The importance of coal from the Raton Basin in the late 19th- and early 20th-century West cannot be overemphasized. Coal fueled the industry of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the major transportation network. The Basin was not only Colorado’s major metallurgical-coal field, but also important in New Mexico’s early 20th century coal production. CLICK HERE for a geologic map of the Raton Basin. (USGS, Bulletin 2184-E, 2001) John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I) was so dependent on the Basin’s coal for its Pueblo steel mill that it built the 30-mile long Colorado & Wyoming railroad from Trinidad to its mines in the Purgatory Valley. CLICK HERE for a map of the CF&I network of mines, plants and rail lines throughout the western states. (CF&I, Camp and Plant, 1902)
By 1906, the American Smelting & Refining Company (ASARCO) was also producing coke from Raton Basin coal for its lead-zinc-silver smelters in Pueblo, Denver, and Leadville. In the New Mexico portion of the Basin, both Phelps-Dodge and Kaiser Steel coked coal from the Dawson-Vermejo Park area.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, underground coal mining in the Basin was fraught with fatalities and injuries. Living conditions for the largely immigrant workforce in many of the coal camps was primitive. In 1910, an explosion in Rockefeller’s CF&I Starkville Mine killed 56 miners. In 1917, an explosion at Victor-American’s Hastings Mine killed 120 miners.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) viewed the mines of the Basin as ripe for unionization. Attempts to organize the mine workers lead to an extended strike in 1913-14. The strike was marked by violence on both sides. The striking miners established a number of tent colonies outside the company controlled coal camps. The most famous of these was at Ludlow. Federal troops were eventually called in to end the strike. The Ludlow tent colony was destroyed by the troops leaving several dead, including women and children. This period is called the “Colorado Coalfield War.” Today, a UMWA memorial marks the location of the “Ludlow Massacre.”
In 1920, Colorado coal production was valued at $43 million, double its combined gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc production of $22 million (in 1920 dollars). In 1947, Colorado coal reserves were estimated at 15% of U.S. reserves and its anthracite reserves ranked 4th among all states. Even in 1957, after coal had been replaced by natural gas as Colorado’s home heating fuel and by diesel as its railroad locomotive fuel, coal ranked third in the state’s mineral production value behind only petroleum and molybdenum. By 2004, Colorado ranked 6th among all states in coal production, although only 12 coal mines remained in operation.
Today, Raton Basin coal mining is nearly extinct. It has been replaced by coal-bed methane gas wells spaced on a grid throughout the region. However, evidence of the Basin’s coal mining past can still be seen in towns like Cokedale, Segundo, Starkville, Boncarbo, and in monuments in Trinidad, Hastings, and Ludlow. History is also in the faces of its people many of whom are descended from miners who immigrated from Mexico, Italy, Greece, and Slovenia.
(Written by Stephen Hart)
CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE
Coal tipple (above) and miners’ housing with coal cars (below) at the Forbes coal camp before the 1913-14 strike. Part of the camp was destroyed by the miners during the strike.
Memorial to those killed in massacre on April 20, 1914 at the Ludlow tent colony.
(Images Courtesy Library of Congress/Denver Public Library, Trinidad Chamber of Commerce. Trinidad Tourism Board, and HessArt)