The Ghosts of Dawson, New Mexico

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 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 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 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 next morning 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, where it 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 remaining.

Dawson Tipple about 1900

Dawson Tipple about 1900

Over 350 white iron crosses in the Dawson Cemetery mark the graves of those who perished in the 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.

For a while, Dawson had been truly forgotten by New Mexico until two brothers went on a metal detecting expedition in 1991. Dale and Lloyd Christian were shocked when they saw the uncared for and abandoned cemetery. 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

Dawson, New Mexico Cemetery

The New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs was unaware that the cemetery even existed and asked Christian to provide measurements of the site. 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.

Now the site is again part of a working ranch, just as it was prior to 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 still lie 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 Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2019.

Also See: Dawson Photo Gallery

2 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Dawson, New Mexico”

  1. Great article and a nice reference piece. I have only one disagreement with the end of the article. You mentioned that the graveyard was forgotten until the 1990s, which is not correct. Anyone that visited the Aztec Grist Mill Museum in Cimarron in the 1970s and on would have known about Dawson and the graveyard. I worked at Philmont Ranch (near Cimarron) in the 1980s and we used to explore the graveyard and what remained of the town on our days off. Everyone knew that when you saw the Cold Beer sign to look for the road west next to the bridge. The owner of Cold Beer would tell stories about Dawson and point out which crosses were the early one vs the later ones. Somewhere in a box, I have photos of the graveyard from the early 1980s.

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