Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

 Jan. 6, 2003

A coal miner's life ­ letter from Leadville

On the way to Leadville, Colo. to rendezvous with our son and his wife for Christmas, I turned off on Interstate 25 just north of Trinidad, Colo., to see the memorial for the Ludlow Massacre.

I thought this would be an appropriate way to begin our visit to the old mining town of Leadville, a few hundred miles to the north.

Crunching through the snow on a cold windy day, I was the only visitor. I was a mile away from the tiny town of Ludlow.

There was nobody in sight for miles around. I was standing right on the very spot where 20 people died April 20, 1914 - victims of the militia hired by the mining corporation as strike breakers.

Some of those murdered were burned to death in their tents, including women and babies.

The granite obelisk where I stood listed the names and ages of those killed and where they were from ­ Mexico, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, and Poland. Somehow it reminded me of the Alamo monument in San Antonio.

Who died for America?

It was the immigrants.

In 1914, there was a string of coal mines and company towns stretching from northern New Mexico into Colorado. The work was so hard, it seemed only the poor immigrants would apply.

"Through mineral concessions and subsidies, the government had made the mine owners powerful, so that the men who worked in mines worked their cruelly long hours in danger and lived as near serfs in company towns." (From "Master of the Senate" by Robert A. Caro).

The pattern of inaction by the conservative Senate to do anything for workers prevailed over many years' time.

After the Ludlow Massacre, there was some public outrage, but the Senate didn't act: "A law to authorize federal action against the renewed disenfranchisement against black voters in the south was passed in the House but blocked in the Senate. So was a law that would have banned violence against strikers by private police forces."

Private police forces, such as the militia hired out of West Virginia who massacred the strikers of Ludlow, had no accountability. They were never punished.

It was with this in mind that I approached the present town of Leadville.

On the outskirts, for all the world to see, are huge heaps of slag, left over from the "glory days" when the owners became billionaires, while most miners died young and died poor.

It is easy to see why Leadville has the dubious distinction of being one of the biggest superfund environmental disasters in the country. Corporations had no scruples there either.

One of the poignant things about Leadville is the ongoing advertisement in the local weekly newspaper to have your children tested for lead poisoning at least once a year.

I found a poem at the Mining Museum in Leadville by Anthony A. Gallegos which rather sums up what I am trying to say of Leadville history.

Shift Work


A lunch box and thermos on the kitchen table when I went to bed.

A thermos full of coffee. A lunchbox with initials and number 1186 on it.

A can of Skoal.

He was gone in the morning when I left to catch the bus to school.

In the afternoon I had to be quiet in the house because my dad was sleeping.

He would wake up in time to have dinner with us. Graveyard.

He was a rope rider.

Working on the slope in the wind.

The wind had been caught and forced underground into the mines.

Wind to keep miners alive. Wind to keep them safe.

Wind to get the coal out of the ground.

Coal to make steel. Coal to make electricity. Coal to feed us. Coal to pay the bills.

Coal to keep us warm.

Years went by.

Day shift

He would get up in the early morning dark.

Make coffee. Eat breakfast. Pack his lunch.

At the bathhouse he would have time to check his safety lamp.

Time for a cigarette, some coffee, and some talk.

He was a fireboss.

Walking through the mine. Checking the air. Checking the gas.

Air to keep the miners alive. Air to dilute the gas so they could get the coal.

Coal to fill the trains. Coal to buy a car. Coal to send me to college.

Years went by.

Last shift

Twenty-four years. Would have been 25, but they shut the mine down.

He was retired, but not yet 65.

Stopped chewing tobacco when his gums let go of a tooth.

He would drink coffee. Read a book. Mow the lawn. Smoke a cigarette.

Living in the house in the town for the mine.

He was a miner. A coal miner.

Coal to pay the hospital bills. Coal to pay his retirement. Coal to buy groceries.

A few years went by.

His lungs were strained and clogged. He tired of coffee. He still needed a cigarette.

He was a miner without a mine.

Retired without his health. Retired without all those golden years.

He traded them for coal.

Coal to feed us. Coal to give us shelter. Coal to keep us warm.

Coal to give us a life.

("Letter from Leadville" to be continued in the next issue.)

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