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16 Tons in Texas

If you are driving down US 79, just outside Rockdale, Texas, you will come across the "La Recluta and La Escuelita" historical marker set in front of a small, wooden schoolhouse.

Historic Marker

The marker offers a brief snippet of the late 19th-early 20th century Mexican and Mexican-American experience in Milam County, a subject not often seen in these signs. The text focuses on the contribution of this community to the area, which was substantial, particularly in the agricultural and mining fields, and a good portion of it is dedicated to the mining efforts in the region, which is what prompted the title for this blog post: "16 Tons in Texas". But, as I continued to dig into the Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American experience in Milam County, and throughout Texas, I uncovered a different story, one deeper and, at times, darker than any coal mining shaft. By the time my research was done, it had taken me to the site of a massacre in Colorado, the ghost town of Thurber, Texas, and bore witness to the historical documentation of a lynching in Milam County.

The Kansas City Star Oct. 7, 1911 (Kansas City, MO)

During the late 19th-early 20th century, the situation for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans was so tumultuous, both in Milam County and Texas in general, that Miguel Diebold, the Mexican consul in San Antonio, said that "Texas is hell for Mexicans". This statement got him fired, but luckily I am not employed by the Mexican president nor is it my job to "promote peace and friendly relations" (The New York Times Oct. 8, 1911). This leaves me free to share with you the historical realities of this period, allowing us to explore the hidden histories that inspired this historic marker. Because this story grew far beyond my expectations, I am going to handle it in two separate posts (which will ultimately make it easier on both of us). This post will be the first of a two-part series and will focus on providing an overview of the coal industry in Texas, as well as provide important historical context for the United States coal industry, specifically the Coal Wars of the late 19th-early 20th century. To that end, this post will use two case studies, the Ludlow Massacre and the ghost town Thurber, TX, to examine the experiences of coal miners during this period. The second post will build upon that information to examine the history of La Recluta and La Escuelita.

Coal mining is not something I immediately think of when I think of industry in Texas. Cattle, yes. Black gold? Oh my, yes. But coal? Not so much. Turns out, we should absolutely associate coal with Texas industry. The Lone Star state is the nation's 7th largest producer of lignite, a low-grade form of coal (Texas Tribune Oct. 30, 2019). There is even a belt of lignite that extends from Laredo, across the Coastal Plain, to the Arkansas and Lousiana borders. More importantly for this blog, this belt runs through Milam County.

Source: Texas Tribune

People in Milam County knew about coal in the region as early as 1867, but commercial operations didn't begin until 1890 when, like the signs says, Herman Vogel opened a slope mine 3 miles east of Rockdale. Instead of going straight down, these types of mines, as you might have guessed, have sloped shafts. Loads are raised or lowered on an incline down into or up out of the mine. Vogel quickly started expanding and merely 5 years later had 6 coal mines in operation all in Milam County and all near the International and Great Northern Railway. By the early 20th century, the coal mining industry was booming. Cave-ins were frequent, but the most serious one is mentioned in the marker. It occurred in 1913, when a cave-in near the creek caused the mine to flood and collapse, trapping 7 miners and 1 mule (mules were used to raise loads from the mine). A hole was dug from the surface into the mine in half a day which provided fresh air for the miners, but it took another 5 1/2 days to dig a hole big enough to get them out. They were able to rescue 6 of the 7 miners but sadly, history did not record the fate of the mule.

The supervisors and some of the miners were Anglo-Americans or European, but for the most part, the mine owners recruited workers from Mexico. Ironically, the Mexican immigrants left behind an agrarian debt servitude system in Mexico, hoping for greater economic opportunity, but simply found another one in the coal mines in Texas. Those who worked in the coals mines were paid in company tokens, known as scrip (a substitute for legal currency), which could only be spent at company stores and with company doctors. This system kept miners at a distinct economic disadvantage. Prices at company stores were often exorbitant, and the rents on company housing were so high, that miners often found themselves in a constant cycle of debt to the company which profited from their labor. This exploitive system created extreme tension between companies and miners, and at the end of the 19th century, it erupted into violence.

To contextualize coal mining in Texas, it is important to understand the broader history of the Coal Wars in the United States. Characterized by a series of armed labor conflicts, lasting from roughly 1890 to 1930, this period of violence was a direct result of the tension between the coal mining labor force and the coal companies themselves. Mineworkers fought for safer working conditions, the right to unionize, and many other rights guaranteed to workers today. Enjoy the 8-hour workday? Thank the United Mine Workers of America and their work during the Coal Wars. (The history of the Coal Wars is incredibly substantial and I cannot possibly do it justice in a blog post, so if you are interested, I would highly recommend checking out the podcast "American History Tellers", and their excellent series about the Coal Wars) As mine workers in the late 19th century sought improved conditions from their employers, they often went on strike. In an effort to subdue striking miners, coal companies would often hire private security (such as the infamous Baldwin-Felts Agency) to break strikes. On many occasions, government forces were deployed to attempt to force strikers back to work. Sometimes, the confluence of these groups resulted in violence and the loss of life. For instance,

Baldwin-Felts armored car the "Death Special" with mounted M1895 machine gun

the infamous Battle of Blair Mountain, which lasted for about a week and ended on September 2, 1921, left roughly 100 people dead, many more arrested, and resulted in an initial decline in union membership and a major victory for companies in the coal industry. In the long term, however, the Battle of Blair Mountain became a Union rallying cry and helped to expose the horrendous working conditions faced by miners in the West Virginia coalfields.

The Coal Wars were not just fought in Appalachia. If you are on I-25, just north of Trinidad, Colorado, you will find a deeply moving memorial at the site of the Ludlow Massacre. Atlas Obscura has such a perfect introduction for this site that, instead of trying to use different words, I am just going to cite it here: "The Ludlow, Colorado Union Massacre of 1914 is not widely discussed in the modern-day, but the site of the tragic event is still largely intact allowing any visitors to the site to revisit one the darkest days in the history of American labor."

The Ludlow Massacre Memorial

Close-Up of the Ludlow Memorial Massacre

By 1910, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had been working for close to a decade, advocating for better working conditions and compensation, secretly unionizing, and compiling a concrete list of demands to lay at the feet of the coal companies. Do you feel comfortable in the knowledge that the company you work for has to follow state safety laws? Thank the UMWA. Other things the union advocated for on behalf of the miners included were the right to use any store, not just the company store, the right to choose their boarding house and doctor, not just the ones working for the coal companies, recognition as a bargaining agent, and fair pay. In August 1913, regional District 15 of southern Colorado of the UMWA presented their list of 7 demands to the coal companies who all rejected it. The UMWA called for a strike and 8,000 mineworkers in Colorado walked out of the mines. The coal miners and their families who went on strike were evicted from their company homes and so moved into tents prepared and provided for by the UMWA, the largest of which was the Ludlow Camp.

Map of the Region in 1914 ("You Are Here" = Memorial)

Violence broke out on both sides and the main coal company, Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) owned by Rockefeller, hired the notoriously aggressive Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to both protect the new coal workers and harass those striking. One of their more imposing tactics involved driving around the “Death Special”, an armored car mounted with a machine gun built at a CF&I plant, to patrol the perimeter of the tent camps. As the violence unsurprisingly escalated, Colorado’s governor called in the Colorado National Guard. I don't think they were there to protect the miners considering their wages were paid for by the Rockefeller family...but I digress. By the Spring of 1914, after a particularly harsh winter, the union was running out of money and some historians argue that the National Guard had mostly broken the strike. However, Ludlow Camp was still full of striking miners.

On the morning of April 20th, in 1914, a day after the Greek miners celebrated Orthodox Easter, 3 men from the militia—most of the National Guard had withdrawn from the area by this point in time and those that were left were joined by guards from the CF&I company mine and those hired by Baldwin-Felts— came to the camp demanding the release of a man they thought was being held there. The camp leader left to meet with the Major and, in the meantime, the guards installed a machine gun on the ridge near the camp and took up positions along the railroad and the Greek miners simultaneously began flanking the arroyo, or steep gully, and the bottom of the hill near Camp Ludlow. At some point, shots were fired and fighting ensued for an entire day. At dusk, a freight train stopped on the tracks in between the miners and the guardsmen allowing many, but not all, of the miners and families to escape. By 7 p.m. Ludlow Camp was in flames and the militia descended upon it, shooting any remaining or fleeing miners and looting the camp.

Present Day Ludlow Station Looking North Towards the Ludlow Tent Colony, Baseball Field, and Militia Camp

When searching through the ruins the next morning, the survivors came across 4 women and 11 children in the women’s infirmary. Apparently, when the tent caught fire the night before, they sought shelter in the cellar of the tent and suffocated. These deaths caught the nation’s attention and became a rallying cry for the UMWA who named the events of that fateful night the Ludlow Massacre. After this massacre came the 10 Day War where, in retaliation, the armed miners attacked dozens of guard and militia encampments, killing strikebreakers and destroying property. The miners also fought several small battles against the National Guard at several stations between Trinidad and Louisville. This prompted President Wilson to send in federal troops and instruct the Secretary of Labor to begin negotiations with the UMWA and the coal companies.

Sadly, there is no happy ending to this story. The Union ran out of money in December 1914 which ended the strikes and there were no immediate structural changes. The UMWA’s list of demands were not met, the Union was not recognized, and the striking miners had been replaced. Some of the National Guardsmen were court-martialed and other leaders of the militia were brought up on charges of murder, arson, and manslaughter, but all were acquitted. Only John J. Lawson, leader of the District 15 of the UMWA and the strike, was convicted of the murder of a deputy sheriff who had died during the Ludlow Massacre and sentenced to life at hard labor. This was later overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1917.

In Jun 1914, Rockefeller did hire people to create what would eventually be known as the Colorado Industrial Plan, a system where miners could have internal representation but true change, for the better, did not happen until decades later. The Coal Wars continued with the Matewan Massacre in 1920 and the Battle of Blaire Mountain in 1921 in West Virginia and the Herrin Massacre in Illinois in 1922. In 1946 there was a nationwide strike that ended with the Krug-Lewis Agreement between the U.S. Government and the UMWA that created a welfare and retirement fund for miners, a separate medical and hospital fund, and guaranteed retirement security for coal miners and their families. In 1952 the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act was passed and later expanded in 1966. But the UMWA’s activism and fight against the coal companies did not end there. They are still fighting to this day to expand and improve medical coverage and compensation for Black Lung. Ben Mauk, in The New Yorker, writes, “A different kind of violence is visited upon today’s miners. There are no overt, bloody showdowns between striking workers and armed National Guardsmen whose paychecks come from corporate barons. But industry money—in the form of fees paid by mine companies for consultant work—still appears to influence the diagnoses of doctors and radiologists, according to copious research compiled by the Center [Black Lung Data and Resource Center]. And the coal industry’s go-to law firm withheld dissenting medical evidence that supported miners’ claims in 11 of the 15 cases featured in the report. As a result, ailing and dying miners are denied the support they are owed.”

It is deeply poignant to me that, even though they had been defeated, the UMWA bought the land of the Ludlow Massacre site in 1916 and erected a monument to the coal miners and their family members who died there. If you ever find yourself in this part of Colorado, I recommend that you take some time to stop, visit the memorial, and reflect on the history which it represents.

Entering through the chain-link fence you are immediately greeted by what, at first, looks like random stickers with which thoughtless visitors have defaced the site. But upon closer inspection, they represent various unions throughout the United States, left by the organizational descendants of those that went on strike in 1913.

Entrance to the memorial (note the union stickers)

Now to bring it back to the Lone Star State... All of these events outside of Texas intrinsically related to and affected the community at La Recluta (the subject of the historic marker with which we began), an immigrant community that was attracted to the area by the coal companies seeking cheap labor. However, to understand some of the tensions that might have existed in the mines in Milam County we need to look in North Texas.

Thurber, Texas, in Erath County, though a ghost town now, was once a booming coal town. In 1886, the Johnson Coal Mining Company, later sold to the Texas & Pacific Coal Company, opened Mine # 1 and by 1901, 9 mines were in operation. The miners came from the surrounding region, namely Thurber Village, and most were immigrants from Italy, Poland, Mexico, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Russia, Wales, Belgium, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. This ethnically diverse population created various ethnic neighborhoods within Thurber with many of the Irish living near Stump Hill and the Southern and Eastern Europeans near Hill # 3. The town would hold various special cultural events and the different ethnicities intermarried, but the different groups tended to keep to themselves, probably because very few of the immigrants from non-English-speaking regions knew English. Census data from 1900 indicates that of the immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, only 5% could speak English.

Thurber itself was a company town, built by Colonel Robert D. Hunter, president of the Texas & Pacific Coal Company. The company owned and built the houses, general store and warehouse, schools, church buildings, stables, offices and shops, and even an opera house with ceiling fans. However, no one was allowed to build or own any private buildings in the town and no camping was allowed. Hunter even had a 6 ft, 4-wire barbed wire fence erected around the town and 3 gates controlled access to the south, east and north. The company owned Thurber. The goods news is that meant there were no taxes. However, there also was no city government and the coal company paid for law enforcement. The miners rented the houses built by the company for c.a. $8/month and were strongly encouraged to buy goods from the company stores. Nearby farmers and other peddlers were allowed to come into the compound to sell their goods but the residents complained that men on horseback would follow the outsiders around and record the names and house numbers of anyone who purchased goods from them. The residents also stated that if they purchased from outsiders too much, they would be fired.

As Rhinehart states, “Whatever the company’s policy may have been, residents associated the fence with company limitations on freedom of movement and action and detested it as the symbol of Hunter’s control over them.” The miners had been organized and unionized from the very beginning under the Knights of Labor, the first national union to become popular in Texas as a result of the introduction of the railroads. There were local assemblies in Houston, Sherman, Harrisburg, Galveston, Waco, Austin, Gordon, and Fort Worth with members from different occupations including longshoremen, telegraphers, and coal miners.

There were good relations between the local Knights of the Labor Assembly and the coal company in Thurber until 1888 when the company announced that they could not meet September’s payroll and were already in the process of being sold to Hunter and his Texas & Pacific Coal Company. The miners went on strike. This strike went on a while and proved to be more expensive for Hunter in the long-run as he had to import more miners and strikebreakers. But Hunter refused to acknowledge the strike and allowed the newly acquired mine to collapse so that he could make new arrangements with the miners at a lower wage. When Hunter took over in 1888, the first thing he did was, essentially, cut wages and lower the mining rate for the miners. He then demanded that the miners renounce any allegiance to the Knights of Labor and banned them from joining any other union. As a result, the miners in the area refused to work for him so he had to go recruit from mining camps in Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas. However, Knights of Labor was a national union, so to impede Hunter’s efforts, they would send out their own miners to warn those in the camps about the conditions in the Texas mines and mining towns. Their efforts were so effective that the mine did not re-open until February of 1889. Hunter tried kicking striking miners out of town, but the Knights of Labor purchased a 10-acre tract nearby so the striking miners simply relocated. The union also provided food supplies, contributed by the local Farmer’s Alliance, and offered financial assistance as mining districts associated with the union contributed funds and information to the miners in Thurber. However, Hunter together with his Texas & Pacific Coal Company officials and some Texas Rangers managed to recruit over 100 miners and by March 1889, the mines were producing 200 tons of coal/day.

Hunter employed other tactics to get miners back to work in his mines. At the time, there was union competition for jurisdiction between the Knights of Labor and the National Progressive Union. Hunter used this competition and convinced the National Progressive Union representatives to declare the strike over. If the workers went back to the miners, there would be more opportunities for union recruitment, or so Hunter told the National Progressive Union. Hunter also brought union representatives to the mine and convinced them to declare that the coal company had delivered on all of its promises to the miners and that the Knights of Labor locals had acted too brashly. This paved the way for mine workers with any union to accept employment in Thurber and the National Labor Tribune declared that under union rules, the miners in Thurber were not technically striking. They also argued that returning to the mines would prevent the area from being overwhelmed by cheaper Mexican labor (Jan. 5, 1889). Many of the strikers in Thurber did not return to the mines there but instead drifted to other parts of the country.

This might have been the first strike in Thurber, but it was not the last. In 1890, a year after the last one ended and when the UMWA assumed union jurisdiction over the area, Hunter had to call in the Texas Rangers to help maintain the peace. In fact, this was a frequent occurrence. Hunter asked for assistance again in 1894 claiming that outside agitators hired by the union were stirring up the local miners. In 1899, Hunter retired and handed over management to W.K. Gordon and his son-in-law, E.L. Marston. At the same time, the UMWA was making headway for miners' rights in the central U.S. and were moving their efforts west. Unions started gaining strong footholds nearby in Strawn and Bridgeport. At the time, Thurber was one of the only union holdouts in the area and coal mine officials were not worried about Thurber because a majority of the mining population did not speak English. However, the United Mine Workers Journal began publishing their weekly editions in foreign languages and used union organizers who spoke several languages. The UMWA was working surreptitiously to organize and induct the miners in Thurber into the UMWA.

The company knew something was afoot. They posted several announcements prior to Labor Day in 1903 stating that the miners would be given a small raise and pay bonuses and would be granted a 9-hour workday. The company also made sure to emphasize that Thurber was to remain nonunion. During the company-funded 3 day picnic on Labor Day, 1903, the UMWA had a miner’s son ride amongst the 1,100 miners who had gathered for the barbeque, instructing them that organizers waited in the nearby town of Lyra to induct them into the union. About 60 miners left to be inducted immediately. The next day, though unorganized, the miners who were part of the UMWA presented Gordon and the company with a list of demands which included a fair pay increase, an 8-hour working day, recognition of the UMWA, and for the fence to come down. To no one’s surprise, Gordon refused, so almost all of the miners, except for 8 or 9, went on strike, marching to Lyra to meet with UMWA organizers. 700 miners joined the union right there during the meeting with the organizers and called for another meeting at the Palo Pinto Bridge. The next day, the union organizers found 1,800 men and women, miners, brick workers, clerks, and laborers, waiting for them, all interested in joining the union.

Over the next couple of days, the miners created a relief committee with all races and ethnicities represented, opened a commissary for those in need, and started setting up shelters for those that had been kicked out of their homes. The organizers also advised the miners to leave the mine and property if they felt they were not being treated fairly. Some 500 miners ended up leaving Thurber, mostly single Italian men, and went to find work elsewhere. This departure crippled the coal company and Marston agreed to meet with the UMWA organizers. Ultimately, in return for not calling a strike in Rock Creek, where the company employed 150 miners, and to encourage the Thurber miners to return to work, Marston signed an agreement granting the miners and the UMWA nearly all of their concessions. And most importantly, the fence around Thurber came down.

Thurber after the wall was taken down

For the next 20 years or so, there were no more serious strikes in Thurber mines. The Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company gradually began shifting its focus to oil after the discovery of the Ranger oilfield in 1917 which led to a drastic decline in the use and procurement of coal. Throughout the early 1920s, the company cut wages for the miners which led to strikes in 1926 and 27, but by then, the company was not interested in pacifying the coal miners or really even invested in coal in general. This decline in coal mining happened throughout the state of Texas as companies focused more and more on oil and the UMWA helped relocate Texan miners either to functional mines in other states or back to their homeland. In fact, in 1926, the UMWA chartered 2 railroad cars to return 162 Mexican miners back to Mexico. By the beginning of 1928, there were no union miners left in Texas. For Thurber, this spelled doom. The town brick plant closed in 1930, the general office in 1933, and the commissary stores in 1935.

The mining community in La Recluta did not exist in a vacuum - it existed against the backdrop of the coal industry in the United States. The struggles faced by mine workers throughout the country, from Appalachia to Colorado, shaped the history of coal in Texas. To understand the full scope of the history of La Recluta in Milam County, and to understand the intersectional experience of Mexican and Mexican-American mine workers, it is vital to recognize the wider history of the coal industry, including the harsh working conditions faced by miners, and the fight for labor rights that continues today.

The more I learned about the history of La Recluta, the more we realized it was impossible to distance this community from the Coal Wars. It felt like I would be doing a disservice to everything represented by this historic marker to simply present the first layer of its story. With this brief overview of the Coal Wars, and the discussion of a few case studies, this first of a two-part series has established important historical context for the discussion of La Recluta. Our next post will delve into this history in detail.


Allen, R.A., G.N. Green, and J.V. Reese. "Strikes". Handbook of Texas Online.

Maroney, J.C. 2021. "Knights of Labor". Handbook of Texas Online.

Maroney, J.C. "Thurber, TX". Handbook of Texas Online.

Marshall, I.J. 1996. "Lignite in the Rockdale Area". USGenWeb Archives Project: Milam County Genealogical Society.

Mauk, B. 2014. "The Ludlow Massacre Still Matters". The New Yorker.

Ramos, M.G. 2021. "Thurber, Texas Coal Town". Texas Almanac 1990-1991 Online.

Rhinehard, M.D. 1989. "'Underground Patriots': Thurber Coal Miners and the Struggle for Individual Freedom, 1888-1903". Southwestern Historical Quarterly 92.4: 509-542.

Wikipedia Contributors. 2021. "Ludlow Massacre". Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia Contributors. 2021. "Colorado Coalfield War". Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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