Fire on the Plain

April 2004

On a cold and wind-swept Monday 90 years ago

this month, two terribly poor and terrified mothers and 11 children in their care were asphyxiated when the tent under which they hid was burned by soldiers of the Colorado National Guard. It was an infamous and still unexplained act of violence that – together with many other senseless deaths that day – became known as the Ludlow Massacre, the most horrific incident in the year-long Colorado coalfield wars that unfolded in the region surrounding the towns of Trinidad, Walsenburg, and La Veta. Those ashen and bloody events have no parallel in American labor history, and what occurred in this state early in the last century remains deeply disturbing.

In the spring of 1914, America’s wealthiest industrialists and their minions went to war against thousands of immigrants newly arrived from Europe, their pockets empty of everything but hope. In the spring of 1914, the production of coal proved far more important than the lives of the desperate people who mined the coal. Yet a few individuals of honor and courage, outraged by the wanton violence, did act heroically in hopes of ending the killing and the indentured servitude that preceded it, and a diminutive, eccentric, and widely renowned Denver judge was foremost among them. Though largely forgotten today, his is a story of one person’s decision to stand up for the rights of the powerless at whatever the private cost, one of quixotic determination, moral conviction, and, ultimately, bitter defeat. His is a story of heartbreak and valor and still more heartbreak, one that took place in a typically sodden Colorado springtime, when the hope of summer still seemed far away.