Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War

Out where the Rocky Mountain foothills stretch onto the Great Plains in windswept southern Colorado lies a forlorn, ramshackle pile of boards, the ghost town of Ludlow. Near it the United Mine Workers maintains a monument. Beyond the obelisk lies a heavy metal door on the ground; when opened, it leads down to a dank vault that gives off every sensation of a crypt. Though not a mausoleum, strictly speaking, it is an effective and chilling memorial to the April 1914 catastrophe now known as the Ludlow Massacre, when two women and 11 children seeking protection in makeshift cellars died of asphyxiation after the tents above them burst into flames. The fires resulted from an attack on a striking miners’ encampment by a Colorado National Guard contingent composed largely of hired guns of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. “Little children roasted alive” was mineworker organizer Mother Jones’s angry summary. In Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War, historian Thomas G. Andrews takes us underground in unanticipated ways, beneath the surface of this familiar story. Informed by ecological sensibilities, Andrews reaches back to the formation of coal deposits in earlier millennia. He details the extensive but now-forgotten Ten Days’ War — a stunning workers’ insurrection in the coalfields that ensued after Ludlow — and reaches even farther forward in time to our own epoch of climate change. Guided by impressive alertness to the consequences of economies predicated on fossil fuels, Andrews resituates an episode in labor martyrdom within a transformative history of the American West and industrial development, along the way imparting new meaning both to Ludlow and to burnings originating from beneath the surface of the earth.