Thomas Andrews was born in Boulder, Colo., and teaches history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. While he might live a mile high, he delves into the underground history of southern Colorado, which once was occupied by countless miles of active coal mines. His new book describes the Ludlow massacre of 1914 as less a flashpoint of labor strife than the culmination of generations of competing forces that drove workers, consumers, and industrialists.
On April 20, 1914, 19 people (including six strikers and 11 children) were killed in Ludlow by the Colorado National Guard, the bloodiest day of a 14-month coal miners’ strike. But Andrews shows that the unrest started years earlier. Back in 1884, 59 workers died in an explosion at the Jokerville mine in Crested Butte. “Like the gunslingers of Western lore,” Andrews writes, “most died with their boots on.” While alluding to the romance of the Wild West, Andrews describes the reality of industrialization, challenging his readers’ notions of Western history, not to mention labor and environmental history. For him, Denver is not a mere boomtown on the frontier but a complicated urban metropolis built by fossil fuel as much as by bricks and mortar.
Andrews is among the many scholars who have received fellowships at The Huntington while working on their first books. After completing graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, he was an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge, teaching classes while also revising and redrafting his dissertation into the new publication. His close proximity to The Huntington allowed him to make frequent visits to the reading room while also taking part in workshops, seminars, and conferences.
“There is a lot of ferment and energy at The Huntington,” Andrews explains, adopting the lexicon of a scholar immersed in the subject of labor unrest. “In a way, it is similar to graduate school.” While he has made use of primary and secondary rsources in the Library, he has also been an active member of itscommunity of scholars. In 2005, he was one of 25 participants in a five-week seminar funded by the NEH and sponsored by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. In 2006, he presented portions of his manuscript to a Huntington workshop on environmental history, and that same year he was a founding member of a new workshop called “Past Tense: Ways of Writing History.”
The “Past Tense” workshop gives scholars an opportunity to compare notes on the writing process after they have had their fill jotting down as much as they can from the historical record. Andrews says he worked through 15 or 20 drafts of his book and wrote much of his chapter on immigrant workers while on fellowship at The Huntington.The challenge for Andrews was in balancing storylines about well-known industrialists with those of the workers, who often toiled—and died—in obscurity. He writes compellingly about immigrant workers who “found the foul taste of blood and coal and last night’s drink in their mouths in these unfamiliar places, where the coal barons and their henchmen ruled just the way other overseers had governed the lands left behind: signori in business suits, hacendados in bowlers, massas piously extolling the virtues of free labor.” Historians often talk about agency; for Andrews, workers were agents of their own actions as much as they responded to the forces around them. In Colorado, consumers, too, played a role in the decades leading up to the Ludlow massacre.
Before our modern-day carbon footprint there was the 19th-century coal footprint: Coal was used to bake the bread, “mill the flour…refine the sugar beets that sweetened the bread…power the elevators that sorted and stored wheat kernels before milling…and power the locomotives that hauled golden streams of grain.” From this perspective, Killing for Coal is ultimately a history of energy.
UPDATE: Killing for Coal won the 2009 Bancroft Prize. You can download Andrews’ talk about “The Fossil-Fueled West” from The Huntington’s iTunes U site.
The original version of this article stated that Andrews taught at the University of Colorado, Denver. He has since become associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Photo by Justine Miani.