5 – Pueblo, CO

Episode 5: To Learn, Understand, Grow and Be Able to Share That With Others with Michael Diaz

Michael Diaz describes a Great America where education is important so we can learn, understand, grow and be able to share that with others.

He is a father of four who enjoys playing with his kids in the park. He has been working in the IT industry or over 20 years.

With his and his wife’s diverse backgrounds and fond memories of family traditions, which range from Saint Patrick’s Day to making Christmas tamales, he makes sure to pass them down to his own kids. His Great America is about opportunity, dedication and inspiring others.

Pueblo, CO: The Great America of 1915-1942

The era between 1915 and 1942 were boom years for Pueblo, Colorado, a time when the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), which at one point employed twenty thousand people, made the city the industrial center of the Rockies. The steel mills not only provided economic security, but attracted the most ethnically diverse population in the Intermountain West, and Pueblo in many ways seemed to have much in common with cities in the East.

The diversity that made Pueblo special was driven by the potential of employment at the CF&I steelworks, which attracted a substantial population of African-Americans and immigrants from places like Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia and Eastern Europe. By one estimate, forty languages were spoken in the city and over two dozen foreign language newspapers were in circulation. Ethnic communities coalesced in enclaves that were comparable the neighborhoods of Chicago or Manhattan and organized festivals, cultural organizations and mutual-aid societies like the Order of Sons of Italy and the American Slovenian Catholic Union.

Situated on the Arkansas River where the Great Plains rise into the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, Pueblo had a history as a trading post and an agricultural center until the 1880s, when entrepreneurs, taking advantage of access to iron, coal, limestone, water and the railroad, founded what would become the CF&I steelworks, which eventually attracted investment from John D. Rockefeller. Following years of labor unrest and violence associated with CF&I’s operations (though largely not in Pueblo itself), public outrage and the company’s need to restore peace forced a series of reforms known as the Colorado Industrial Plan in 1915. The era that followed was one of relative stability. Though not without labor unrest, the outright warfare of the past was largely over.

Pueblo was a company town. CF&I took measures against liquor and prostitution and invested in health care, housing and schools. These efforts at social uplift were not motivated by altruism, but aimed at asserting the company’s control of the town and stifling potential union organizing. CF&I dominated the community and even the daily lives of its people. All the men in town either worked for the company or one of its contractors and, and most local families lived in company housing, shopped in company stores, and were cared for in the company hospital.

Even during this era of apparent stability tensions between labor and management would continue despite CF&I’s best efforts. Even though Pueblo itself was spared the worst of things, memory of events like the Colorado Labor War (1903-1904), and the Ludlow Massacre (1914), in which attempts at labor organizing were violently suppressed, cast a pall over relationships between the company and its employees. CF&I was initially successful at stifling union organizing, both through its investments in the community and the Industrial Plan of 1915, which established a so-called “company union” controlled by management. Strikes in 1919 and 1927 failed, but in 1933, with the growing influence of Mexican workers, who were excluded from the “company union,” management’s hold was broken and CF&I’s employees were organized under the United Mine Workers of America. The Industrial Plan was finally found illegal in 1942. The steelworks continued to dominate the economy, but the era of total company control was over.

The steel industry would leave a persistent and troubling legacy for Pueblo. The city acquired the derisive nickname of “Pee-yew-blow” for the sometimes foul smell of CF&I’s operations. At the height of production, families some neighborhoods could not hang laundry outside lest it be stained red by metallic dust from the mills. Decades later, officials are still dealing with lead and asbestos left behind by the steelworks.

The steel industry collapsed nationwide in 1982. What followed in Pueblo was an economic crash and years of labor strife, a situation similar to what was faced in the so-called “Rust Belt” cities of the industrial East and Midwest. CF&I went bankrupt in 1990 and was sold to foreign investors who cut the workforce and pared down operations. In contrast to Pueblo’s “Steel City” heyday, the mills now employ less than a thousand people.

Local leadership has focused in recent years on diversifying the economy, with mixed results including some notable successes in alternative energy, tourism and tech, however Pueblo is not the economic powerhouse that it once was. Though the city still celebrates its ethnic diversity, its status as “Melting Pot of the West” is largely a legacy of bygone days. Without the industry that once drew immigrants from all over the world, the cultural dynamism of the mid-twentieth century has been lost.

-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s