The Ghosts of Dawson
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Dawson Cemetery, September, 2008, Kathy Weiser.
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photographic prints and downloads
The many tragedies of Dawson, New Mexico are memorialized in this forgotten cemetery
in Colfax County.
In 1869, John Barkley Dawson came to the
Vermejo Valley looking for a place to homestead. He found it 5
1/2 miles upstream from the settlement of Colfax and paid $3,700 to
Maxwell for the deed, finalizing the verbal deal with a handshake.
After settling on his land, Dawson found coal on his property. Scraping chunks of coal from the surface of his farm land, he burned
it in his stove rather than using wood. At first, his neighbors
thought he was a little crazy, but out of curiosity, several asked for
samples and were pleased at the results, so much so that Dawson began
to sell the coal to his neighbors.
Lucien B. Maxwell
sold his interest in the
Land Grant. The property was quickly sold two more times
over the next two years and in 1872 it was in the hands of a Dutch
Firm who was aggressively looking for ways to exploit the resources of
the grant. The grant owners immediately attempted to extract
rents from many of the squatters living on the grant; however, they
often had no way of knowing who was a legal owner and who was not. When they found out that the
Dawson land was heavily laced with coal,
they wanted to develop the vein and attempted to evict Dawson. Dawson was ready to fight ready to settle the matter with six-guns,
but later he consented to settling the matter in the courts. Dawson admitted that his transaction with
in 1869 was purely verbal; stating that a promise and a handshake was
the way Maxwell had always done business.
an attorney and the case was tried in the fall of 1893 favoring Dawson
in their decision. The court held that the Land Grant Company
could not prove that Dawson did not own the land and the mineral
rights. And, much to the Land Grant Company's chagrin, the
courts further found that Dawson had not bought the 1,000 acres that
he had thought, but rather 20,000 acres.
Dawson and his partner, Charles Springer,
ranched the land until 1901, when he sold most of the property to the Dawson
Fuel Company for $400,000. He retained 1200 acres for himself and
continued to ranch.
The Dawson Fuel Co. was founded with the help
of Charles B. Eddy of El Paso,
railroad promoter. A 137-mile-long railroad was built from the mine
New Mexico linking the spot with the Rock Island Lines. By
August 1, 1901, a crew of fifty miners was ready to work. A sawmill
was busy turning out lumber for houses, coke ovens were smoking and by the
end of that first year,
Dawson was well on the way to becoming a city and
the center of the largest coal mining operation in New Mexico. Later, the company built a hundred cottages for 500 more people and
erected additional coke ovens. Off to a quick start, the town was
prosperous and growing.
Tragedy struck the first of many blows to the
new community on September 14, 1903 when fire broke out in the No. 1 Mine,
followed by several explosions. With the grace of God, 500 miners
escaped. The men worked for a week to control the fire and when it
was over three were dead.
By 1905, 124 coke ovens were belching fire and
the town was thriving with about 2000 residents. By this time
the settlement boasted a post office, a liquor store, a mercantile, a
school, a newspaper and a large hotel.
Coke Ovens, Myers Collection, NMSU
In 1906 the Phelps Dodge Corporation bought
the Dawson mines and, sparing no expense, determined to make Dawson
a model city and the ideal company town. The company built spacious homes
for its miners, supplied with water from the company's water system.
also built a four-story brick building which housed the Phelps Dodge
Mercantile Department Store which sold virtually anything the townsfolk
might need -- food, clothing, shoes, hardware, furniture, drugs, jewelry,
baked goods and ice from its own plant. A modern hospital was
built which maintained a staff of five doctors and was complete with a
laboratory, surgery and x-ray equipment. For their leisure time, the
miners enjoyed the use of the company built movie theater, swimming pool,
bowling alley, baseball park, pool hall, golf course, lodge hall, and even
an opera house. Phelps Dodge also supported two churches, one
Catholic and one Protestant. Children attended either the Central
Elementary School in downtown Dawson or the Douglas Elementary School on
Capitan Hill. A large high school building was built that eventually
employed 40 teachers and their athletic teams won many state
championships. The company also built a steam-powered electric
plant, which powered not only Dawson, but also the nearby towns of
Walsenburg, Colorado, and Raton. Providing good-paying jobs for the
residents, the extra features of the company town helped keep the
employment stable and under the new management Dawson's population grew
quickly to 3,500.
The residents were well aware that mining was
a dangerous business -- the best of coal mines being squalid, hot, dark
holes permeated with black dust. Even if the miners escaped the constant
dangers of cave-ins and explosions, their life expectancy was sharply
reduced by "black lung" and other affects of the sooty mine air. From time to time a miner would fall into a pit or die in the collapse of
a seam, and the company built cemetery slowly began to fill.
became a mecca for miners from all over the world with immigrants
arriving from Italy, China, Poland, Germany, Greece, Britain, Finland,
Sweden, and Mexico. The miners worked together to dig the
coal that fueled an area equal to 1/6 of the United States and
grew into a company town of about 9,000.
Phelps Dodge strove to make the mines as safe as possible. They
did such a good job with Stag Canyon Mine No. 2 that it attracted the
eyes of coal-mining experts who, in 1913, described it as "the highest
achievement in modern equipment and safety appliances that exists in
the world." The
Inspector of Mines completed two days of inspection of the
pits on October 20, 1913 and reported that Stag Canyon Mine No. 2 was
totally "free from traces of gas, and in splendid general condition."
was doomed to suffer a series of tragedies that shadowed its history
to the end. During this period of abundance and prosperity
suffered its worst catastrophe on Wednesday, October 22, 1913, only two
days after the mine's inspection. The morning dawned bright and
clear and 284 miners reported to work at Stag Canyon Mine No. 2. Work went on as usual until a little after three p.m. when the mine
was rocked by a huge explosion that sent a tongue of fire 100 feet out
of the tunnel mouth shaking the homes in
two miles away.
Relief and disaster crews were rushed from
neighboring towns. Phelps Dodge sent a trainload of doctors,
nurses and medical supplies up from El Paso and striking miners in
ceased picketing and offered to form rescue teams. Working
around the clock, rows of bodies were brought to the surface. The distraught wives and family members clogged and impeded the
operations around the mouth of the mine.
Only 23 of the 286 men working in the mine
were found alive. Two of the rescuers were themselves killed by
falling boulders in the shaft. Mass funerals were conducted for the
victims and row upon row of graves dug, making it necessary to extend
the cemetery far up the hill. The cemetery was marked by white
iron crosses and the burials continued for weeks. It was the
second worst mine disaster of the century.
Investigators determined that the explosion had been caused by an
overcharged blast in a dusty pillar section of the mine.
Dynamite, not a permitted explosive, was being used. The Bureau of
Mines allowed certain types of explosives, but blasting was to be
conducted only when all miners were evacuated and water sprays were to be
used to settle the coal dust. These rules had obviously been
Safety measures were heavily increased
after the disastrous explosion and subsequent accidents were comparatively
minor with few fatalities. The mining continued and in 1918, the
reached their peak production of over four million tons of coal.
Mine, 1920's, Carol and Dwight Myers Collection,
|In 1913, Stag
Canyon No 2 Mine at Dawson, New Mexico was the 2nd worst coal mining
disaster in U.S. History, claiming 263 lives.
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