Available now— Slaughter
in Serene: the Columbine Coal Strike Reader!
It matters little whether the deed
was recent, as in the killings at Columbine High School, or years
ago, as in the killings at the Columbine Mine in Serene, Colorado.
Our fascination and our horror remain focused upon the question:
can the killers
be so calloused, so uncaring, so different from us— that
they might commit atrocities against fellow humans?
Beyond simply coming to terms, remembering
and understanding such motivations and deeds might help us to guide
our beliefs, formulate our laws, and teach our children to deal
with dangerous circumstances.
The murders at Columbine High School shocked us
in their barbarity. We must remember.
But our shock is also a measure of how society has
changed. The murders at the Columbine Mine in 1927 were horrific.
Yet sadly, they shocked only a few.
There is one other important difference. The 1927
murders were recklessly perpetrated by a police force in the pay
of the governor of the state of Colorado.
The machine gunning of striking coal miners was
orchestrated by a small but powerful segment of the business community
and was encouraged by lurid editorials against immigrant workers
in Colorado's daily papers. The citizens of Lafayette burned those
papers in the street as a sign of their agony and their sense of
betrayal. Lafayette wanted justice; Denver simply wanted coal.
The COLUMBINE MINE MASSACRE
by richard myers
The coal strike had already
seen mock dive-bombing of strike rallies by combat aircraft
arrests of strike leaders for "vagrancy".
The strike was having an impact on coal stocks and the November
weather was turning cold. In the words of the Denver Post,
it was time for the state to unleash the "mailed fist", to "strike
hard and strike swiftly..."
North of Denver there is a quiet hilltop with a pleasant view
of the surrounding plains. Birds flit through the trees and
buzz about the wildflowers along Highway Seven and Interstate
25. There is a small parking area from which a traveler may
take in the
"MACHINE GUNS ARE THE BEST ANSWER TO THE
PICKETERS. POSTED AT THE COLUMBINE MINE, WILLING WORKERS GO TO
WORK WHILE PICKETERS
SLINK BACK. MACHINE GUNS MANNED BY WILLING SHOOTERS ARE WANTED
AT OTHER COLORADO MINES..." Editorial in the Boulder
Daily Camera, November 17, 1927.
It was a chill November morning in Serene, home of the mighty
Columbine mine that was nestled peacefully on a rolling Colorado
hillside. The strike was five weeks old and strikers had been conducting
morning rallies at Serene for two weeks, for the Columbine was
one of the few major coal mines to remain in operation. Five hundred
miners, some accompanied by their wives and children, arrived at
the north gate just before dawn. They carried three American flags.
At the direction of Josephine Roche, daughter of the recently deceased
owner of Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the picketers had been served
coffee and donuts on previous mornings. This morning men with guns
would serve up something different.
Post demanded military action
Serene was surrounded by two fences and the
strikers were met at the outer gate by Weld County Deputy Sheriffs
Louis Beynon of
Frederick and William Wyatt of Greeley. Beynon warned the strikers
not to enter the Columbine property, not to push their luck on
this particular day. He tossed a few dollars worth of coins onto
the ground saying that's all I have, please take it and go home.
Some of the miners scrambled for the coins. Others argued that
Serene had a public post office—and some of their children attended
the Columbine school—so they had a right to continue holding strike
rallies there. Wyatt claimed that the strike issues would probably
be settled by the following Friday. In the words of Mrs. George
Kubic, wife of a striking miner from the Shamrock mine, "He
told us the same thing before, however, and we decided to go on
in. There was no mention of staying out in the name of the law.
We were not armed and we did not expect a thing in the way of trouble." The
deputies drove their two cars to the inner gate where they were
admitted onto company property, and the strikers followed.
Columbine Mine Massacre Highway Marker
Beyond the gate the miners were surprised
to see a detachment of state police dressed in civilian clothes
but armed with automatic
pistols, rifles, riot guns and tear gas grenades. The rangers were
backed up by rifle- toting mine guards stationed on the mine dump.
Head of the rangers Louis Scherf shouted to the strikers, "Who
are your leaders?" "We're all leaders!" came the
reply. Scherf announced the strikers would not be allowed into
the town, and for a few moments they hesitated outside the fence.
There was discussion, with many of the strikers asserting their
right to proceed. One of the state police taunted, "If you
want to come in here, come ahead, but we'll carry you out." Longtime
Lafayette resident Lewis Starkey, then a miner from Erie, recalled
later that he thought it was a bluff.
Article On The Columbine Massacre
taunts were exchanged. Popular strike leader Adam Bell stepped
forward and asked that the gate be unlocked.
As he put his hand
on the gate one of the rangers struck him with a club. A sixteen-year-old
boy stood nearby holding one of the flags. The banner was snatched
from him, and in the tug-of-war that followed the flagpole broke
over the fence. The miners rushed toward the gate, and suddenly
the air was filled with tear gas launched by the police. A tear
gas grenade hit Mrs. Kubic in the back as she tried to get away.
Some of the rangers hurled rocks and clubs and the miners threw
them back. The miners in the front of the group scaled the gate,
led by Adam Bell's call of "Come on!" Bell was pulled
down by three policemen. Viciously clubbed on the head, he fell
unconscious to the ground. A battle raged over his prostrate form,
the miners shielding him from the rangers. Mrs. Elizabeth Beranek,
mother of 16 children and one of the flag-bearers, tried to protect
him by thrusting her flag in front of his attackers. The police
turned on her, bruising her severely (police admitted to using
clubs in the skirmish. In Scherf's words, "We knocked them
down as fast as they came over the gate"). Rangers seized
Mrs. Beranek's flag too. A striker belted one ranger in the face,
breaking his nose. Blood
gushed from a cut above one ranger's eye when a rock found its
mark. The police retreated.
Emboldened by the retreating police, strikers forced
their way through the wooden gate, shattering the padlock. Jerry
Davis of Frederick held his
flag high as hundreds of angry miners surged through the entrance.
Others scaled the fence east of the gate. The police formed two
lines at the water tank a hundred and twenty yards inside the fence.
Louis Scherf fired two .45 caliber rounds over the heads of the
strikers. 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.
Three machine-guns had been installed at the mine
and miners later claimed their ranks were decimated by a withering
the mine tipple— a structure where coal was loaded onto railroad
cars— and from a gun on a truck near the water tank. John Eastenes,
34, of Lafayette, married and father of six children, died instantly.
Nick Spanudakhis, 34, Lafayette, lived only a few minutes. Frank
Kovich of Erie, Rene Jacques, 26, of Louisville and 21 year old
Jerry Davis died hours later in the hospital. The American flag
Davis carried was riddled with seventeen bullet holes and stained
with blood. Mike Vidovich of Erie, 35, died a week later of his
Post Article On The Columbine Commemoration
There were three-score wounded, twenty-five of whom
were identified in the press. They were from Broomfield, Superior,
Marshall, Canfield. At least two women were badly hurt. Fortunately
many of the area children were in school.
The daily papers were filled with false accusations
by the state police. Miners were said to be armed with sniper
even bottles filled with nitro-glycerin slung on ropes under their
coats. Later analysis of a sample "nitro-glycerin bomb" by
the state oil inspector determined that it was filled with tear
gas. Some police claimed sharpshooters had been sniping at them
all morning, even prior to the meeting with Beynon and Wyatt outside
the gate. Reporters naively filed uncritical stories from the police
who pointed at the bullet holes on the outside of the wooden gate,
citing them as proof that the miners had fired weapons—this in
spite of the fact that the miners were pouring through the gate
when the shooting started, and Scherf's statements make it clear
the gate had swung open. Several employees of the Columbine also
claimed that the miners were firing weapons. No policeman was shot.
Marshal Will Lawley of nearby Erie told the
Rocky Mountain News, "I
was in the crowd at the mine gates and know positively that the
men were not armed." Deputy Wyatt testified at the coroner's
inquest that he did not hear any shots from the miners. The miners
recall that Adam Bell sternly insisted all weapons must be checked
in at the strikers' meeting place in Erie each morning.
Before The Massacre...
Press accounts focused on whether machine-guns
were used, along with repeated police denials. One witness described
machine-gun bullets striking the ground like a plow overturning
the earth. The Denver Post stated, "strikers dropped like
grain before a sickle... the dead and wounded began falling and
the screams of the injured rose above the pop, pop of pistol shots..." Two
days after the incident the Rocky Mountain News printed a photo
of the machine-gun mounted high on the Columbine tipple, ready
for action "in the event of further trouble".
Before The Massacre...
printed a statement from an uncomfortable Governor Adams that
the machine-guns were mounted before and after, but not during
shooting, at which time they had been placed in storage at his
personal request. Citizens of Lafayette were so enraged at what
they described as lies in the press that they burned stacks of
newly-delivered newspapers in the street.
The state ranger unit (the former dry unit
from prohibition days) had been specifically constituted on November
4 to deal with the
coal strike. On November 7 Scherf executed a midnight raid in Walsenberg,
arresting strike leaders. There is much anecdotal and some circumstantial
evidence that the police planned an ambush at Columbine. They had
called for delivery of helmets and bayonets that morning. According
to the Rocky Mountain News the adjutant general of the Colorado
National Guard (Newlon), four National Guard lieutenants and two
majors, advisor to the Governor (Lacy) and the Chairman of the
State Industrial Commission (Annear) were "by chance" at
the Columbine mine to witness the shooting. Writer Joseph Conlin
states that Frank Thurman, operator of the Black Diamond mine near
the Columbine confirmed in 1976 that "the (coal mine) operators
had conspired over the weekend to attack the miners on Monday,
November 21". The Weld County Sheriff and six deputies also
were there but did not take part.
A group of Greeley area businessmen was appointed
to assess responsibility for the bloodshed, and they laid the
blame squarely on the workers.
Boulder coroner E.A. Howe stated, "I know the cause of death
without any inquest." He marked the death certificates, "gunshot
wound incurred in a riot at the Columbine Mine." The state
police had already arrested and jailed the strike leaders, charging
them with responsibility for the deaths. The National Guard was
sent to the coal fields in full battle regalia, supported by tanks
and Douglas Bomber aircraft. The fence at the Columbine was illuminated
with floodlights and electrified to 420 volts. Two union halls
were wrecked by "citizen's committees". A likely motive
for the attack is reflected in a Denver Post editorial, "Now
that the National Guard has been sent into the field, Colorado
looks to an early termination of the coal strike...Colorado must
Rocky Mountain Fuel, the company that operated
the Columbine Mine had a good record of labor relations after
the incident. Josephine
Roche was in the process of taking control of the company when
the violence occurred and she was unaware that other coal mine
operators had sent the rangers to the Columbine. Governor Adams
was quoted on the day of the incident by the Rocky Mountain News, "The
situation developed as a distinct surprise to me as no later than
last night the officers of the company owning the Columbine mine
not only stated that troops were not needed, but that they were
not desired". In a 1944 memorandum Miss Roche identified Jesse
Welborn, John D. Rockefeller's lieutenant in Colorado, as primarily
responsible for the dispatch of the rangers.
John Eastenes, father of six children, was
first to die and first to be buried. The Wednesday funeral saw
Union Theatre in Lafayette
packed to capacity. When the Reverend Mr. Boner, Methodist minister,
raised his hand for silence the subdued murmuring of the miners
and their families ceased, broken only by the stifled sobbing of
Mrs. Eastenes and her six children. Then the simple strains of "Lead
Kindly Light" sung by a quartet of four miners filled the
room. When the last notes of the old hymn had been sung the Reverend
Mr. Boner talked of how Eastenes died. "He died a martyr to
a great movement," he said. "He went to his death just as
other martyrs of history have died for their cause".
From the Columbine Mine Massacre Memorial Service
On Thursday Nick Spanudakhis was buried in a ceremony that was
a blend of rituals of ancient Greece and pioneer America. Miners
from all over the state were arriving in Lafayette to pay their
respects. Three thousand attended. One relative, a cousin from
Walsenburg sat alone, silent, in the front row. It was Thanksgiving
Day. On Friday Jerry Davis and Frank Kovich were laid to rest.
The crowd of five thousand was overflowing. Rene Jacques was buried
on Saturday in the family plot in Louisville. His aged parents
watched the last of their line consigned to the grave.
Columbine Mine Massacre Monument
View From The Monument
Scherf's men were later involved in killings in the southern coal
fields. In 1927 picketing in any form was illegal. The mine operators,
their hired guns and the hostile newspapers made use of crude racist
stereo- typing and slander to undercut public support for the strike.
Rather than industrial revolution, Colorado was experiencing industrial
feudalism. The miners were routinely cheated out of a fair wage
by rigged scales, payment in scrip, grossly unfair credit schemes
at the company store. Spending on mine safety was so lax that the
rate of death in Colorado coal mines was the highest in the nation.
By such injustices did the industrial tycoons amass their fortunes.
After the strike ended the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company shocked
the other mine operators by going on record claiming that the working
conditions were the cause of the strike, rather than the workers'
union. The Columbine miners became so supportive of the Rocky Mountain
Fuel Company that they voted to loan part of their increase in
wages back to the company when the other operators tried to drive
it out of business. Eventually the coal operations were closed
down, and much of the stock was turned over to the United Mine
Workers. Thus ended one of the most fascinating—and in some ways
tragic—chapters in Colorado history.
For sixty-one years the graves of those killed in the strike were
unmarked. A recently installed historical marker recalls the Columbine
mine and the massacre on Highway Seven, one mile west of I-25.
Also a beautiful new marble monument in the northeast corner of
Lafayette cemetery bears silent testimony to those who died at
More Pictures From
the Columbine Mine Massacre Memorial Service
Mine Massacre Marker Map
a Stamp for Coal Miners
Lest We Forget artwork by Hal