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SECTION 7 THE WORKING CLASS: Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War.

Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War. By Thomas G. Andrews (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2008. 408 pp.).

Sometimes creative reframing remakes an old story. Thomas G. Andrews fine book, Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War, finds renewed energy in a standard tale of labor historians--the Colorado labor wars and the 1914 Ludlow massacre. Andrews places incidents labor historians usually highlight within an analysis of the role of energy in the region's development and an environmental social history of Colorado mining communities. Environmental and ecological historians usually don't do labor history. Labor historians rarely give serious treatment to ecological issues. Andrews' unusual combination exhibits hybrid vigor.

The South-central Colorado region where this story took place was an arid region of high desert, rugged mountain ranges, no major navigable rivers, and native peoples who resisted encroachment until the 1850s. Small contingents of Hispanic settlers moved up the Rio Grande valley from northern New Mexico in the 1850s, and the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush stimulated a temporary boom, but both native and settler population declined thereafter. Indian population plummeted because of disease, warfare, and decimation of the buffalo herds. Settler population declined because it was hard to make a living. Gold deposits proved to be more modest than expected and limited energy resources made smelting difficult. Most crops would only grow with extensive irrigation. Goods could be shipped in or out only by costly and unreliable long distance overland routes. But underneath the land lay coal seams.

Coal, Andrews argues, changed everything: "Fossil fuels simultaneously liberated Westerners from the previously insuperable constraints of aridity and geographic isolation and rendered them utterly dependent on coal supplies. ... Burgeoning Western metropolises, gold and silver mines in the Rockies, steel mills and smelters in Denver and Pueblo, farmsteads on the high plains, and the railroad networks that bound them together--none of these could have adopted the forms they did ... without the vast quantities of coal unearthed by southern Colorado's miners" (15-16).

Andrews begins the story with the career of William Jackson Palmer, a Philadelphia entrepreneur. J. Edgar Thomson, Pennsylvania Railroad president and future Carnegie associate, sent Palmer, a protege, west in 1867 to find potential coalfields for his Kansas Pacific Railroad. Palmer's survey encouraged him to strike out on his own. He bought up Colorado coal lands, organized the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to connect coal deposits with transcontinental rail lines, and established the Colorado Coal and Iron Company with the first steel mill west of Missouri. Others copied Palmer's ventures. Eventually, major Eastern investors, including Rockefeller and Guggenheim, bought much of Colorado's fossil fuel based industries. These industries transformed the region.

But this was only possible with a dependable and skilled labor force. Nearby Natives and Hispanics were neither numerous enough nor knowledgeable enough about steel making or coal mining to fill industrialists' needs. Mining camps and mill towns thus inevitably became multicultural communities drawing both experienced miners and laborers, often with little mining experience, part of the global proletarian migration unleashed by mechanized agriculture and large scale industrialization. Perhaps, because the region's isolation made labor recruitment difficult, the Colorado coal companies did not discriminate against non-whites by paying them lower wages. They thereby recruited substantial contingents of young Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, as well as Europeans.

Ecology also shaped these communities. Because they were isolated, they could only be sustained with corporate investment in infrastructure and supply. Companies built homes, shipped in food, and restricted access. Company controlled towns, for example, rarely included other industries unrelated to coal or metal production, or a middle class of merchants and professionals independent of company controlled stores and institutions. The geology of Colorado coal also shaped mining life. Colorado coal mines were both substantially less mechanized and substantially more dangerous than mines in other regions.

Mining and associated metal industries have been exceptionally conflict prone everywhere in the world. The isolation, danger, and heavy-handed corporate control of Colorado mines and mills exacerbated this tendency. The problems of interethnic cooperation sometimes stymied workers' efforts to fight as did company policies that combined the velvet glove of paternalism with the iron fist of a company controlled security apparatus of spies and private armies. Nonetheless, large scale and violent confrontations between workers and employers were endemic to the Colorado coal mining region, with high points in 1894, 1903-4, and 1913-14. The last of these resulted in between 75 and 100 deaths, according to Andrews, including 13 women and children killed at Ludlow, Colorado when a tent colony of strikers evicted from company housing caught fire during a gun-battle between miners and militiamen. In the following days miners responded with sustained armed counterattacks on company guards, strikebreakers, and other targets of their anger. As the book's subtitle suggests, Andrews argues that these events made the 1913-14 Colorado strike the bloodiest in U.S. history.

Perhaps I can earn my reviewer's spurs by quibbling with this last assertion. I believe the casualties during the 1877 railroad strike were higher. But more importantly, the Guinness world records quality of this claim is not consistent with the tone of the book's greatest strengths. Andrews seeks to undermine the morality play quality of past tellings of this tale and explain these events more convincingly than before by embedding the story within a sophisticated environmental social history. He also hopes, thereby, to provide a model of how crossing specializations can produce new insights. Those aims, both expertly fulfilled here, are more important than the body count.

Richard Oestreicher

University of Pittsburgh
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Author:Oestreicher, Richard
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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