A journey into the tumultuous energy history of the West
By Thomas Andrews, PhD
Look at present-day Colorado and it is almost impossible not to note some of the far-reaching impacts of fossil-fuel production and consumption on our state. Automobiles, highways, gas stations, the refineries of Commerce City—all attest to petroleum’s centrality in our daily lives. Flip a light switch, watch coal trains haul their dusty black cargo from mine to power plant, boot up your computer and behold our dependence upon the coal seams buried underneath the Rockies’ flanks. Coloradans may once have enjoyed the luxury of overlooking the manifold ways in which fossil fuels shape our world. But our complacence has been eroded in recent decades by urban air pollution, periodic energy crises and a host of other environmental and economic troubles.
When I began my PhD dissertation in the late 1990s, I was surprised to learn that U.S. historians had paid only scant attention to the nation’s energy history. This was especially true of western historians. What literature did exist on energy in our region concentrated either on the Old West—on the opportunities and constraints confronted by various native peoples, for instance—or on the New West—on urban sprawl in the post-World War II Sunbelt and the nuclear boom on the Colorado Plateau.
And so I embarked on almost a decade-long exploration of the energy history of what I call the Middle West—not the geographic region, but instead the crucial time period spanning roughly from 1890 to 1940. Because of my intense interest in my native Colorado, I started with the utopian visions of industrialist William Jackson Palmer, the Quaker general who founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, the Colorado Coal and Iron Company, the city of Colorado Springs and many other Colorado industries and towns. I concluded my project with the infamous Ludlow Massacre and coalfield war of 1913-1914.
The end result: I recently published Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Harvard University Press, 2008), an accessible account of coal’s role in shaping economic growth, environmental change and social conflict in late-19th and early-20th-century Colorado.
Who consumed coal? By the 1890s, pretty much everyone. Locomotive smoke in the sky announced the arrival of a mineral-based economy powered by stores of energy excavated from below the earth. Starting around 1870, enormous quantities of power began coursing through a world long restricted by low precipitation and limited biological productivity. This created a spiral of radical, uneven transformations. With startling speed, the combined might of railroads and coal mines first eroded, and then destroyed, the isolation and economic stagnation that had so vexed inhabitants of frontier Colorado.
In gold and silver districts, coal and coke made daily life more comfortable and spared mountain forests from total devastation. Coal-burning steam engines, compressors, drills and other machinery facilitated deep extraction, while coke-burning smelters made it possible for precious metals to be mined for cents instead of dollars.
But there was a dark side, too. Coal-powered machines deskilled hardrock miners and exacerbated chronic hazards underground. Labor wars at Leadville, Cripple Creek, Telluride and elsewhere joined a political economy dominated by financiers and industrialists as harbingers that beneath the glitter of gold and silver lay the grime of coal.
Coal proved particularly crucial to the development of Denver and Pueblo. Smoke-belching smelters, mills and factories enabled these cities to grow outward and upward with astonishing speed; in the process, some parts were healthy and pleasant, others sickly and squalid. As coal-burning industries pushed well-heeled Coloradans away from the polluted, congested manufacturing districts, coal-powered transit technologies, such as electric streetcars, pulled the well-to-do and their middle-class emulators toward healthier, more spacious suburban abodes.
In city and country alike, Coloradans used fossil fuels to break the bounds that had long constrained natural ecologies and human economies in the region. Coal gave people newfound power—to transcend bodily limitations, transform matter and haul unprecedented quantities of goods, information and people farther, faster and more cheaply than ever before.
Every ton of coal provided clear economic gain and a store of additional power that people could use to change their world. With every passing year, Westerners demanded more heat, light, food, gold, steel and electricity—and hence more coal. By the early 20th century, fossil fuel was in enormous demand for industry and homes alike. Less conspicuously, coal was the crucial component that produced and delivered the foods Westerners ate, the goods they bought and the tools they used. It helped determine the work they performed and the places they called home; it was present in the very air they breathed.
Economic growth in frontier Colorado had generally been slow, hard-won and ephemeral. In contrast, the mineral-intensive industrial economy that took root after 1870 grew in a manner that one historian likens to the suddenness, scale and unpredictability of mutation. A defining characteristic of mutation is its irrevocability, and by the early 20th century, life without coal seemed unimaginable. Per capita annual coal consumption in Colorado approached 12 tons in 1910—a remarkable figure since coal consumption for Britons was fewer than four tons per capita when the industrial revolution matured in the 1850s and in today’s United States, per capita coal consumption is 3.5 tons. The Denver Chamber of Commerce summed up the region’s fossil-fuel dependency when it declared of coal: “We cannot exist without it.”
Coal miners attempted to use this dependence as a weapon by launching a massive strike in the late summer of 1913. This sparked a chain of events that culminated in the massacre of 19 men, women and children and a workers’ uprising, the Ten Days’ War, which left more than 30 strikebreakers, mine guards and state militiamen dead.
Today the violent consequences of our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels are most evident in the Middle East, the Niger Delta and other distant locales. My hope is that Killing for Coal can help draw the attention of Coloradans, historians and other readers to the complex and troubling relationships between energy, prosperity and conflict.
Editor’s note: Thomas Andrews, PhD, assistant professor of history in the UC Denver College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shares firsthand his current research. Andrews’ book, Killing for Coal, was awarded the 2009 Bancroft Prize by Columbia University, one of the most coveted honors in the field of history. Andrews’ work has also been recently featured in The New York Times and the Denver Post.