Killing for Coal: An Interview with Thomas G. Andrews

Thomas G. Andrews’ Killing for Coal offers an intriguing analysis of the so-called Ludlow Massacre of April 20, 1914, a watershed event in American labor history that he illuminates with a new understanding of the complexity of this conflict.

Andrews, a professor of history at University of Colorado Denver, writes not so much about the Massacre, but around it. The event itself — a fierce armed conflict between Colorado coal miners and a variable force of mine guards, National Guardsmen and deputized militiamen — is afforded less than five pages of Andrews’ narrative. The bulk of the book is devoted instead to the description and analysis of the complex geological, sociological, financial and personal forces that created the Ludlow environment.

Andrews takes us on a few key stops backward in time from the central event of his story. He begins by giving a deft biography of William Jackson Palmer, the railroad builder who connected the Colorado coal fields to the Eastern markets. Besides having a key role in the creation of the coal fields in Ludlow and beyond, Palmer’s pie-eyed paternalism is representative of an entire class of men of his time. Andrews comes back again and again to this attitude of “owner knows best” to illustrate how the conflict between labor and management at Ludlow was nearly inevitable.

Going back even farther in time, in what is one of the most obvious strengths of his book, Andrews takes the reader to an unrecognizable Colorado — one without which none of the events described in his book could have ever happened. This once swampy, tropical landscape provided the raw materials — “ferns, mosses, cycads, figs, palms, and cypresses” — that became compressed into the coal the Ludlow miners would later painstakingly excavate from the earth.

Thus, Killing for Coal distinguishes itself from conventional labor histories, by going beyond sociological factors to look at the total physical environment — what Andrews calls the “workscape” — and the role it played in the lives of both labor and management. Throughout Andrews’ narrative are consistent reminders that these underground seams of condensed organic matter had a rapid and transformative effect on the landscape, which, once applied as an energy source, quickly created a lasting dependence on a limited resource.

For his insistence on the importance of the environment in shaping the events of April 1914, Andrews takes pains to incorporate myriad and diverse human voices into his narrative — a task that, given the paucity of primary source material, is a testament to the author’s hard work and devotion to his subject. In its deft marriage of natural and social history, Killing for Coal sets a new standard for how the history of industry can and should be written.

PopMatters spoke with Thomas G. Andrews about the laborious process through which Killing for Coal was birthed, and why the story of Ludlow is one worth retelling — and reading.

You wrote that “Killing for Coal” was a book 10 years in the making. Take us back to the beginning of that 10-year period. How did it begin?

It started as my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin. It kind of had a half-baked beginning, where I had this vision of my dinner going backwards. I was eating tortellini and tomato sauce, and I visualized that going back to the kitchen, back to the store, and back all the different places where the constituent parts of that meal had came from. I wanted to do something that looked at labor and the environment from extraction to consumption.

When I started looking for a place to examine that, I wanted that place to be from the West, because I’m a Western historian and I’m a Westerner, so I wanted it to be about someplace I cared about. I realized I could do something pretty cool on coal and steel and railroads in Colorado, because there was this close connection. What I set out to do was a history of those three industries, and I knew I would need a hook, so that was one of the things that attracted me to Ludlow. It was a way to give a parochial story a broader significance. And then William Jackson Palmer and his utopian vision gave it a nice potential narrative arc.

As I did my research, I realized the railroad part would have worked, but it was a little too distracting; and the steel part would have worked, but there were no sources. So what I ended up with was coal.

How familiar were you with those topics?

I knew next to nothing about them. I was born and raised in Boulder, and I had literally never heard of Ludlow until graduate school. I never encountered it as an undergraduate. Same with coal. I had done a little bit of work in economic history, so I was familiar with some of the work on the economic transition to fossil fuels, so that was one part of the book I was bringing from farther back.

I had a little bit of a personal interest in coal because one side of my family was coal miners in western Pennsylvania and before that in Scotland. It wasn’t anybody I had ever met, but my mom talked about how John L. Lewis was kind of a God in her mom’s family — you know, it was John L. Lewis and FDR. So there was a personal connection there as well.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in working on this book? How did you overcome them?

Research-wise, there were two big challenges. One was the lack of worker voices. The second was that the standard narratives of Ludlow were such a vortex. As I talk about in the introduction, [the massacre] is such a polarizing event. It’s such a particularly frustrating thing for a historian. Ultimately, I’m a materialist, and I want on a certain level to be able to look at what did happen. So to get past that, I realized that I needed to really look further back in time and actually forward in time too — I really needed to put Ludlow in context.

With the absence of worker voices — that’s where I really had to get pretty creative. The oral histories helped a little, but I really had to go into the technical literature on the coal mines. I couldn’t necessarily get the perceptions and the meanings that workers made of their environment, but I could at least get something about how those environments worked and the challenges they posed, and could use a little bit of the stories from those oral histories.

It was a really challenging story to piece together; I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages that started before the book even began, stuff on the 1860s that is totally not there. It’s a pretty seriously re-worked thing. It took me a while to realize how I could manage the story. There’s no A-to-B narrative driving the whole thing.

I realized pretty early on that I was going to do kind of a loop; that I would start with Ludlow and the aftermath, and come back to that in the end, but that still didn’t resolve anything. Sometimes I wished that I had taken a more traditional approach, but that’s one of the challenges of doing environmental history — it opens up Pandora’s Box in a way. With the source problem, you have little islands of things that you know, or can be reasonably sure about, but it’s particularly difficult to figure out how you’re going to bridge them. It was a tougher project than I really knew how to take on.

Photo of Thomas Andrews by Justine Miani

Why do you think the story of Ludlow is an important one to tell?

One reason is that I think there is sort of a weird nostalgia about the pre-petroleum automobile era. I think one thing my book does is sort of explode the idea that the internal combustion engine and petroleum are the reason there’s violence related to fossil fuels, that there are socioeconomic inequalities that are deepened by fossil fuels. It’s the idea that somehow all of that is a 20th-century problem, that if somehow we could go back to the time of trains and streetcars, everything would be dandy. Given all the things that were happening in the world when I was writing this book, there were definite echoes in the present day.

On a deeper level, I think historians do virtually nothing with fossil fuels, and I think historians as a profession have provided almost no information about why energy matters. There’s a handful of really good works, but they have made almost no impression at all on history in general. Even with people you think would be more on top of it, like environmental historians, they tend to not have a very good grasp of how energy resources differ from other types of resources. Ultimately, it’s a book about energy and the problems that energy has long created for our society.

In the book, you suggest that other histories of Ludlow have been one-sided or lacking in some way. How does your history differ from those that have come before, and what do you feel is important about these differences?

I think that other histories of Ludlow don’t get out of the vortex, or whatever you want to call it. And for the most part, they really have been sort of United Mine Workers of America-friendly stories (UMWA). From Upton Sinclair, who was writing at the time of the strike and was pretty heavily involved in the intellectual and radical response to this, even through someone like George McGovern. With them, I think they looked at a source base that was deeply polarized, weighed the two sides, and chose the one that rang truest for them. If I was going to do that, I definitely would have ended up telling a similar story to the one they had told, but they’d already done it, so it sort of freed me to do something different.

The thing that bothers me about that story more than anything, other than the fact that it obscured the agency of the workers, is that they really treat the strike and the massacre as first and foremost a union story. The union was obviously at the center of the strike, and you can’t understand Ludlow without understanding the union, but I became really convinced that this was much more of an uprising from below. The UMWA was really the vessel into which a lot of other things were poured.

I think the union plays an important role in my book, but I try to make (the workers) more important. Like in my discussion of company towns, it actually show that company towns mostly existed because of worker agency, and that’s a really big difference from the way they were understood by people like Sinclair.

One aspect of your book that sets it apart from a conventional labor history is its focus on the environmental aspects of your topic, the physical landscape and how it was formed. Would you say these factors were as important as the human factors in shaping the events at Ludlow?

I really don’t think you can separate the two. There’s such a long process of co-evolution or of mutual shaping involved there, and I think that’s what’s really important. One of the other things I was trying to do in the book, apart from highlighting energy and its significance, was to say that nature matters in the present and nature has mattered in the human past, even in places where we don’t expect it to. To do that, I think that I really had to look at the human and the natural as inextricable.

It kind of depends how sort of stringently I look at the question. As far as the actual events of April 20, that gets to be a pretty human story. When you get to the gunshots and the reaction, I don’t think that stuff was determined or dictated by the fossil fuel economy. The actual killing during that year, most of that was pretty much human, but to understand the deeper context, you need to look at all of it.

Was there anything you learned during the research or writing process that surprised you or changed your view on the people or events of Ludlow?

When I learned about the ferocity of the workers’ response to Ludlow, that was one of the first things that really struck me. I hadn’t heard that much about Ludlow, and what I had heard is that it was definitely a tragedy and a story of out-and-out victimization. It was interesting to learn that this really militant expression of agency in the days following Ludlow had even taken place, which is not something that’s really included in the standard story.

I didn’t know that much about coal mining. I really thought of it as a downtrodden occupation. A lot of people didn’t want their kids doing it, it wasn’t a glorious occupation, but the level of pride people had in their work was really significant. One of the things that’s fascinating to me is that this tradition spread and sort of expanded over time and expanded across culture, and it didn’t seem to be the exclusive province of the people whose forebears had been in coal mining. That’s a really serious difference between coal and copper mining, or gold mining, where there really were sharp ethnic and racial divides. It was surprising in coal to find that an expert British American miner might educate a green Italian miner, and that they would get paid the same wages.

I was just struck by how weird coal mining is. It doesn’t fit with a lot of the stories that we tell about industrialization. Coal is not very sexy, and it’s not something that has really gotten much attention, but it’s a very interesting field to study.

What’s next for you as an author?

I’ve got a couple of ideas I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been teaching a class in animals in the United States, which kind of combines environmental and cultural history with moral and ethical questions, so I don’t know — I’m thinking of doing a synthetic history, kind of like (Howard) Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” but it would be the Animal’s History of the United States.

Another one I really want to do is an environmental history of the American West above timberline — these areas have never really been studied in any significant way. Probably less than 5,000 people live up there, even today, so it’s a different sort of frontier.