Brutal days of coal strikes depicted in Book

"Slaughter in Serene: The Columbine Coal Strike Reader"

By Joan Hinkemeyer, Special to the News
November 4, 2005

Every Coloradan possesses at least a nodding acquaintance with Colorado's gold mining history, but most are unaware of coal mining's major - and often violent - role in our state's story. Even the Ludlow Massacre brings only vague recognition.

Strikers in Walsenburg stand in front of their union hall, Jan. 12, 1928, after several fellow strikers were shot. The incident was one of many attacks against miners struggling for better working conditions, detailed in the new book, Slaughter in Serene.

"Slaughter in Serene," a collection of writings by four different authors, relates the brutality inflicted on coal miners seeking improved working conditions and wages at the Columbine Mine near what was then called Serene, Colo., 15 miles north of Denver. The strike also occurred in at least 100 other mines statewide.

Although each author represented - Eric Margolis, Joanna Sampson, Phil Goodstein and Richard Myers - presents a different aspect of the strikes during the late 1920s, all reveal the inhumane treatment of miners whose workloads increased while wages were reduced by greedy mine owners. Miners also paid for their own tools and were required to live in the mine camp with rent paid to the company and purchases made at the company store.

When desperation caused a strike statewide, Gov. Adams ordered the state police to disperse picket lines. Although innocent men were subsequently murdered - there were six deaths at the Columbine Mine, referred to at the time as the "Columbine Massacre," and at least two in Walsenburg - the governor blamed the miners and absolved the state police of wrongdoing.

Each article includes numerous photos and newspaper excerpts, as well as extensive bibliographies, but the book sorely needs a map pinpointing mine locations. Writing styles vary from the highly academic and factual to a narrative reading as smoothly as fiction. Of interest is the chapter on women's roles in the strikes, which completes the picture of this black chapter in our state's history.

Slaughter in Serene: The Columbine Coal Strike Reader

Edited by Lowell May and Richard Myers (Bread and Roses Workers' Cultural Center, $19.05. Readers may order online, at workersbreadandroses.org or by calling 303-433-1852).

Walsenburg. Grim-faced strikers in front of their union hall where two fellow workers were killed by state police an hour earlier, January 12, 1928.

The fistfight was bad enough, but when the women in the strike line entered into the spirit of the ruckus, it was humiliating for the police.

The sight of big Santa Benash looming out of the mob was enough to strike terror into the heart of the bravest guard. Santa Benash was six feet tall, weighed 235 pounds, and could knock a man down with one blow. She zeroed in on one particularly obnoxious guard and sent him flying into the dirt. When he staggered to his feet, she doubled up her fist and let him have it again. This time he stayed down.

Joanna Sampson, Slaughter in Serene

Louis Scherf didn’t concern himself with what might be on the minds of the several hundred miners walking toward him the morning of November 21, 1927. He saw an unruly mob intent upon defying his authority. He borrowed a pistol from one of his men and fired two .45 caliber rounds over the heads of the strikers.

Was this action meant as one last warning? It didn’t matter. His men responded with deadly fire directly into the crowd. In the early dawn light the miners scattered under a hail of lead. Twelve remained on the ground, some writhing in agony while others lay still.

Richard Myers, Slaughter in Serene

Flaming Milka was no stranger to the picket lines. She led 250 strikers on a march at the CF&I Ideal Mine in Huerfano County. That morning twelve gunmen met them with drawn bayonets, and there were another twenty-five guards mounted on horseback. The guards swore that an unruly horse knocked Milka down, breaking her wrist and inflicting possible internal injuries. The miners, however, reported that one mounted guard leaned out of his saddle, seized the fiery young woman, and galloped down the road, dragging her behind his horse.

Trinidad. Colorado militia searching cars during the strike.


When authorities arrived at the hospital with the injured girl, her red dress torn and dirty, her body covered with bruises (and slated for jail as soon as she was patched up) they discovered that she was 19 years old, beautiful and, like a caged wild cat, spitting hatred at her tormenters.

Joanna Sampson, Slaughter in Serene
The scabs were no match for six thousand angry women. After long years of abuse and poverty the women were fed up with hostility from the companies, indifference from the public, a repressive system of justice. The women understood they were an oppressed class, and they sought to change that circumstance by concerted action.

One group of women, estimated at 2,000, stormed the Ringo-Edson mine, prevented the sixty miners employed there from going to work, destroyed their dinner buckets and threw the contents on the workers.

The women paid no attention to the sheriff except to pelt him with bread and butter...

Richard Myers, Slaughter in Serene




Erie Colorado. Crowds of striking coal miners gather outside doctor's office, where 13 wounded strikers were taken.


Slaughter in Serene: the Columbine Coal Strike Reader


Book signing with authors and editors. Folks who were in the strike, family and friends will be invited to provide testimonials.

Saturday, December 3 at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California in Denver, from 5:30 to 7 pm.

Hope to see you there!

The Rocky Mountain News has reviewed Slaughter in Serene:

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/books/article/0,1299,DRMN_63_4209860,00.html


For more information about the strike:

http://www.rebelgraphics.org/serene.html

To order the book:

Bread and Roses Workers' Cultural Center, c/o P&L Printing, 2298 Clay St., Denver 80211, or call 303-433-1852, or email breadandroses@msn.com

Order online:

http://workersbreadandroses.org/

Proceeds will benefit the Workers' Cultural Center in Denver.