The layers of history: Walsenburg to Trinidad
Thursday August 15, 2013, 50 miles (80 km) – Total so far: 4,041 miles (6,503 km)
The story goes something like this.
In the early 1900s, the death rate in Colorado coal mines was more than twice the national average. In the coal mines of southeastern Colorado, in the mountains to the west of Trinidad and Walsenburg, the death rate was even higher. In a quest for better pay and conditions, the coal miners here unionized, and 1200 miners went on strike in 1913.
Striking miners were forced out of their homes in company towns. The union set up tent camps for them to live in. The mining companies hired a militia to harass the striking miners. On April 20, 1914, the conflict came to a head at Ludlow, a tent camp about 10 miles north of Trinidad.
On April 20, the company guards and militia men set up a machine gun on a hill on the opposite side of the railroad tracks from the tent camp. The miners set out to flank this position. A gunfight broke out. The skirmish lasted all day. At dusk, a freight train stopped on the tracks to block the gunners’ positions. This act is credited with saving many lives, as it allowed many families to run and escape.
However, at one point, the tent camp was set alight. Two women and 11 children sheltering in a pit beneath a tent were asphyxiated. In retaliation, the miners attacked many coal mines and battled the Colorado National Guard over the next 10 days in the area between Walsenburg and Trinidad. The conflict claimed between 100 and 200 lives in total. The fight ended only when federal troops were sent in by President Wilson.
Public outcry over the deaths of women and children sparked a federal investigation. John D. Rockefeller Jr. owned the company whom had hired the militia men. He was embarrassed by the event which led to somewhat better conditions in his mines and camps. The report from the federal investigation is credited with being influential in the establishment of an 8-hour work day and child labor laws.
However, the strikers did not get their demands and the union was not recognised. What may be the most telling or saddest story about the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, however, is that legislation around working conditions in mines did not change after this event. No legislation changed until around 50 years later in the 1960s.
So that is the ‘official’ story I’ve got in my head as I ride down I-25 this morning. You may also be familiar with the Woody Guthrie song about the massacre:
As I ride down I-25, I look up into the hills where the mines are located. I try to hear the other stories in my head, too. I try to imagine the conditions and the danger in the mines. I try to imagine suffering through a freezing winter in a canvas tent, subsisting on rations and hope.
But what about danger to myself this morning? I-25 is not a problem. The shoulder is wide and smooth. I feel safer on this road than almost any other highway I’ve ridden in the state.
My mood turns somber, though, as I take the exit to the Ludlow Memorial. It lies down a county road a mile or so west of the interstate on barren, flat fields backed by hills. The monument is almost easy to miss.
I take my time here. I read all of the interpretive material. I reflect on the history here. I’ve got coal miners in my family tree – they almost all died of lung diseases. How would mining have been different here to the mines in Indiana and the Appalachian mountains where my family lived? I also reflect on how recent is the history – only 100 years.
It is easy to reconstruct events in your head. The railroad line is still there. The hill where the machine gun was located has not been altered. Neither has the surrounding landscape. You can very easily see the tent colony, the baseball field and the militia vehicles in your head. It is eerie and so incredibly sad.
From the Ludlow Memorial, I get back on the interstate and battle a headwind to Trinidad. I get off at Exit 15 and hit up a Super 8 front desk for a tourist map of town. (If you don’t get off at Exit 15, you’ll have to get off at Exit 14 – bikes are prohibited on the elevated parts of the freeway between Exits 14 and 13). I see a bike path on the map, but can’t find a good way to it on the ground. Instead, I take the old highway into downtown.
I immediately like Trinidad. Unlike Walsenburg, it’s put a lot of effort into revitalizing downtown. There is public art work and sculpture. The buildings are being renovated. There are many businesses here. They are most definitely trying to be a vibrant place. They have a nice bike path by the river. The parks in downtown have been redone.
What I most like about Trinidad though is that it has an aura of historical significance. Just riding around, you can tell that a lot has gone down in this town, and that there are stories to be found everywhere. And it’s not just one people’s history. It is the history of indigenous cultures, of the Spanish, of trade routes and explorers, of the many other European cultures drawn here by the mines and market gardens. It doesn’t even feel like you are in Colorado here. I am so intrigued and fascinated. I was not expecting this.
I was also not expecting it to be this beautiful. The town has grown up along the river between tall ridges and high bluffs. The setting makes it feel like a little sanctuary sandwiched between the harshness of Raton Pass to the south and the plains to the northeast.
I’m so intrigued by this town, I ditch my plan of heading on out to Trinidad Lake State Park for the night. Instead, I find a cheap motel in downtown and spend the rest of the day exploring town and the history museum. The museum is expensive at $7, but this does include a personal tour of the Baca House and entrance to all of the exhibits (which are really well done and keep me interested for over an hour). The staff are very friendly and even let me bring my bike inside for safekeeping. I also meet one of the older volunteers who personally shows me some of the exhibits and tells me stories about them. It is so wonderful to hear her tell me all about old Trinidad and how it’s changed over time. It’s worth the $7 admission just to hang out with her.
I sit down by the river for awhile in the late afternoon thinking through all I’ve learned today. I listen to the stories in my head again. The history here is so multi-layered, the learning today has been like peeling off layers of an onion. Yes, and just like when peeling an onion, I’ve shed a few tears today, too.