The ghost town of Ludlow sits along a quiet dirt road in rural Colorado across from the train tracks that once carried the coal its residents excavated from nearby mines. Built-in the early 1900s, Ludlow was the site of events so appalling that the ensuing public outrage forced profound changes that affect American life to this day.
Despite the town’s age, quite a few structures still stand. Others lie in heaps of stone and decaying wood. Several hundred yards from the intact buildings, a brick wall and chimney marks the site of a collapsed structure of unknown purpose.
Though a remote Colorado ghost town, Ludlow is famous for being the site of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, a tragedy that had important lasting effects on the American labor movement.
Ludlow was a company town that belonged to Colorado Fuel and Iron. Owned by John D. Rockefeller, it was the largest coal operator in the west and one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. Despite its wealth and power, the company exploited its employees and took heavy-handed measures to prevent them from organizing.
By housing its employees in a company town, CF&I held considerable control over all aspects of workers’ lives. Curfews were imposed and armed guards patrolled the town to enforce them. Employees were paid in company scrip, a form of credit that could only be redeemed at the company-owned store, where prices were abnormally high.
Wages were determined by the amount of coal produced, while “dead work” such as repairing damaged roofs was often unpaid, causing workers to neglect safety precautions in order to earn more. The death rate in Colorado’s mines rose to nearly double the national average. Not surprisingly, mines worked by union employees had 40% fewer deaths than nonunion mines across the US.
Many mineworkers were immigrants who did not share a common language. CF&I’s management used this to their advantage by assigning workers to teams with mixed nationalities so that they could not effectively communicate with one another and therefore could not unionize.
Workers became fed up with CF&I’s mistreatment and eventually turned to the United Mine Workers of America for help. They presented the company with a list of demands, which included recognition of collective bargaining power, an eight-hour workday, enforcement of Colorado’s safety laws, and fair pay in legal currency instead of company scrip.
The demands were rejected and UMWA called a strike in September 1913. Strikers were immediately evicted from their company homes. Fortunately the UMWA had prepared for this by building a tent village where the evicted employees could live.
CF&I hired the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, who had a violent reputation as strike-breakers, to intimidate strikers and protect replacement workers. They patrolled the camp’s perimeter in an armored car called the “Death Special”, which was mounted with a machine gun. Occasionally they fired into the tents of striking workers, who responded by digging pits beneath their tents for their families to hide inside.
In response to increasing violence, the National Guard was called in. Guard leaders sided with the company management. After a replacement worker was found dead, the National Guard attacked the tent colony, intending to destroy it.
During the attack, two women and eleven children became trapped in a pit beneath a tent that was set on fire and suffocated. These deaths galvanized the UMWA, who dubbed the attack the “Ludlow Massacre.” Fighting spread to the mines and continued for ten days, resulting in at least 50 deaths, finally ending after President Woodrow Wilson sent in Federal troops.
The UMWA finally ran out of money, and called off the strike on December 10, 1914.
Despite its failure, the strike had a lasting impact on conditions in Colorado mines and on labor relations across the US. As a result of major public backlash, Rockefeller hired a labor relations expert to help develop positive reforms within his company.
The UMWA bought the site of the Ludlow tent colony in 1916 and built a memorial for those who died during the strike. On January 16, 2009, the memorial was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
The Ludlow Massacre inspired the novel King Coal by Upton Sinclair and several popular songs, including “Ludlow Massacre” by Woody Guthrie, “Ludlow” by Jason Boland, and “The Monument (Lest We Forget)” by Andy Irvine.
Support for unions reached an all-time high in the nineteen-thirties but has since seen a major decline in the decades since, especially a steep decrease following the 2008 recession. Apparently, the American public has forgotten how important unions were in shaping the labor laws and practices that we take for granted nowadays.
A study by the US Department of Labor shows that union employees earn up to 33% more than nonunion employees in the same field. Union employees also enjoy increased job security and safer and higher-quality working conditions. Rising income inequality in the US has been shown to correlate with the decline of the labor movement and union membership.
Melting snow dripped from the ceilings of the old buildings. I marveled that they had survived such an environment for over a hundred years without their wooden beams rotting and giving way.
A dozen or so structures were still mostly intact. Among them were homes,
A badly damaged piano with wooden keys is half-buried inside a partially collapsed structure. Rusted equipment lies scattered throughout the property. Some, such as the old jail, were made of stone
..but even those sturdy walls had not all stood the test of time.
a restaurant and general store,
and a repair shop with several autos in serious disrepair.
As if to lend authenticity to the Old-West feel of the town, a train thundered by.
I headed south of Ludlow’s main drag to get a closer look at the town’s two abandoned single-room schoolhouses.
A fallen playground slide lay in the brush nearby.
Neither of the schoolhouses were in great shape, but one was particularly deteriorated. Its roof was coming apart and the ceiling inside had fallen in.
The other seemed to have held up better through the years and was being used to store bales of hay.
Between the buildings is an uncovered well.
With daylight fading from the sky, I continued northward. I had enough time to explore one more ghost town before nightfall.
The stunning photos were taken by Jim Sullivan. Jim Sullivan is a traveler, who shares his stories with followers. If you’d like to see more abandoned places in America, then check out our articles on the Abandoned Golf Course in Willcox, Arizona, and the Iconic and abandoned Paper Mills in New Jersey