The Ghosts of Dawson, New Mexico

Dawson, New Mexico Cemetery by Kathy Alexander.

Dawson, New Mexico Cemetery by Kathy Alexander.

Once a booming mining town of 9,000, most of what remains are white cross grave markers and memories of tragedy in Dawson, New Mexico.

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 Lucien B. 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 farmland, 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 with the results, so much so that Dawson began to sell the coal to his neighbors.

Lucien B. Maxwell

Lucien B. Maxwell

In 1870 Lucien B. Maxwell sold his interest in the Maxwell Land Grant. The property was quickly sold twice over the next two years, and in 1872 it was in the hands of a Dutch Firm that was aggressively looking for ways to exploit the resources of the grant. The grant owners immediately attempted to extract rent 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 discovered 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 settle the matter in the courts. Dawson admitted that his transaction with Maxwell in 1869 was purely verbal, stating that a promise and a handshake were the way Maxwell had always done business.

Dawson hired 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 mineral rights. And, much to the Land Grant Company’s chagrin, the courts 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, Texas, a railroad promoter. A 137-mile-long railroad was built from the mine to Tucumcari, 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 a 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.

Dawson Coke Ovens, 1920

Dawson Coke Ovens, 1920

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.

They also built a four-story brick building that housed the Phelps Dodge Mercantile Department Store. It sold virtually anything the townsfolk might need — food, clothing, shoes, hardware, furniture, drugs, jewelry, baked goods, and ice from its plant. A modern hospital was built, which maintained a staff of five doctors and was complete with a laboratory, surgery, and x-ray equipment. The miners enjoyed using the company-built movie theater, swimming pool, bowling alley, baseball park, pool hall, golf course, lodge hall, and even an opera house for their leisure time. 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 Dawson and 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.

Dawson Main Street, 1916

Dawson Main Street, 1916

The residents knew that mining was a dangerous business — the best 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 effects of the sooty mine air. Occasionally, a miner would fall into a pit or die in the collapse of a seam, and the company-built cemetery slowly began to fill.

Dawson became a mecca for miners worldwide, 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 Dawson grew into a company town of about 9,000.

Phelps Dodge strove to make the mines as safe as possible. They did such an excellent 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 New Mexico Inspector of Mines completed two days of inspection of the Dawson pits on October 20, 1913. He reported that Stag Canyon Mine No. 2 was “free from traces of gas and in splendid general condition.”

Interior of Dawson, New Mexico Mine, 1924

Interior of Dawson, New Mexico Mine, 1924

Yet, Dawson was doomed to suffer a series of tragedies that shadowed its history to the end. During this period of abundance and prosperity, Dawson 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 Dawson 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 Colorado 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 killed by falling boulders in the shaft. Mass funerals were conducted for the victims, and row upon row of graves were dug, making extending the cemetery far up the hill necessary. White iron crosses marked the cemetery, and the burials continued for weeks. It was the second-worst mine disaster of the century.

Investigators determined that an overcharged blast in a dusty pillar section of the mine had caused the explosion.

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 been ignored.

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 Dawson mines reached their peak production of over four million tons of coal.

Dawson New Mexico about 1900

Dawson New Mexico, about 1900.

Amazingly, there are no remains, other than the cemetery, of this once thriving community of over 9,000 residents. In 1950, the coal mining operation was shut down, and the town was razed.

But tragedy hit Dawson again on February 8, 1923, at about 2:20 PM, in Stag Canyon Mine No. 1. When a mine train jumped its track, it hit the supporting timbers of the tunnel mouth and ignited coal dust in the mine. There were 123 men in the mine at the time. Many women who lost husbands in the earlier disaster waited anxiously for their sons to appear out of the smoke. Early the following day, two miners who had been in an isolated section of the mine walked out. They were the only survivors. The cemetery was extended once again, and more white crosses took their place in the cemetery.

After the cleanup, Dawson continued to thrive for almost three decades, with sons following their fathers into the mines. But gradually, railroads began to convert to diesel-electric locomotives, while natural gas and heating oil replaced coal as the fuel to heat homes. There was a brief resurgence of mining during World War II, but after that, it was clear coal was a fuel of the past. On April 30, 1950, the mine was shut down. The announcement meant the death of the company town. Phelps Dodge sold the whole town, buildings and all, to a salvage company in Phoenix. The giant coal washer was shipped piece by piece to Kentucky, and several houses were moved out and relocated. The company safe ended up in the Phelps Dodge headquarters in Bisbee, Arizona, which is still displayed at the mining museum. Over the next dozens of years, ranchers operating Phelps Dodge’s “Diamond D” ranch occupied the few dwellings that remained.

Dawson Tipple about 1900

Dawson Tipple, about 1900.

Over 350 white iron crosses in the Dawson Cemetery mark the graves of those who perished during mining disasters. The cemetery, a deeply moving site, is now the only part of Dawson still open to the visitor. These silent sentinels, some with individual names and some unmarked, are poignant reminders of the tragic deaths of the victims and, more importantly, their lives.

New Mexico had truly forgotten Dawson for a while until two brothers went on a metal-detecting expedition in 1991. When they saw the uncared-for and abandoned cemetery, Dale and Lloyd Christian were shocked. When Dale Christian returned home to Albuquerque, he petitioned the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Division to place the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dawson, New Mexico Cemetery by Kathy Alexander.

Dawson, New Mexico Cemetery by Kathy Alexander.

The New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs was unaware that the cemetery even existed and asked Christian to provide site measurements. Not only did he provide the measurements, but he also provided pictures and an accounting of the number of graves and pictures. The Office of Cultural Affairs was amazed, and although very few cemeteries are placed on the National Register, the Dawson Cemetery was added on April 9, 1992.

The site is again part of a working ranch, just as before 1901. Every two years, former residents hold a picnic on the site of their former town on Labor Day weekend. And on Memorial Day, many visit the cemetery where their relatives remain buried.

Driving Directions: Take Highway 64 northeast from Cimarron for about 10 miles to the old Dawson Road, just north of the old ghost town of Colfax. Turn left (northwest) for about five miles on a dirt road. A locked gate prohibits access to the old townsite of Dawson. The cemetery is just to the right.

Explosion View, February, 1923

Explosion View, February 1923

Practical Don’ts For Dawson Coal Miners

Written by E. Stephens and published in The Dawson News, March 17, 1923.

DON’T abuse a mule with a strap. Push on the car and help him; he is helping you.
DON’T pass by a misplaced tie or rock in the main hallway. It will stop the motor and delay your turn on cars. Push the obstructions aside.
DON’T pass a rock hanging from the roof without notifying the mine boss immediately. Practice “safety first” always.
DON’T cut ties in two in order to lay a rail; cut under the tie so that it may be used again.
DON’T put the small end of a timber up; put the big end up.
DON’T lay track so close to a rib that a car will not pass.
DON’T cut a cross bar too deep; it will eventually weaken and slip.
DON’T leave machine cuttings in your place; it may cause you and others trouble.
DON’T cut off your shooting wires in order to get them out of your way; pull them out from under the coal, roll- them up and hang them on a post.
DON’T abuse your boss when he is giving you advice for your own good.

Observance of the above don’ts will make for mine efficiency and will bring the satisfaction of having done a day’s work for a day’s pay

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated July 2023.

Also See:

Colfax & Union Counties Photo Print Gallery

Ghost Towns & Mining Camps of New Mexico

Mining History in the United States

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment