Columbine Mine massacre
The company town of Serene, Colorado, nestled on a rolling Colorado hillside, was the home of the Columbine mine. 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 coal mines in the state to remain in operation. On November 21, 1927, 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 doughnuts on previous mornings.
This morning the recently disbanded state police, also known as the Colorado Rangers, were recalled to duty and would meet them and bar their path. The miners were surprised to see men 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. Serene had a public post office, they argued, and some of their children were enrolled in the school in Serene. One of the Rangers was reported to have taunted, "If you want to come in here, come ahead, but we'll carry you out."
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 miners threw the tear gas grenades 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. Rangers reportedly seized Mrs. Beranek's flag too.
Police admitted to using clubs in the skirmish. In Scherf's words, "We knocked them down as fast as they came over the gate." Miners would later say that the clubs were lengths of gas pipe. A striker belted one Ranger in the face, breaking his nose. A pocket-knife-wielding miner cut another on the hand while other strikers pelted the Rangers with rocks. Blood gushed from a cut above one ranger's eye when a rock found its mark. The police retreated.
Emboldened, the strikers forced their way through the wooden gate. Jerry Davis grabbed one of the fallen flags as hundreds of angry miners surged through the entrance. Others scaled the fence east of the gate.
The police retreated, forming two lines at the water tank 120 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.
At least two, and possibly three machine guns were available at the mine and miners later claimed their ranks were decimated by a withering crossfire from 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 injuries.
The state police later testified that they had not used machine guns in the fight. The miners and some witnesses testified that machine guns were used. Some witnesses identified a mine guard who had climbed the tipple and may have operated the machine gun mounted there, providing one possible explanation for the discrepancy in testimony. However, the machine gun near the watertank was reportedly manned by one of Scherf's men.
There continued to be violent confrontations during the strike. For example, two strike supporters were killed in Walsenburg.
Amelia Milka Sablich, 19, received national media attention during the strike. She wore a bright red dress and led the marches of strikers in the southern coal field after her older sister, Santa Benash, had been arrested for doing the same. Amelia came to be called Flaming Milka.
After Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) went bankrupt in 1990, and business records were donated to the Steelworks Museum of Industry and Culture, it became apparent that the company had systematically spied upon, disrupted, and sought to discredit the union during the 1927 strike.
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