays, a wage increase, and other concessions. Refusing to recognize the union or negotiate with the strikers, mine owners evicted the striking miners and their families from company-owned housing. The union established temporary tent colonies for the miners at Forbes, Ludlow, and Walsenburg. In early October, the ministerial association met to discuss the strike. They agreed unanimously to keep their discussions secret but, apparently, they could agree on little else. Like their congregations, the clergymen’s sympathies were divided. Some in this conservative town supported the mine establishments; others sided with strikers, who represented the communities many of the clergy had come west to help. As the deliberations were kept confidential, it remains unclear where Ferris stood on the matter.
Already there were pitched battles between strikers and mine police. In August, Colorado labor commissioner Edwin Brake, on a fact-finding tour of the area, had reported a “terrible unrest.” By late October, the outspoken eighty-two-year-old labor organizer Mother Jones led a protest in downtown Trinidad to try to resolve matters. On October 28, Governor Elias M. Ammons ordered the Colorado National Guard, under the command of Gen. John Chase, to maintain order in the strike field.
Ferris in Trinidad
Meanwhile, Trinity’s reconstruction was in its final stages. When the church reopened on November 9, 1913, it was hardly recognizable. All was “refinement and reserved dignity,” wrote a local reporter. But as Ferris labored on his new edifice, he could not help but become aware of a growing unrest in his community. While celebrating their first Christmas in the new church, congregation members must have known of the misery of the miners and their families in the tent cities. In the early months of 1914, fighting among strikers, mine guards, and the militia broke out sporadically. General Chase and his National Guard troops were quartered in Trinidad, as were officials of the union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Protests and marches continued, and a federal congressional committee had convened at the West Theatre to hear testimony from the combatants. In March, the militia destroyed the Forbes tent colony, and violence was escalating everywhere.
Ferris could not ignore the tensions around him. He was now serving as the priest for St. Mary’s in nearby Aguilar, as well as Trinity Church, and his duties took him past the Ludlow tent colony to the equally volatile community outside Aguilar. Easter was coming, and Ferris baptized four people on the Saturday before the holiday. Among them was a young man named Godfrey Irwin, who boarded with the Ferris family.
The Ludlow Massacre
Eight days later, on Monday, April 20, 1914, the Ludlow conflict erupted. By mid-afternoon that day, the militia was firing machine guns into the tent city and striking miners were shooting from the hills. The tents were in flames, set ablaze by the militia, and women and children were fleeing to the hills and nearby ranches or hiding in the cellars dug beneath the tents. By nightfall, a soldier lay dead. Louis Tikas, the tent colony’s strike leader, also lay dead, almost certainly murdered as he tried to negotiate a truce with the vengeful militia. Several other strikers lay dead as well as two women and eleven children who had suffocated while hiding in one of the cellars.
News of the massacre reached Trinidad immediately, brought by rail passengers and refugees pouring into the city. Denver soldiers boarded trains bound for Trinidad, as striking miners and union sympathizers from around the region took up arms and set out for the hills west of Ludlow. In response to the massacre, enraged strikers attacked mine complexes throughout the area, blowing up mining equipment and battling mine officials and their families who had sought shelter in the mineshafts. Within two days of the massacre, chaos and civil war descended on Colorado’s southern coalfields.
On Wednesday, April 22, Ferris was part of a citizens’ group that set out from Trinidad under a Red Cross flag, determined to collect the bodies from the smoldering camp at Ludlow. At the camp, Ferris and the retrieval party found a “ghastly” landscape. Blackened iron bed frames and cooking stoves stood silently among the smoking ruins of the miners’ former homes and belongings. Ferris and the party searched for the bodies of the dead women and children as militiamen looked on. About fifty feet from the camp’s main tent, they found a “cave” nearly covered with bedding and burned-out mattress springs. The group removed the mattress springs and took in a gruesome sight: the bodies of women and children were stacked in distorted poses showing indescribable agony. Members of the group climbed into the pit and lifted the corpses out while others placed them on wagons for transport to Trinidad.
On Thursday and Friday, strikers and militia battled in the coalfields while refugees fled to Trinidad and funerals were held in the city. On Saturday, responding to rumors that other bodies still lay in the tent colony, Ferris and several others again set out for Ludlow. Faced with a second unexpected visit from Ferris, General Chase angrily confronted the party. After initially allowing the group into the tent colony, Chase ordered that they be brought away from the site. The next day—Sunday, April 26, 1914—saw the ministers in Trinidad officiate their customary church services. That afternoon, Ferris once again set out to Ludlow. Despite knowing full well the hostile reception they would receive, Ferris remained determined in his efforts to account for all of the missing strikers. After several hours of searching, the party did not find any additional bodies.
On Tuesday evening, Ferris attended a closed session of the Trinidad Ministerial Association. A committee of Denver ministers would come to Trinidad to investigate the causes of the Ludlow massacre. The ministerial association offered its services to the committee, along with the use of its stationery and typewriter and a room at the First Presbyterian Church. Two days later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered federal troops into the region. Soon they had disarmed both the militia and the strikers and restored order. In December, the UMWA officially ended the unsuccessful strike and workers returned to the mines. Though the union had failed to gain bargaining rights and had retreated from the region, miners did see small improvements in wages and working conditions.
For the next twenty-two years, Ferris served congregations in New York and New Jersey. He retired in 1936 and died six years later at the age of seventy-eight. Curiously, his obituary did not make any mention of church building in Trinidad or his role in the events at Ludlow.
Adapted from Beverly E. Stimson, “Outward and Visible Signs: The Trinidad Legacy of Reverend John O. Ferris,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 24, no. 1 (2004).