A Brief History
On November 21, 1927, the grossly inappropriately named Serene, Colorado failed to live up to its idyllic name and was witness to a massacre of unarmed coal miners by the Colorado State Militia, an event usually called the “Columbine Mine Massacre” and alternatively called simply “The Columbine Massacre.” Of course, the horrible school shooting that took place in 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, is what generally comes to our minds when we hear the words “Columbine” and “massacre” used together.
In fact, the infamous school shooting in 1999 left 15 people dead, 13 murder victims plus the 2 shooter suspects. The mine related incident in 1927 concerned the United Mine Workers, representing the miners, who were striking against the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, a strike that had gone on for 5 weeks across the state. On the fateful day of November 21, 1927, things seemed to be as they had been for the preceding weeks of the strike, with about 500 miners, many accompanied by family members, congregating outside the mine to resume picket duty. In a show of decency and a gesture of not being anti-worker, the new owner of the mining company, the daughter of the now deceased previous owner, had ordered the company to serve the miners coffee and donuts on the mornings prior to the massacre.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Rangers, a state police force, had recently been disbanded and was called back to duty in response to the widespread mining strike. Expecting a resumption of their peaceful protest, the arriving strikers found their way into town blocked by the rag tag reformed militia of former Rangers, dressed in civilian clothes and heavily armed with tear gas, pistols, rifles, shot guns, clubs, and even submachine guns! Armed mine security guards backed up the Rangers.
As the strikebreakers forced the miners to halt, a demand for the “leaders” of the strike was shouted, which was answered by the miners, “We’re all leaders!” Of course, the striking miners complained that the Rangers had no right to keep the miners out of the town, especially since many were residents, had business in town, and had children attending local city schools. The Rangers/thugs were not inclined to care about the civil rights of the miners, and one Ranger supposedly said, “If you want to come in here, come ahead, but we’ll carry you out.”
When a Union leader attempted to open the gate himself, a Ranger clubbed the man, setting off a wider struggle as Rangers attempted to wrest away American flags carried by 3 of the strikers. As a tussle developed, the Rangers started throwing tear gas grenades, creating more pandemonium, especially as irate miners chucked the gas bombs back at the Rangers. A melee ensued, with miners trying to climb over the fence and Rangers busting heads with their clubs. (The clubs being lengths of metal gas pipe, not normal police batons.) The viciousness of the clubbing created more vigorous fighting on the part of the miners as the fight became deadly. Miners were compelled to pull out pocket knives and pick up stones and rocks as weapons.
As the enraged miners finally began to rush inside the gate to the mine area, the Rangers pulled back and opened fire, killing at least 6 miners and injuring numerous others (perhaps 60). An American flag carried by a striking miner was found to have 17 bullet holes in it!
The Rangers and mine security denied using any submachine guns in the massacre, but miners claimed they had indeed been fired on by automatic weapons. (Considering “only” 6 miners were killed, we tend to believe the available submachine guns were probably not used. What do you think?)
The gunfire ended the massacre, but not the controversy. The history of State and local police being used to assist private companies as strike breakers is indeed a sorry chapter in the anti-labor history of the United States. Exactly that sort of bad taste reputation is the reason the State of Ohio adopted a State Highway Patrol in 1933 instead of a State Police force. The Colorado mining strike finally ended a few weeks later, with recognition of the Union representation of the miners intact, though incidents of violence against striking workers continued on a smaller scale throughout the strike.
The striking Union miners had been instructed to leave any weapons at home or at the Union hall so as not to invite a deadly conflict. Apparently, the company was not likewise concerned about preventing violence! Especially with the collusion of government officials that were cronies of the mining company owners, the workers were faced with a deadly combination of firepower that could only be matched by the right of American citizens to be armed. For those that believe regular American citizens should not have access to semi-automatic military looking arms (such as the AR-15), just look into our past when a lack of firepower meant common citizens (not rich people!) were gunned down because of a lack of arms. This historical context is often overlooked in the debate about “gun control.” We invite your comments about what YOU think about the right of normal Americans to be armed, regardless of which side of the debate you are on.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should government police, militia, or other forces be used as strikebreakers? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Andrews, Thomas. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Harvard University Press, 2010.
Foster, John. Victims of the Herrin Massacre: The dead and survivors of the Herrin Mine War of June 21st and 22nd, 1922. CreateSpace, 2015.
Laslett, John. The United Mine Workers of America: A Model of Industrial Solidarity? Penn State University Press, 1996.
US Commission on Industrial Relations. The Ludlow Massacre: The Official US Government Report on the Colorado Miner’s Strike of 1913-1914. Red and Black Publishers, 2010.
The featured image in this article, a map by User:Golbez of the United States as it was from July 29, 1926, to December 5, 1927, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.