Colorado Fuel and Iron: Culture and Industry in Southern Colorado

Company History Overview

The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, better known as CF&I, was a firm of enormous importance to the industrialization of the West and played a pivotal role in the history of American labor relations. The company’s roots stretch back to 1872. General William Palmer and his colleagues in the Denver and Rio Grande Railway (D&RG) wanted a local source for steel rail for their expanding narrow gauge empire. Several subsidiary companies were created by the D&RG, including the Central Colorado Improvement Company, the Southern Colorado Coal and Town Company, the South Pueblo Colony, and the Colorado Coal and Steel Works companies. These companies were created to secure the necessary natural resources essential for the production of iron and steel. Company officials realized the potential of the water and coal resources in Fremont County, and purchased real estate all along the eastern slope of the Wet Mountains.

In 1880, the companies were consolidated into the Colorado Coal and Iron Company (CC&I). CC&I merged with its chief rival, the Colorado Fuel Company, in 1892 forming the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The newly consolidated company was controlled by John Osgood until 1903. An expensive modernization campaign left the company drained of financial resources. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. took advantage of CF&I’s desperate need of cash, and took control of the company. The Rockefellers remained the controlling interest in CF&I until the 1940s.

CF&I was the first vertically integrated steel mill west of the Mississippi River. As an vertically integrated corporation, CF&I controlled all of the necessary natural resources to produce steel. Coal, iron ore, limestone, dolomite, and vast reserves of water are all integral to the production of steel. To satisfy these needs, the company owned and operated over 60 mines and quarries spread across Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, Wyoming and New Mexico. The company became the largest private land owner in Colorado. CF&I claimed some of the most important water rights along the Arkansas River, and created many reservoirs to quench the blast furnaces. CF&I created the Colorado and Wyoming Railway to transport the resources from the distant mines to the steelworks.

It took thousands of employees to operate such a massive company, and for many years CF&I was the state’s largest private employer. The promise of work in the mines and mills brought immigrants from around the country and the world to the American West. Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Mexicans, Germans, Greeks, Japanese, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans and many more came to the coal camps and company towns of CF&I. The workers brought their wives and children, creating incredibly diverse communities. Immigrant families lived in company houses, shopped at the Colorado Supply Company store, were educated in company-dominated schools, and were treated by company doctors.

In efforts to create a loyal, productive and “Americanized” workforce, CF&I was a pioneer in corporate social engineering. Under the direction of its chief surgeon Richard Corwin, the company created a Sociological Department in 1901. The new department was charged to oversee the “betterment of the workers.” The company sponsored lectures on hygiene, civics, politics, home economics, history, and the dangers of communism. Classes in English, sewing, citizenship, electrician training, cooking and many other topics were provided for workers and their families. Kindergartens were started in mining camps to help form good citizens, who would in turn, become good company employees. CF&I made a considerable effort to dominate all aspects of their workforce’s lives.

Despite the company’s efforts, labor relations were tense and often exploded into conflict. CF&I was plagued by strikes during its early years, including the infamous coal strike of 1913-1914 resulting in the Ludlow Massacre. The Ludlow Massacre is one of the most notorious incidents in American labor history. CF&I coal miners were striking for better pay, better working conditions, and recognition of the union. The miners had been evicted from company-owned houses, and were living in a ramshackle tent colony. On April 20, 1914, Colorado state militia men attacked the miners’ camp. When the battle finished, over 16 people were dead and the tent colony was burned to the ground. Over half the dead were children, who had suffocated in a pit under a burning tent. The violence escalated in southern Colorado, until Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops to quell the conflict.

The labor war shocked the nation, and forced CF&I to alter some of its practices. John D. Rockefeller and Canadian labor relations expert MacKenzie King developed one of the first company-dominated trade unions to combat the negative publicity generated by Ludlow and to genuinely improve the working conditions. CF&I’s Employee Representation Plan (ERP) became a model for many other corporations. Employees elected representatives, who would work with management to try to find solutions to grievances in order to avoid further labor disputes. The company unions were a major union avoidance strategy until outlawed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

The ERP provided employees with a voice, but it was a voice heavily influenced by management. Workers wanted greater control, and continued to support unionization throughout the ERP period. Labor disputes disrupted CF&I’s operations in 1917, 1919, 1921-1922 and, most importantly, 1927-1928. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), considered one of America’s most radical labor organizations, called for a strike to protest the pending execution of Niccola Sacco and Bartholomeo Vanzetti. On April 8, 1927, most of CF&I’s employees walked out of the mines. The strikers gained momentum and picketers spread across the Colorado coal fields. The strike fizzled by early 1928, due in part to unfavorable public opinion of the IWW. The 1927-1928 strike represents the last hurrah of the IWW in Colorado, and the final major labor dispute in Colorado’s coal mining industry.

The ERP held sway in the coal camps until the 1933 creation of the National Recovery Administration, which allowed for employees to bargain collectively without coercion from an employer. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) took advantage of the new law, and in less than one month 95% of CF&I’s miners were members of the UMWA. CF&I miners were allowed to vote on their future representation, and they overwhelmingly chose the UMWA. Having not other options, CF&I abandoned the ERP in the coal camps on December 13, 1933.

Despite the collapse of the ERP in the coal camps, it remained strong at both the Sunrise iron mine in Wyoming and the Minnequa Steel Works in Pueblo, Colorado. With the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935, labor’s right to unionize was reasserted, and the ERP appeared to be in direct conflict with this legislation. In order to continue operation, the ERP underwent some cosmetic transformations and a name change to the Employee Representation Organization (ERO). The Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) took advantage of the Wagner Act, and heavily recruited steel workers and iron miners into its ranks. The CIO and ERO competed heavily with each other for the loyalty of the employees, but in 1942 the workers voted to abandon the ERO in favor of the CIO.

The unionization of the workforce obviously did not put an end to CF&I’s labor disputes. Strikes, walk-outs and other labor problems continued to disrupt production throughout the company’s history. The 1959 strike was a prime example of the conflict between the union and management. The strike closed CF&I for more than 110 days, affecting both the mines and the steel works.
CF&I continued to be the Rocky Mountain region’s chief heavy industry through much of the 20th century. Charles Allen and the Allen Group took controlling interest of the company in 1944. Under Allen, the company saw a period of dramatic growth. CF&I gained subsidiaries from around the country, including John A. Roebling’s Sons of New Jersey, Wickwire Spencer Steel of Massachusetts, and California Wire Cloth. The company also made a concerted effort to diversify its holdings during this period. CF&I acquired construction firms, sand and gravel enterprises, an asphalt company and several scrap steel yards. CF&I was expanding from a firm of regional importance to a firm of national status.

CF&I was itself acquired by a corporation attempting to diversify its portfolio. The Crane Company, which manufactured and operated systems of fluid control, gained control CF&I in 1969. During the next decade, CF&I faced heavy competition from foreign steel manufactures. Several subsidiary companies were forced to close to the transforming market. CF&I attempted to modernize their operation in order to remain competitive. The 1970s were a period of booms and busts for the company. The 1980s were marked by the collapse of the American steel market. CF&I was hit hard by the downturn, and managed to limp through the decade. CF&I did not survive into the 1990s, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1990. The remains of the company were purchased by the Oregon Steel Company, and it iwas operated on a much smaller scale as the Rocky Mountain Steel Mill. In 2007, RMSM was itself acquired by Evraz, a Russian company, which now operates the mill under the name of Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel Mill.

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