THEY’VE torn down Serene. During 1972 and 1973 the remaining buildings were systematically torn down for salvage. Serene joined the hundreds of other Colorado ghost towns that are only memories.
Serene, however, was much more historic than most, which makes its unheralded death all the more ignominious. Add to this the fact that hardly any Coloradans at all have ever heard of Serene. Serene and its “day of infamy” aren’t found in any history book. In fact, even the owners of the property, the Rocky Mountain Fuel Co., who owned the property “then,” didn’t know the story of Serene.
By Perry Eberhart
for the Denver Posse of Westerners
“Then” was in the fall of 1927.
To put the time in better perspective, recall was a banner year for sports. On September 21 “the fight of the century” was a rematch between Champion Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, the “Manassa (Colorado) Mauler.” Tunney not only proved his first win was no fluke but that he was a great champion when he got off the canvas in the seventh round and went on to win a clean decision. It was the year that the Babe (Ruth) hit his 60 homers. But he still lost out to teammate Lou Gehrig as Most Valuable Player as the powerful “Bronx Bombers” won four straight from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series.
Closer to home, it was a thrilling year for Colorado football. Denver University was playing only its second season in its “beautiful” 26,000-seat stadium. The stadium (torn down in 1971) was proving lucky to “Tramway Tech” as it came in second in the annual race for the “state championship,” trailing only Aggies (now Colorado State University) and humiliating pre-season favorite Colorado University 48 to 0. D.U. beat Aggies 6 to 3 and lost only to Colorado College 36 to 7. The year 1927 in Colorado would be best remembered for a freshman on the Colorado College team who did everything and did it well,’a “one man gang.” His name was Earl Clark. Most people called him “Dutch.”
Elsewhere, another young man flew out of nowhere into immortality. His name was Charles Augustus Lindbergh, a veteran pilot at 25 years old, who piloted the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 33 hours and 29 minutes on May 20-21, to become the first person to fly non-stop between the new and old worlds.
But 1927 wasn’t all fun and games.
In 1927 an ugly mood roamed tho land. The nation was in the throes of one of its periodic witch hunts, what were called in this this century: “Red scares.” The mood was relieved and the nation was safe from witches, for a few years at least, when on August 23, 1927, a shoemaker named Nicola Sacco and a fish-peddler named Bartolomeo Vanzetti were put to death in Charlestown, Mass. The official crime they had committed was murder and robbery although they had protested their innocence until their death, and another man had admitted to the crime. Their unofficial crimes were that they were “foreigners” and that they were anarchists, or so claimed the prosecution.
A similar mood swept Colorado during 1927. Unions were once again in disrepute. Any individual or organization who said out loud or implied that this wasn’t the best of all possible worlds, was an “anarchist,” Bolshevik,” or worse.
The death of 20 persons, including five miners, three guards, one bystander, two women and nine children in a tent city just outside of the southern Colorado coal town of Ludlow on April 20, 1914, had won sympathy and recognition for the United Mine Workers. Since that time the UMW had become ineffective through inner bickering, inept leadership, apathy imd a timid and abortive strike m 1924.
By 1927, Colorado coal miners needed a friend. Safety measures in the mines had not improved. Wages and hours (sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week) had improved little since Ludlow.
The Wobblies — the popular term of the times for the union miners — saw the situation aa a golden opportunity — perhaps their last opportunity – to regain stature in Colorado. The Wobblies’ official name was the International Workers of the World. The IWW was born during the early years of this century to unite the blue collar workers of the world and to better their conditions. With such leaders as Eugene Debs and “Big Bill” Haywood (well known in Colorado), IWW quickly spread to most industries, including mining, throughout the nation and elsewhere. Its militant activities and its spread at the time the Marxist philosophy was rising around the world, led many to equate Wobblyism with Marxism. The bosses encouraged the belief, and eventually were able to discredit the IWW. But while it was here, it made its presence known and it fathered many longer-lasting and effective movements. And, while it was here, its fortunes and influence rose and fell with the situation at hand.
The situation seemed ripe in Colorado in 1927. The UMW wouldn’t or couldn’t demonstrate any effectiveness. So the IWW surfaced as the spokesman for the coal miners in Colorado.
The Wobbly leaders made their demands to mine owners throughout the state. They petitioned the governor and other officials. They attempted to force an audience with owners and officials. They made and implied dire threats. A problem situation became critical when they were continuously ignored — by everybody. The mine owners refused to recognize the IWW as spokesman for the miners or anyone else. They called the Wobblies “crooks,” “outlaws,” ”Reds,” “imported trouble-makers,” and worse. Governor “Billy” Adams and most of the newspapers sided with the mine owners.
Finally, Wobbly leaders set October 8 as their last day of talking and their first day of striking.
Governor Adams came back immediately and strong. He said such a strike would be illegal and would not be tolerated.
On October 8, several miners in the Boulder area made good the Wobbly threat, walking off their jobs in coal mines around Lafayette, Louisville and Superior. It quickly spread to coal mines throughout the state.
Although the strike was statewide and although many of the Wobbly leaders (local and imported) headquartered amid the countless coal mines in the Waldenburg-Trinidad area, a major focal point of the strike soon became the Columbine Mine. This was located in a small coal town about five miles northeast of Lafayette with the ironic name of Serene. (Nobody seems to know why it was named that.)
Jim Fillas, former maitre d’ of the Denver Press Club, is one person who remembers Serene well. Fillas lived in Lafayette at the time. His father worked in the Columbine Mine for several years and went out on strike when it was called. Jim and his teenage buddies would follow the strikers around hoping to “snitch” a sandwich prepared for the strikers by their wives. Three or four years later he would drive a laundry truck to all of the mining camps in the area. Fortunately, Fillas has a photographic memory. He can reel off names and numbers of way-back-when like very few people – and they check out.
Fillas and some of his “old time” friends believe the strike concentrated on Serene because the Columbine Mine was one of the bigger mines in the area, but the town was smaller and more isolated than most other toWns (the population in 1929 was 1,100). Serene was easier to cut off from the outside world and from outside workers. And, despite its name, dingy little Serene epitomized the conditions the miners were striking against.
Each day a growing number of striking miners would make the rounds, picketing the other nearby mines – the Morrison, the Imperial, the Puritan, the State – then the bulk of them would gather at Serene, mull about, planning, scheming, and making hateful, threatening glances at the activity inside the fortress of Serene.
Serene was a fortress now an armed fortress. Shortly after the strike began a barbed-wire wall was set up around the entire town. There were two gates, one on the hill overlooking the mines and just next to the superintendents house. This was at the end of a block-long narrow road with barbed wire walls, called “no-man’s land.” The other gate was at the lower end of town, at the end of Main Street. Most of the activity during the strike was near the upper gate, although both gates were blocked several times.
A giant searchlight was set on a tipple (a large skeletal contraption that loads coal cars — by “tipping” the shuttle of coal from the mine) and it swept the area continuously during the hours of darkness. Armed guards patrolled Serene 24 hours a day. At first they were hired company guards (or “goons”), then local deputies, then…
Strike activity in other areas of the state helped fire the tension at Serene.
On October 17, Walsenburg businessmen raided the IWW headquarters, burned all the records and told Wobbly leaders to get out of town.
October 21 headlines in the Boulder Daily Camera said the Walsenburg jail holds 60 picketers – “twenty of them chattering women.”
A coal shortage was developing in the Boulder area and elsewhere in the state.
On November 4, Governor Adams, in his almost daily appeal to “decent” miners to get back to work, said all IWW leaders throughout the state would be arrested on sight.
The same day, the growing tension at the Columbine Mine made the headlines as pickets stopped and “had words” with miners working at the mine; Eight local deputies were on duty at Serene.
Monday morning (Nov. 7) dawned to find several hundred picketers choking the roads into Serene. And, newspapers said, there was “vicious intimidation” of all miners who attempted to get through. Only one “Missourian” made it by drawing his gun and threatening to shoot his way through if necessary. The Columbine closed down.
It reopened the following day, but with only about half the regular work force, the 125 or so non-striking miners living within the confines of Serene. Headlines said the picketing was “near violent” and the intimidation of workers was increasing.
On November 8 picketers blocked the roads to Serene with 150 to 200 autos. Weld County Sheriff Ben Robinson and his deputies – with drawn guns broke the blockade by escorting working miners through the picketers. Two picketers were arrested.
Nonetheless, picketers broke through the gates of Serene led by what newspapers described as a screaming “Amazon.” The woman urged the men to charge and destroy the tipple despite the guns of the guards. The men hesitated and finally withdrew.
Many women paraded and picketed at the side of their striking husbands. Two or three were always at the fore-front at Serene. The newspapers referred to an “Amazon.” It’s doubtful that this was Mrs. Beranek, although it’s possible the newspapers exaggerated. But Mrs. Beranek was a small woman, although she bore 16 children and claimed to be the head of the “largest family in Boulder County.” She appeared almost daily in the front line of the picketers, vigorously waving the American flag.
For the first time National Guard airplanes were used to scout striker activity on the ground.
There was a growing number of stories of working miners being beaten on their way home, or of “joyriding” strikers taking “pot shots” at miners and their homes with rifles. Strikers reported similar offenses against them and their families, but they were hot reported in the newspapers.
Many of the daily stories concerning Serene and the Columbine Mine mentioned or implied the foreign character of the strikers. A story on November 9 said deputies saw only two “Americans” among the hundreds of strikers. Although most all of the rest were Bulgarians, Mexicans, Greeks and Italians, and “many of them incapable of conversing in the English language.”
On November 9, Sheriff Robert Blum of Boulder County and four of his deputies were sworn in as state officers, to give them more authority and to more freely participate in the activities at the Columbine Mine in Weld County. It didn’t help matters.
The work force continued to fluctuate at the Columbine Mine, depending upon the workers able to get through the pickets and if the resident work force was not intimidated by the gathering strikers. Anywhere from 500 to 1,200 strikers and their families would gather around Serene each day, threatening to crash the gates.
They again made good their threats on November 12 when between 500 and 600 strikers ignored the pleas of the “state police” and the deputies, and stormed the upper gate led by a drummer and Mrs. Beranek waving her flag, and paraded through the town of Serene.
On November 14, six officers were attacked and beaten when they attempted to arrest the strike leaders. The Columbine closed down again.
As a result of the incidents of the preceding days, Governor Adams warned the strikers that the guards were given orders to shoot if the premises were invaded again. To demonstrate the seriousness of the order, two machine guns were placed within Serene and aimed at the upper gate and long alley behind it. One gun was mounted about half-way up the water tank directly facing the gate and the other was mounted on the tipple below the gate and near the searchlight.
But given the machine guns did not seem to deter the strikers. They almost crashed the gates on November 16, but cooler heads prevailed.
On Saturday, November 19, an estimated 1,200 strikers were turned back from the gates of Serene by the loud, desperate plea (and threats) of Sheriff Robinson.
On Sunday, more than 1,000 strikers and members of their families held a rally in Barker Park. Among the speakers was a Mrs. Robinson, who had been jailed in Walsenburg, who told the crowd not to worry about the machine guns. She knew from experience that the guards would never use them. Other main speakers were “Duke,” a high IWW official brought in from Seattle, and Adam Bell of Lafayette, the top IWW leader in the Boulder area. They and the other speakers said fiery things like “the time is ripe” or “it’s now or never” or “we can not allow this, situation to continue.”
Louis Sherf, Chief of the State Law Enforcement Squad, was acting “on a tip,” according to newspapers, when he called out every available man to be at Serene on Monday morning. It is said there were 21 men on duty that morning.
Before dawn on Monday, November 21 (a miner’s day began at 5:30 a.m. and a striker’s day began at 5:30 a.m. or earlier) a large force of strikers picketed the Morrison Mine, the Puritan and then the State Mine, and began their march to Serene, a little more than a mile away. By the time they reached the long fenced road of No Man’s Land, an estimated 500 to 600 had gathered.
Several stories evolved from the confusion of the next few moments.
One popular version passed on by some old timers is that Mrs. Beranek, only, first walked down the long, lonely alley to the gate with her flag in her hand. As she approached the gate, a guard approached from the other side, his rifle ready. Mrs. Beranek asked if she could come in and march through Serene. The guard said “no” and told her to return to the others. Thereupon, this version goes, Mrs. Beranek promptly began climbing the fence. Before she reached the top, the guard struck her on the head with his rifle butt, and she fell to the ground unconscious at the foot of the gate, the American flag in the dirt beside her.
Then, and only then, did the other strikers surge forward… not to storm the gates, it is claimed, but only to retrieve Mrs. Beranek and the American Flag.
As pointed out, this is a popular version. Some swear by it. With all the emotion and hatred of the time, one could possibly adapt the most supercharged version as the truth. This story has all the elements of a great American epic.
The guards’ version, which is the one that was generally published in the newspapers, was that it was IWW leader and “trouble maker” Adam Bell who came forward alone. Shots were fired over his head to warn him. He called to the others to move forward – that the shots were only blanks. Then he acted out the little drama attributed by others to Mrs. Beranek.
Some others who reflect more calmly on the past, think it was more of a unified charge down the alley. Mrs. Beranek and her American flag, and Adam Bell were probably in the forefront. They always were.
There is also some confusion regarding what happened during the long seconds immediately preceding the firing… and the firing itself.
Newspapers state that the oncoming strikers threw all kinds of rocks and debris at the guards. And that the guards fired several shots over their heads and shouted many warnings. It was even said that there was “hand-to-hand” combat before the shots were fired, and that when “forced to fire” the guards did not use machine guns but rifles.
The first two actions, the rock throwing and the warning shots, were possible, although some recall bitterly that there were no warning shots. No guards were injured, so the rock-throwing must have been off course, and the “hand-to-hand” combat seems technically infeasible, since the strikers vastly outnumbered the guards. And what about the fence?
The newspapers even pointed up the controversy about the machine gun fire, going so far as to say that “strikers claim” machine gun fire was used. The general consensus of all those interviewed was that there was “no doubt” at least one machine gun was used.
Jim Fillas’ father was still picketing at another mine and was not at the Columbine. Jim and a friend were on their way, walking from the State Mine, about a mile away, when he heard the gunfire break the cold, black silence. He is one who says there is little doubt there was machine gun fire. And, although he was not on the scene, he might be in a better position to know than those at the site of the bedlam. He didn’t see it but he could hear it, and “you certainly can tell the difference between machine gun fire and rifle fire.”
Everyone agreed that it was all over within seconds.
After the dust and the din had cleared, several strikers, including at least two women (Mrs. Beranek was not one of them), lay on the ground at the gate of Serene at the end of what would be known long after as “Death Alley.” Many had minor wounds but 23 were seriously injured enough to be taken to nearby hospitals, mostly Longmont. The seriously wounded included one woman, dressed in miner’s overalls. She hovered between life add death for days, but did survive.
Three men died at the scene or within minutes of the shooting. Two more died within the next 48 hours. Mike Ridovich fought for his life until November 29, when he became the sixth victim.
Reaction to the “incident” was widespread and varying. Governor Adams acted immediately. He angrily blamed the striking miners for the bloodshed, declared martial law and called out the National Guard.
A “war parley” was held at noon the same day at nearby Erie and hundreds of striking miners attended. The mood was almost unanimous in gaining revenge, taking over the Columbine and “stringing up the murderers.” Miraculously, further tragedy was averted when “Duke,” the IWW leader from Seattle who had only the day before urged heated action, now very persuasively talked them out of their disastrous course.
A mass funeral was held for four of the victims in Lafayette a couple of days later. The cemetery was far too small to accommodate the hundreds of miners and their families who also attended. The overflow jammed the entire community, and the slow procession past the graves lasted for hours.
And there were demonstrations all over the country. On November 26, 160 of New York’s finest had all they could do to contain the some 300 persons gathered in Union Square to protest against the “Colorado murderers.”
Articles concerning the action appeared in newspapers throughout the country, including the New York Times, and magazines such as the American Mercury, Nation, Literaty Digest, and others.
The militia called to Serene was composed of three companies from Fort Collins, Loveland and Denver. Most of the guardsmen were very young and most were students. In fact, newspapers often referred to them as “student soldiers.”
As the Wobblies told it:
It was a sad November morning
And the sun began to shine
When a bloody struggle took place
At the gates of Columbine.
Peaceful miners with their families
Marching with our flag that waved
Were met by Company machine guns
That’s the game they played.
They murdered the men and women
They did the things the Kaiser did
They used machine guns, bombs and rifles
They opened fire from places hid.
It’s the first time in our history
That our flag was shot down
It was carried by a miner
Who laid dead upon the ground
Governor Adams gave the order
That the state police be sent
For protection to the mine scabs
Who were working for a cent.
All the world cried out in agony
Get that Scherf and all his gang
They’re the leaders of this tragedy
They are guilty, they must hang.
Those who run the Columbine, condemn them
For what happened to our people
They took hands m placing the guns
Which were fired from the tipple.
All the world now. is a witness
And will write it down on histories page
That assassins murdered those poor miners
For fighting for a living wage.
The Columbine and Ludlow massacres
Have made the weak and dead arise
In this great I.W.W.
The whole world will organize.
For the slaying of our members
Who were innocent and peaceful
We shall make this union stronger
Through the world forever grateful.
The State Police retaliated in kind:
It was a sad.November morning
And the run began to shine
When the Wobblies all went crazy
At the gates of Columbine.
Crazy Wobblies and their families
Marching with their Wobblie flag
They were met by well meant warnings
And the game we played was fair.
Only whim the Wobblies resisted
Did we open fire on them
And then with rifles and pistols only
And none of us were hid.
We did not drive by in a Ford coupe
And shoot at you and yours
Yet you holler about fairness
But you’re just a bunch of liars.
All the world now is a witness
And will write it down in verse
How the dumb and foolish Wobblies
Committed suicide and called a hearse.
The militia sergeant’s advice to a rookie on the slag pile:
A dull grey sky above you
A darker earth below you
A whistling wind that sighs and moans
And gives back’ a sigh so low.
What’s that that creeps below in the weeds?
What’s that in the sky above?
Why do you jump at the slightest sound
And cock your rifle at the coo of dove?
The slightest sound will make you shiver
And make your blood run cold.
Why do you hang so close to your rifle?
A soldier on guard should be bold.
You say you expect a fight tonight?
Well what of it, you should care
You say you’re afraid you might be shot?
Well what’s the use of throwing a scare.
Don’t worry kid, you’ll come through,
And don’t be afraid to fight.
You’re just a rookie, now, old son,
But keep’ your nerve, and now “good nite.”
There were no budding Shakespeares at Serene, but the feeling was there.
The militia was camped at Serene for three or four weeks, making regular patrols by truck to other “hot spots” in Boulder and Weld Counties. Later they camped at Louisville and Frederick, and divided up the patrols. From time to time small squads of soldiers would remain at certain mines until a threatening situation eased.
There were several minor incidents and many tense situations that could have easily exploded into another “Ludlow Massacre” or worse, but, fortunately, it didn’t happen.
And the strike just petered out. The few weeks the Militia remained on the scene, the mines regained their full work force. Mine owners continued to ignore the Wobblies. It was no secret that known IWW leaders were “black-balled” in Colorado mining camps after that. It was the last the IWW was heard from in Colorado – and almost everywhere_else. Otherwise, the working miners dropped out of the “lost cause” and, if they could find it, went back to work. And the Militiamen returned to school or their jobs.
Some scars didn’t heal for years – but people survive, changing some from the experience.
And Serene went back to work. In fact, in a few years it flourished. Another Columbine shaft was opened and more workers were needed. The population topped 2,000 and Serene had a suburb down below the tracks, called Chihuahua. The baseball field was here, and the Serene-Chihuahua team was one of the better teams in the area. The Columbine Casino, on Main Street, was one of the busiest places around.
The Columbine was opened in 1914 in what seemed to be an endless seam, or layer, of coal in this section of Boulder and Weld Counties. Despite the strike and ongoing legal problems in the early 1940’s which closed the mine from time to time, the Columbine remained a major producer until 1945, when it was finally closed down for good. It was the last mine the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company closed down in Colorado. Many of the houses were already empty and their occupants,had moved. Between 1945 and 1950, much of the remaining population moved away and many of the remaining buildings were sold and moved or torn down. By 1950 the population had fallen to 200, and they were like the last residents of most upcoming ghost towns: they had no place to go.
The town became a virtual ghost town during the 1950’s and the “ghost town killers” moved in: time, weather and vandals. Target shooters who carry such righteous bumper stickers as “The West Wasn’t Won with a Registered Gun” but who are destroying the few remains of the Old West by shooting up everything in sight, had thoroughly “shot up” the last few buildings at Serene. A couple of buildings had been burned down by vandals. Some bricks, wiring, and “ghost town wood” had been taken from some other buildings, hastening their demise.
An official of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company said they are tearing down the last few buildings to realize a small profit from salvage. “If we don’t do it, the vandals will,” he said. He said local teenagers held a rock concert on the site a year or two ago and “there went two buildings.” (At least we know that Serene had a little music in its life.)
Perhaps it is just as well – remove the last remnant of this hunk of Colorado history. We have a tendency to forget our unhappy moments, whether they be important to our development or not.
Serene had a dingy, unhappy lifetime.
Certainly, she also had a great many happy and significant ones – to some people.
May she rest in Peace.
EPILOGUE – ON RETURNING TO SERENE
To the author who has chased ghost towns throughout the West most of his adult life, Serene was not “just another ghost town” – it’s family.
Ghost-towners get their leads to a new ghost town from countless sources: old maps, books, directories, friends, fellow ghost-towners, complete strangers, etc. I was “put on” to Serene by “Pappy.” Pappy is my stepfather, Carl Howard Haberl.
When Governor “Billy” Adams called out the National Guard the day after the shootings, a sergeant in Loveland Troop “C” was a budding reporter named Fred G. Eberhart (who just happened to have left at home, among other things, a three-year-old son with a name very similar to mine). A sergeant from the Denver company was the above, Carl Howard Haberl. (Another Denver “student soldier” during this period was William “Uncle Bill” Shay, a lifelong friend of Pappy and his adopted family, longtime curator at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and one of the top experts in Western military history.)
Although Pappy was a member of the Denver Cavalry Troop “B,” he had been working at the mines in Cripple Creek at the time, was sympathetic with the miners, and had strong misgivings about being called for this sort of action.
At Serene and other activities during those trying days at the end of 1927, he met and became fast friends with Sgt. Eberhart. Later he would meet Mrs. Eberhart (whose nom de plume was Eve Bennett). Ten years later he would marry her and take on the horrendous responsibility of helping her raise six livewire children.
It was only because I was involved in seeking out ghost towns elsewhere that I didn’t look into Serene years ago. Once I did, I became totally absorbed, not only because of its family relationship, but also because of its unique name, and its well-hidden but significant past.
I was disappointed that Pappy didn’t seem to share my excitement as he returned to Serene after all these years. Although he has lived in the Denver-Boulder area all of his life, he never deemed it necessary to revisit the “historic town” nearby. The weather helped dampen his enthusiasm. Although it was the spring of 1971, it was cold and blustery, the wind went right through a person.
The cold wind probably helped take him back those 44 years since he was last there. The student soldiers camped in an open field just south of Serene. It was a particularly cold winter and the sharp wind was constant. He remembered that the “wind cut through everything you wore and you wore everything you had.”
That wasn’t the only reason Puppy remembered Serene as the “Hell Hole of Creation.” He remembers the water was terrible and the food was worse. The guardsmen devoted a large part of their time and energy to the rituals of dysentary and diarrhea. The facilities to attend these epidemic conditions were not the most alluring.
All in all, one may understand why. Pappy was not overly excited about returning to Serene. It didn’t invoke fond memories.
There was some disappointment also, on my part, in the difficulty Pappy had in orienting himself after we arrived in what was left of Serene. But, thinking about it, that could could be understandable, also. After all, it had been 44 years, and when Pappy was last here, as an “outsider,” Serene was a “big city” with scores of buildings all over the place. Now there were only six ruins left.
And Pappy remembered that much of the town’s activity revolved around Main Street, and the railroad tracks, about a block west of Main Street. No trace remained of either.
(Editor’s note: Perry Eberhart (1924-1989) was a Colorado historian and author who specialized in documenting ghost towns. His books included “Guide To the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps,” “Ghosts of the Colorado Plains” and “Treasure Tales of the Rockies.” This story first appeared in the Denver Posse of Westerners brand book, Vol. 29, 1973 and is copyright 1973 and 2017 by the Denver Posse of Westerners. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the Board of Directors of the Denver Posse of Westerners.)