Category Archives: History

Lest We Forget: The Ludlow Massacre One Century Later

One hundred years ago, on the afternoon of April 20, 1914 William Snyder and his children made the mistake of climbing out of the pit they had dug under their tent in Ludlow Colorado. Outside, the Colorado National Guard and striking coal miners were engaged in a war that had raged since morning. For much of the day the pit had been their shelter from the indiscriminate gunfire that had ripped through the tent city that striking coal miners had erected near the town. The immediate reason for the battle has been lost to history, and both sides have claimed that the other started shooting first. Whatever the cause, the fighting seemed to be letting up and the Snyders took the opportunity to escape their pit and return to the relative comfort of the tent itself. Frank Snyder, a young boy of eleven, went to sit in a chair and his sister joined him on the floor between his knees. According to his father, Frank was in the act of leaning forward to kiss or caress his sister when the bullet that killed him ripped through the family tent and struck Frank in the head (Snyder 133). In his affidavit to the Commission on Industrial Relations William reported, “I was standing near the front door of my tent and heard the impact of the bullet striking the boy’s head, and the crack of the bullet as it exploded inside of his head” (133).

Elsewhere in the tent colony a strike leader named Louis Tikas was arrested and confronted by the militia leader, Karl Linderfelt, about who was at fault for the violence. According to Scott Martelle, as the argument escalated “Linderfelt grabbed his rifle by the barrel and swung it hard at Tikas, striking him in the head and breaking the gunstock” (175). Incapacitated by this attack Tikas and two other striking miners were murdered moments later by the mob of militiamen that surrounded them (176). Tikas was killed by three shots in the back. As Tikas was murdered, the tent colony was going up in flames. How the fires started remains a matter of contention. Guard members claimed that they started thanks to sparks caused by stray bullets and fueled by explosives hidden by the miners in the camp. The strikers contended that that attacking militia purposefully set the fires. Whatever the cause, the fire was deadly. In another pit under a tent like the one the Snyders had sheltered in, hid a group of women and children: twenty-seven year old Fedlina Costa her two children, Onafrio age six, and Lucy, age four, Rodgerio Pedregone, age nine, Cloriva Pedregone age four, Frank Petrucci, age six months, Lucy Petrucci, age three, Joe Petrucci, age four, thirty-seven year old Patria Valdez and her children Rudolph, age nine, Eulala, age eight, Mary age seven, and Elvira, age three months (223). In all, two women and eleven children remained hidden as the fires spread through the tents. They suffocated to death as the fires above them ate the oxygen in their supposed safe haven. They were not found until the morning after the gun battle (2).

Collectively these atrocities have come to be known as the Ludlow Massacre. Read more of this post

Slow Burn in Centralia

Fifty years ago today, workers in Centralia, PA, began burning trash at a site over an old mine entrance just outside of the town. That fire is still burning to this day. The fire ignited the coal and then continued to spread underground. Officials spent twenty years trying to put it out, but each effort failed. Eventually, between gasses it releases, and the extreme heat and pressures that causes the ground to destabilize and result in fissures and sinkholes the town of Centralia eventually decided to close shop. For the most part, Centralia exists today as a site that encompasses a number of types of disasters: industrial, environmental, economic, and individual. That last one comes into play because, like the story of Treece I posted last week, not everyone has abandoned Centralia. Despite the site now being owned by the state and most of the town’s buildings and homes being bulldozed, a few folks still insist on calling Centralia home.

I’ve seen two decent stories about Centralia in the last couple days. The first is an AP story collected at Huffington Post focuses a bit more on the former towns residents today and includes some pictures. The second, a story from Smithsonian.com by Kevin Krajick focuses on the story of the coal fire on a larger scale. The scope of this coal fire is impressive to say the least, but the fact that stood out to me is the sheer number of these sorts of fires that are raging throughout the world at this moment.

As I said in my link to the story about Treece, I suspect I’ll be coming back to write about these stories in the future.

Thoughts on CNN’s “Battle for Blair Mountain”

First and foremost I walked away from this special disappointed. In the end it became yet another human-interest oriented special on Appalachia. To be fair, I think it’s one of the best human-interest specials I’ve seen on the area. Soledad O’brien deserves credit for refusing to patronize the people that she interviewed and more importantly for the way that the special portrayed those people. It also did an intriguing job choosing most of its subjects. Specifically (apologies if I get names wrong, I have no way of rewatching the show to double check my notes at the moment) I thought Linda and James were good subjects to highlight. I found them both intriguing: Linda for her adamant belief that she’s in the right (I’ll say I agree with significant caveats but more on that in a moment) and James for his work in reclamation on Mountain Top Removal (mtr from hereon). What disappointed me was the lack of significant focus on James’ work. Reclemation practices appeared to me to be woefully inadequate (something James inadvertently admitted to when he said it was put back the best men could), but I realize that’s a subjective reaction. Afterall, someone (I missed the name) claimed God wanted mtr. I’m certainly not going to argue that this person sees the same thing I see when I look at mtr reclamation.

I doubt anyone who knows me will be surprised, but I found the focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 was woefully inadequate. It failed entirely to capture the importance of that event, the driving forces behind it and the reason why people are marching to save Blair. In fact the portrayal of the marchers was, frankly, poorly done. There were stronger and perhaps more pertinent voices to interview in that march in the video I posted here earlier this today (admittedly it’s a biased source, but that doesn’t mean those people weren’t participants in the march). The people on the march that were interviewed (specifically the younger people/students?) simply did not provide the breadth of support for that march. Ultimately the lack of this breadth and the lack of significant focus on the battle in 1921 completely failed to convey the importance of this particular mountain. The closest the special got to this was Keeney’s comparison to Gettysburg (which was excellent). Yes, mtr and the struggle against it goes much further than Blair, but the title of the show was “Battle for Blair Mountain.” It calls for a bit more specificity.

I also saw a lot of rumblings on Twitter about the lack of “sick” individuals from the community arguing against mtr. People suffering from poor water quality and illness related to mtr are a major feature of this movement and shouldn’t be ignored. I’m willing to give CNN the benefit of doubt here though. Blair hasn’t been subject to mtr and therefore no one in that particular community have had to face that issue. There is a strong focus on the scientific findings on mtr were pretty prominent. This is to the special’s credit. Yet I think the focus on correlation and causality later in the episode is dangerous. Maybe we don’t have causality, but that correlation between mtr and health issues is horrifying and once you destroy a watershed there is simply no going back. The science is pointing us towards very disturbing findings and we ignore them at our own peril.

That said, I still think Linda is right, but for the wrong reasons. She and James deserve job security. I don’t want there to be any misconception about the need for wide ranging economic reform in the area. This is why I approach mtr through an environmental justice approach. The economic windfall from the stopping of mtr absolutely has to be addressed. My stance remains that coal produced electricity (much like oil) are environmentally destructive. If we’re going to have a fix it has to be environmentally and economically sound.

Further, there were significant (though normal) oversights by mtr supporters. James for instance decries his need to drive an hour for a job at the end of the episode. This is all well and good, but how far would he have to drive for a job after the mountain is gone and reclamation work is over? If anything mtr at Blair is a momentary fix. Mining is inherently a boom and bust economic model depending on the seam, the market, and regulation. The EPA’s decision about Spruce 1 creates problems for people today, but in a lot of cases these problems would simply show up in the years to come if mtr went forward. These communities are not secure or they are only secure momentarily if the coal companies have free reign in mtr.

And here we come to my biggest issue with “Battle for Blair Mountain”: The human interest nature of the show means that it practically ignores the incredibly powerful third party in this struggle: the coal company. (Note: I did not get an accurate spelling/did not hear the name accurately while watching for the company involved in the Blair Mtn mtr license. I haven’t found that information right away since sitting down to write this. In the interest of getting my thoughts down quickly I’ll track that information down in the near future.) The special presents a false dichotomy. We have “coal miners” on one side and “environmentalists” on the other. I use scare quotes specifically here because of the lack of accurate in that characterization. Coal miners don’t all support mtr. This is one of the reasons the focus on James is so intriguing. He (ostensibly) wouldn’t have a job in an underground mine. The show does a good job pointing out that mtr employs less people than underground mining. But that doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. The entity determining the jobs is the coal company (or overall the industry). The history of the coal industry in the community is long and complicated at best. To say that they have the community’s interests at heart though is ridiculous. They want mtr because it’s cheap and that cheapness is in part because they don’t have to employ as many people. The people who run these companies do not live near these mountains. The special fails to really look into these “community members” (if I can go so far as to use the claim that corporations are people). They are not benevolent dictators and they can and will move their money elsewhere. They play a huge role in lobbying the state and national government as well. Their power, motives, and the role they play in the governing of these issues demand more attention. Yes, they refused to comment to CNN. That’s well and good. Their omission does not mean that CNN does not have a journalistic responsibility to look into this aspect of the story.

To its credit “Battle for Blair Mountain” does not present simple good guys and bad guys. It does not presume to talk down or remove agency from the individuals who live in this community. For all of these (crucial) strengths, it fails to examine the elephant in the room. While I don’t expect CNN to provide the answer for this issue, I suspect they could go a long way to enlightening the issue if they had turned their focus towards the coal companies.

CNN’s Blair Mountain Special

CNN is airing a special tonight called “The Battle for Blair Mountain.” It’s on the recent protest march trying to save Blair Mtn from mountain top removal mining. I’ve written fairly extensively about Blair Mountain in my dissertation work as well here on the blog. Sadly I was travelling during the protest march in June so I wasn’t able to give it the sort of coverage it deserved. Quite simply, Blair Mountain is one of the most important and under-appreciated historic sites in the United States. The battle in 1921 was a pivotal and stunning episode in labor history in this nation. Worse yet the destruction facing it from MTR means not simply that the site will be damaged, but that it will literally cease to exist. To have a site where over 10,000 miners stood up against the destructive practices of coal mining destroyed by the coal industry’s most destructive practices today would be to disgrace to their memory and sacrifice.

The special will be aired at 8pm eastern and pacific (as near as I can tell). I’m not sure what to expect from the special, but I’m hoping it will serve as a good introduction to The Battle of Blair Mountain for viewers and bring some much needed attention to the struggle to save it from MTR. I’m planning on liveblogging the special or writing about it directly afterwards.

Here’s a video from ilovemountains.org about the march in June:

1913 Wheatland Hop Riot

IMG_0007 by Errant Ventures
IMG_0007, a photo by Errant Ventures on Flickr.

On August 3rd 1913 the small community of Wheatland California was transformed from a quiet farming community to the host of the largest uprising of agricultural workers that the state had seen up until that point in history. Under the ostensible leadership of the IWW the riot occurred on the third day of agitation by workers for improved working and living conditions. The riot wasn’t an unwarranted act of labor violence. The conditions leading up to the riot were part and parcel the result of truly deplorable conditions in the Durst Ranch in Wheatland. Durst was the largest employer of agricultural labor in California and in 1913 he advertised for 3,000 workers for the hop harvest. The large number of workers who heeded Durst’s advertisements found that Durst actually wanted to employ about half of the number he advertised. Aside from the poor pay the workers received, the large number of people, both those with jobs and those without, resulted in dire conditions in the camp. There was little clean water and only eight toilets to share between the thousands of workers. Disease was quickly becoming rampant among the families inhabiting the camp prior to the riot.

When the workers began to organize and make their demands known, Durst panicked. He immediately went to the nearby county seat of Yuba City and gathered up a posse of law enforcement and quickly deputized citizens and returned with them to the. As the posse arrived the workers were at a mass organizing meeting and singing Joe Hill’s “Mr. Block.” The Yuba County sheriff and district attorney, siding with Durst, ordered the workers to disperse. One member of the posse fired his gun into the air “to sober them” as he later put it in court.

What happened next is lost to history. Four men were killed in the resulting violence: two workers, the Yuba County district attorney, and a deputy. Numerous people were injured and immediately workers fled Wheatland in fear of more violence. When Jack London rushed north from San Francisco to write about the riot he claimed that the workers fleeing from Wheatland looked like the refugees of a natural disaster. The subsequent criminal trial found two IWW organizers guilty of murder, though no one had witnessed that they had taken part in any violence or even that they had been seen with weapons of any sort. They were sent to Folsom prison until their release in the early 1920s. While the IWW was mostly blamed for instigating the violence, a later investigation by the state found Durst’s negligence as an employer to have created a situation ripe for violence and for law enforcement to have acted recklessly. As Carleton H. Parker, the state’s investigator, put it in regards to the action of the posse, “Any romance which the far west had thrown around a sheriff’s posse was rudely stripped from the institution.”

All of this is preamble to the picture I’ve posted above and to the real impetus behind this post. The Wheatland Hop Riot figures briefly in my research and on a recent trip down to California I took the opportunity to stop in Wheatland and take a look at the historical marker for the riot in person. Who knows how many (or more likely how few) visitors come to the marker in a year or even a decade. After all, there doesn’t seem to be much to see. The idea to stop there mostly came about from the thought that it would be a nice photo to include in my dissertation. Upon reflection (and the always thoughtful insights of my wife) I’ve found that the marker and the area surrounding it to be particularly fitting for such a mostly ignored yet unforgettable episode.

When it was placed the marker looked out on an open field, or at least that’s what I can tell from old photos I found online. More recently the land immediately adjacent to the marker has been developed into an electrical substation. The marker’s is now nestled in a small alcove in the substation’s chain link fence, which has been rerouted around the marker. It’s a feature you can actually see on Google map’s satellite view. (I can’t help but note that the Google street view of the marker finds it neighbored by two portable toilets. Considering how significant poor sanitation was to the strike the picture is both fitting and a humorous sign of the marker’s insignificance.) What strikes me is the way that the marker is more prominent for its juxtaposition with the electrical substation. In the midst of electricity, that constant symbol of progress that feeds all of society’s technological wonders, sits a small stone reminder of labor, exploitation and violence. The marker disrupts the clean lines of the substation’s boundaries. It jabs into the side of the substation and metaphorically into the side of progress/industry/the community’s development.

Maybe I’m too invested in this particular historical event to keep from overemphasizing the symbolism at work here. There were far reaching ramifications from the riot for California, agricultural laborers and the IWW (and unionism in general). That history is fought over in texts with all the problems inherent to historiography in full display (indeed the marker itself since the nuance of the strike is overshadowed by the emphasis on the riot itself). Despite the problems with history, I prefer to have the past and events as inexplicable as the riot to stick out and frankly worry us through its prominence like this marker does. If nothing else, the marker’s presence now raises questions: What happened? Why here? (and even the inevitable) Who cares? Even when, like with the riot, the answers to these questions may never fully be answered (who killed whom for instance) they deserve to be asked and pondered over.