Trinidad, Colorado – Coal Queen of Colorado

Commercial Street in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

Commercial Street in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.


Trinidad, Colorado, the county seat and the most populous city of Las Animas County, lies 21 miles north of Raton, New Mexico, and 195 miles south of Denver.

Purgatoire River, Colorado courtesy Wikipedia

Purgatoire River, Colorado courtesy Wikipedia

Nestled in a cottonwood-lined valley beneath the 14,000 foot Mount Culebra of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the west and the Spanish Peaks to the north, the valley has been utilized for at least 10,000 years by the indigenous people of the area who encamped along the Purgatoire riverbank and flourished hunting the valleys’ abundant game.

By the time the first Europeans came to the area, the region was inhabited primarily by the Ute tribe in the mountains and by the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche on the plains.

The first European to enter the area was a Spanish soldier and explorer Juan de Ulibarri in 1706. Ulibarri’s party journeyed north to the Arkansas River, skirted the Spanish Peaks, and made their way to El Quartelejo, the northernmost Indian pueblo located in present-day Kansas. Ulibarri claimed the area for Spain and reported the presence of the French on the plains. On another mission in 1719, New Mexican Governor Antonio de Valverde crossed Raton Pass and traveled through the area, reaching the Purgatoire River’s headwaters. The following year, Pedro de Villasur embarked on an ill-fated journey northward from Santa Fe to determine if there were French incursions on the western plains. He met his death at the hands of a group of Pawnee Indians.

Culebra Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado courtesy Wikipedia

Culebra Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado courtesy Wikipedia

During Spanish possession, no trade was allowed with the United States, and those who were caught were often arrested and jailed. However, brothers Pierre Antoine and Paul Mallet, French Canadian voyageurs, led a party of six from Illinois to Santa Fe through what would later become Trinidad in 1739.

Despite Spanish control of the region, by the early 1800s, American explorers such as Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, and Jacob Fowler were traveling through the area.

In 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain, and southern Colorado south of the Arkansas River became part of Mexico, and trade between Mexico and the US was legalized by treaty. The same year, a young Missouri entrepreneur named William Becknell made the first trip on what would become known as the Santa Fe Trail, which became a vital link for commerce between Missouri in the United States and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Colorado Santa Fe Trail Map

Colorado Santa Fe Trail Map

The trail ran about 800 miles west from Missouri, eventually splitting into branches known as the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cutoff leading to Santa Fe. A major component of early trail commerce was the fur trade, and in 1832, Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain erected Bent’s Fort in present-day Otero County about 88 miles northeast of Trinidad. It became the most important post of the southwestern fur trade.

After passing Bent’s Fort, the Santa Fe Trail’s Mountain Branch paralleled the Purgatoire River and forded it in this area before making its difficult route over Raton Pass. This area soon became a favored campground for travelers along the trail as thousands of lumbering freight wagons pulled by six or eight-span of oxen made their way to and from Santa Fe. Often, these trains rested here, making repairs and recuperating before continuing their trips. Here, there was ample water, shaded campgrounds, and good forage for the livestock. The main trail followed a path along what is now Trinidad’s Commercial and West Main Streets.

Settlement began in the Purgatoire River Valley in the 1840s when Hispanic people moved northward into the area from New Mexico. However, most of these early people were pushed out by hostile Ute Indians.

The Army of the West Travels into New Mexico

The Army of the West Travels into New Mexico

In August 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army of the West, commanded by Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, marched through here to conquer the Mexican territorial capital of Santa Fe. His army of 1,600 soldiers, 1,500 supply wagons, 15,000 oxen, 4,000 mules, accompanied by numerous teamsters, drovers, and a few women, camped along the Purgatoire River. After resting for a short time, the large caravan made their way over the crude trail across Raton Pass. Though the army made it over the pass, their journey was fraught with difficulty. At times, it was necessary to draw the wagons up and let them down by ropes. Many wagons were destroyed, and supplies had to be left behind. Making matters worse was the fact that the soldiers were on half and third rations.

In 1847, Congress authorized the transport of mail from Independence, Missouri, via Bent’s Old Fort and Trinidad to Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail’s Mountain Branch. The first mail from the east came to the Trinidad area on the Santa Fe Trail in 1849.

In 1860, the United States Army established Fort Wise (later Fort Lyon) on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, and the next year, the Postal Service changed the mail route from the Cimarron Cutoff to the Mountain Branch. This resulted in the area receiving a Barlow & Sanderson stage line.

Colorado Gold Rush

Colorado Gold Rush

By that time, the Colorado Gold Rush had begun, and New Mexico traders began to bring freight caravans through Trinidad to supply the fledgling city of Denver. One of these traders was Felipe Baca, who traveled through the valley to sell a load of flour. Impressed with the valley’s potential for agriculture and grazing, 29-year-old Felipe determined to move to the valley. Baca had already become a prosperous farmer and rancher in New Mexico, accumulating most of his wealth through raising sheep. A few months later, he left his family in northern New Mexico and moved to the Purgatoire Valley, laying claim to a choice piece of bottomland that would eventually lie in the heart of the city. The next spring, Baca’s workers began to erect a dwelling and planted several crops. After harvesting, he and his men returned to New Mexico with wagonfuls of melons and grain. He then gathered his wife Maria Dolores Gonzales Baca and his children and made the permanent move.

At the same time that Baca was building his dwelling, another man named Albert W. Archibald, an area prospector built a log house on the north side of the river in Trinidad in March 1861. That same year, Archibald assisted Dr. John Whitlock in surveying a townsite where the Main and Commercial streets were laid out along the Santa Fe Trail’s ruts. Once the plat was complete, Whitlock inquired what the new town would be called, and bystanders proposed that Gabriel Gutierrez, who owned the only business – a saloon – have the honor of naming the settlement. When Gutierrez suggested “Trinidad,” the name was accepted. The second business in the new town was built by Juan Ignacio Alires, who established a store that offered groceries, fabric, and “whiskey by the quart.”

Felipe Baca, one of the founders of Trinidad, Colorado

Felipe Baca, one of the founders of Trinidad, Colorado

In the meantime, Felipe Baca and his family had settled into their new home, and in addition to farming and ranching, Felipe opened a general store. He was soon also responsible for constructing a 400-acre ditch to irrigate area farmland, known as the Baca Ditch. One of Trinidad’s most prominent pioneer citizens, he was involved in many early efforts to develop the city and later served in the Colorado Territorial Legislature in 1870.

In July 1861, Barlow, Sanderson & Company bought the Denver and Santa Fe Stage Line and, the next year, organized the Southern Overland Mail and Express. This stage line operated weekly post coaches from Kansas City, Missouri, to Santa Fe on the trail’s Mountain Branch. The line used the ruins of Bent’s Fort as a stage station, with routes proceeding to both Trinidad and Pueblo. The coach traveled over Raton Pass to Fort Union, Las Vegas, and Santa Fe from Trinidad. It became the largest and most important stage company in Colorado. A full coach load consisted of a driver, a messenger, and ten passengers with an allowance of 110 pounds of luggage each. The fare was $200.

Demonstrating the importance of the Santa Fe Trail trade to Trinidad, there were seven general merchandise stores within three blocks.

Colorado Volunteers

Colorado Volunteers

During the early part of the Civil War, some Confederate guerrillas were operating in the neighborhood of Trinidad. In 1862, the Colorado Volunteers marched past Trinidad over Raton Pass to New Mexico, where they destroyed Confederate hopes in the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

In 1862, Felipe Baca’s bountiful harvest encouraged about 12 families from Mora, New Mexico, in 20 ox-drawn wagons, accompanied by livestock, arrived in Trinidad. These settlers soon established homesteads and placitas.

In 1864, coal mining in southern Colorado began in the area, with the earliest mines located at Starkville and Engleville near Trinidad. A call went out to Europe for a trained labor force of miners. Before long, this led to an influx of immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds, including Hispanic, Greek, Italian, Polish, Irish, Lebanese, Slavic, and Northern European.

That same year, mountain man “Uncle Dick” Wooton arrived and built his home on top of the mountains in Raton Pass. Wooton, a former trader, Indian fighter, scout for John C. Fremont, and friend to Kit Carson, decided to build a toll road over Raton Pass to New Mexico.

Wootton Ranch on the Santa Fe Trail

Wootton Ranch on the Santa Fe Trail near Trinidad, Colorado.

By 1865, Wootton leased land from Lucien Maxwell, the Maxwell Land Grant owner, to build the 27-mile toll road over the pass. Hiring Ute Indians to build the road, which required cutting down hillsides, blasting and removing rocks, and building bridges, dramatically improved a tough stretch of the Santa Fe Trail. He then erected a tollgate in front of his home, charging $1.50 for 1 wagon or 25 cents for a horse rider. However, Indians were always allowed to utilize the road free of charge. His home also acted as a Barlow and Sanderson stagecoach stop, where passengers could get a meal.

Though the toll road made traveling over Raton Pass much easier, it was still not a place for the inexperienced, and the road banks were littered with broken parts of wagons that didn’t make it. Some caravans took up to seven days to complete the crossing.

Albert W. Archibald started the first school in July 1865 with about 13 students. The school was taught in English and Spanish.

That same year, famed mountain man, trapper, and trader George Simpson moved his family to Trinidad. By that time, he had settled down into family life and would hold various civic positions in the town, drove stagecoaches over Raton Pass, wrote articles for the newspaper, served on the school board, and worked as a book dealer.

Trinidad, Colorado in 1868

Trinidad, Colorado in 1868

By 1865 Trinidad boasted 1,200 people, 25 buildings, 60 adobe homes, two hotels, and five livery barns with large corrals for oxen, mules, and horses. That year, Felipe Baca donated land for a church built with the aid of 11 pioneer families. In the beginning, the church was very simple, comprised of four walls, a dirt roof, and a dirt floor. The church was called Holy Trinity Pedro in 1866, and Bishop Lamy of the Archdioceses of Santa Fe sent a Jesuit priest Juan Munnecom from Mora, New Mexico, to serve the community.

In 1866, Las Animas County was carved out of the huge Huerfano County, one of the legislature’s territorial counties in 1861. By that time, Trinidad was the largest settlement in the new county and was selected as the county seat.

The same year, federal troops arrived in Trinidad after violence between settlers and the Ute Indians threatened to escalate. Despite the US government’s earlier attempts to remove the Utes by treaty, in 1865, there was still a significant population of Muache Ute near the Spanish Peaks who refused to abide by the Anglo/Hispano encroachment on their homelands. After the traffic increased along Wootton’s toll road, conflict between the Ute and new settlers increased over livestock theft along the roads. As a result, the Muache began attacking area ranches and small settlements in the Purgatoire River Valley.

Simpson's Rest, Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith

Simpson’s Rest, Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith

During one of these raids in October, George Simpson and his daughter Isabel were caught out on the Plains and fled for their lives to the closest high point, scaled the heights of a butte where they hid and escaped discovery. Simpson then declared the rocky hill had saved his life and would like to be buried on its summit. When he died 20 years later, his wishes were granted, and the butte became known as Simpson’s Rest. An obelisk at the top of the butte marks this grave. Today, the butte is a favorite overlook for local residents, and a sign that reads “Trinidad” lights up on the hill every night. The bluff, overlooking the town from the north, can be reached by a road leading from North Avenue’s western end.

After the US cavalry arrived, and with the help of local volunteers, the Ute were defeated. However, the Indians continued to raid the area until military action during 1868 and 1869, and treaties forced the Indians onto reservations.

Also occurring in 1866 was the establishment of a post office in Trinidad and Barlow & Sanderson leased space in a small hotel on Main Street.

A Spanish school was started in 1867 in the home of Mrs. George Simpson on West Main Street. Afterward, Felipe Baca offered several acres of land with buildings on them for a school if the Bishop would secure the services of the Sisters of Charity of Mount Saint Joseph, Ohio; five sisters came in February l869 in answer to the request for teachers, and the school was opened to the public.

Boom Mansion, Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

Boom Mansion, Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

In 1867, Frank Bloom arrived in Trinidad. Bloom had come to Colorado the previous year with the Thatcher brothers, John and Mahlon, and operated a store in Canon City. The three moved to Trinidad the next year and opened the Thatcher Brothers and Company store. That year, while riding near Fisher’s Peak, Bloom discovered an outcropping of coal and soon opened the first commercial coal mine in the Trinidad district. Bloom and the Thatcher brothers would later start the Bloom Cattle Company, which became one of the state’s largest cattle outfits. Bloom would later become a banker and was also involved with various other business ventures in Trinidad, including publishing The Enterprise newspaper for a brief time. In 1882, he built a large, three-story brick mansion on the corner of Main and Walnut Streets. Today, the home is owned by the state of Colorado and operated as Trinidad History Museum by the Colorado Historical Society. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970 and is part of the El Corazon de Trinidad National Historic District.

By the late 1860s, the areas’ livestock industry was booming, with sheep and cattle grazing throughout the valley. After the Civil War, there was a great demand for cattle in the Midwest and a great supply of Longhorns in Texas. In 1866 Oliver Loving established the first trail over Raton Pass and north to Denver. To facilitate cattle herding, Charles Goodnight established the Goodnight Trail, which ran from the Pecos River to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where it formed several branches, including one north to Trinidad and beyond. The Texas cattle drives transported tens of thousands of cattle through the area until 1886.

By October 1869, Trinidad was described as having a flour mill, six stores, three doctors, three lawyers, and “saloons in abundance.” The next year, George Simpson provided Trinidad’s description for the Rocky Mountain Directory and Colorado Gazetteer. Simpson noted the fertility of the river valley, the “inexhaustible beds of coal,” and the abundant pasturage for cattle and sheep. He predicted that the geographic position of the town would ensure that it would be the commercial center of a large district, concluding, “The town, with a population of 1,000, with its forty stores and shops, with its numberless and slow-jogging freight wagons, with its daily and tri-weekly mail coaches, and rapidly increasing travel, already attracts attention abroad, and gives promise of a prosperous future.” However, Simpson appears to have exaggerated the town’s population, as the 1870 U.S. Census recorded 562 residents.

Baca House, Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

Baca House, Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

In 1870, more stores opened in the town, and log and adobe buildings lined Main and Commercial Streets. During these busy times of the Santa Fe Trade, up to 500 head of wagon train oxen would be staked out around town, grazing and resting for the journey over Raton Pass. On West Main Street, the red-light district did a booming business with all the cowboys and freight men passing through. Here, could also be found many of the saloons and gambling dens.

In 1873 Felipe and Dolores Baca purchased a ranch with a two-story large adobe home in Trinidad, built by John Hough, a Santa Fe Trail entrepreneur, just three years earlier. The Bacas traded 22,000 pounds of wool, worth $7,000 for the house. Felipe Baca died just one year later. The house continues to stand at 304 East Main as it is operated by the Baca House Museum today.

Trinidad was incorporated in 1876 and became the supply and transportation center for the region’s coal mines. The coal from these mines was highly prized for its quality in creating coking fuels for Colorado’s smelters. As Colorado’s mines and smelters grew into a major industry, Trinidad prospered and became a wealthy commercial center full of stunning Victorian homes and buildings.

In 1878, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad bought the right of way, paying him and his wife a lifetime pass and pension as part of the purchase price.  The toll road operated until 1879, when at the age of 75, Wootton moved to Trinidad, Colorado, where he lived until he died in 1893.

Raton Pass Railroad Tunnel

Raton Pass Railroad Tunnel

Once the railroad was completed through the area, it created a fuel demand and provided a greater need for Trinidad’s immense coal resources. The railroad also brought more prosperity to Trinidad, as it hummed with freight and passenger activity.

To conquer the steep six percent grade with very tight switchbacks, the New Mexico & Southern Pacific Railroad ordered a 150,000 pound locomotive from Pennsylvania, shipped in pieces for assembly in Trinidad. Weighing twice as much as other powerful engines yet burning less coal, the locomotive was named the Uncle Dick for Richens Wooton.

The coming of two railroads to Trinidad ended the commerce on the Santa Fe Trail and the trailing of cattle through the area. However, the Trinidad area soon became the center of several large cattle outfits. In addition to the Bloom Cattle Company, headquartered in Trinidad, the Scotch/English-owned Prairie Land and Cattle Company controlled an estimated 15 million acres between Pueblo and Amarillo and the Matador Cattle Company.

In 1879 the three-story Grand Union Hotel (later called the Columbian) went up at the important intersection of Main and Commercial Streets.

When the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway reached Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1880, the Weekly New Mexican printed, “And the Old Santa Fe Trail passes into oblivion.”

As the railroads were built westward, large-scale production of coal from the Trinidad and Raton fields began. In 1880, Trinidad boasted 2,226 citizens.

Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson, 1879

In April 1882, none other than the famous lawman, Bat Masterson, was appointed as Trinidad’s city marshal. He had hardly settled into his $75-a-month marshal’s job when his friend Wyatt Earp visited him in Trinidad in May. Earp was traveling with a group of gunmen fresh from their famous vendetta ride in Arizona. Wyatt requested Masterson’s help to prevent the extradition of Doc Holliday from Colorado to Arizona. Though Masterson did not particularly care for the hard-drinking Doc Holliday, he agreed to help his friend Wyatt and soon went to Denver to do what he could to extricate him from the law. In the end, Masterson persuaded Colorado governor Frederick W. Pitkin to refuse extradition.

During his tenure as city marshal, shootings and street crime declined significantly as Masterson often used physical force to enforce the law. However, he never resorted to gunplay. During his tenure as marshal, there was only one fatal shooting in Trinidad, which was in a battle between two other lawmen. But, Masterson had a downfall – his nightly “moonlighting” as a faro dealer. On March 28, 1883, a local paper noted: “There are now two ‘bankers’ running for city offices – Mr. Taylor of the Las Animas County Bank, and Mr. Masterson of the bank of ‘Fair O.’ Both have a large number of depositors – one of the time depositors and the other receives his deposits for keeps.” The marshal’s election occurred on April 3, 1883, and Masterson was defeated by a lopsided vote of 637 to 248. However, for the next twenty years, Masterson made his home in Colorado before moving to New York.

During the 1880s, Las Animas and Huerfano Counties were the top two coal-producing counties in Colorado, with the richest coal lying in an easily accessible strip between Trinidad and Walsenburg. Several grand brick buildings were built during these prosperous times, serving as evidence of the city’s growing wealth.

The Trinidad Street Railway was established in 1882 when horsecars began operating over the town’s unpaved streets.

In 1885, the Catholics, having outgrown their first church, built a new and larger Holy Trinity Church with local sandstone with influences of the Georgian and Romanesque styles. Today, it serves a congregation and is part of the Corazon de Trinidad National Historic District.

The former Jaffa Opera House in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

The former Jaffa Opera House in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

A few years later, the Jaffa brothers, Jewish merchants, built the 700-seat Jaffa Opera House on Main Street in 1888.

That same year, the railway streetcar system was formed and had a mile and a half of track, two cars, and eight mules. By 1891, an additional 1.5 miles were added to the track, six cars were running, and 35 horses had replaced the mules.

Trinidad’s population doubled in the 1880s and by 1890 was called home to about 5,500 people. At this time, the city boasted two English-language newspapers and another that was published in Spanish.

Coal production continued to climb in the 1890s, at which time Las Animas and Huerfano Counties had more than 8,000 coal miners.

By the early 1900s, Trinidad turned into a major urban center as the Las Animas County coal mines were among the most productive nations. Coal mining camps dotted the high hills near Trinidad, including Gray Creek and Engleville, to the east; Starkville, Sopris, Cokedale, and Primero, to the southwest; and Berwin, Hastings, Delagua, and other camps, to the north.

The Fred Harvey Cardenas Hotel in Trinidad, Colorado is gone today.

The Fred Harvey Cardenas Hotel in Trinidad, Colorado, is gone today.

In June 1903, the elegant Cardenas Hotel, one of the famed Harvey Houses, replaced a wood frame building that housed a Fred Harvey eating house established in about 1895. The new two-story hotel, designed in the Mission Revival style, included an arcaded porch, gabled terracotta roof, balcony, square tower with a domed roof, arched entries, and a portico. Situated along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company and the Purgatoire River, it was one of the most desirable locations for Harvey Girls to work. Unfortunately, its location made both the hotel and nearby depot subject to flooding. The Cardenas closed in 1933 and was demolished. The depot operated until 1960, when it, too, was razed.

In 1904, Trinidad experienced several disasters. In mid-January, a fire destroyed two blocks of the town’s business section, causing more than $75,000 in damages. Then, in late September, Trinidad endured an unusually heavy rainstorm, leading to severe flooding; the flood destroyed the Santa Fe railroad station, wiped out every bridge in town, and caused several hundred thousand dollars of property damage.

Trinidad, Colorado Electric Streetcar

Trinidad, Colorado Electric Streetcar

The same year, the horse-drawn streetcar system was abandoned, and the Trinidad Electric Railway & Gas Company installed a new electrical system. Five miles of track and five city cars operated in town, and nine miles of interurban track with three interurban cars passed through the countryside to reach Starkville’s mining towns to the south and Sopris to the west. In 1908 the interurban line was extended to Cokedale, and additional trackage was added to the city lines. Streetcar fare in town was five cents, and interurban fare to the three coal camps was 15 cents.

Main Street in Trinidad, Colorado in about 1910

Main Street in Trinidad, Colorado, in about 1910

As the coal money continued to pour into Trinidad, resulting in a surge of new public buildings, businesses, and houses. The city added a Carnegie Public Library in 1904, a new city hall in 1909, and a new post office in 1910. New commercial buildings on Main Street included the Toltec Hotel, the Colorado Building, and the Masonic Temple block. The opulent West Theater (now the Fox) was built in 1908 with a large ballroom and three floors of seating. It is the oldest continuous running movie theater in Colorado and continues its tradition of entertainment today.

At this time, Trinidad also became nationally known for having the first woman sports editor of a newspaper, Ina Eloise Young. Her expertise was in baseball, and in 1908, she was the only woman sportswriter to cover the World Series. During the same time, Trinidad was also home to a popular semiprofessional baseball team briefly coached by Damon Runyon.

A funeral procession in Trinidad, Colorado for one of the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, 1914.

A funeral procession in Trinidad, Colorado, for one of the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, 1914.

When World War I began in 1914, the number of men who worked in the coal mines doubled. Many of these men comprised European immigrants who broadened Trinidad’s ethnic mix beyond the older Hispano and Anglo elements to include Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Slavs, and other southern and eastern European groups.

Facing low wages and dangerous working conditions, many miners joined the United Mine Workers and organized several major strikes in the early 1900s. A major strike began in December 1913, when miners were evicted from their company housing and were housed in tent colonies provided by the United Mine Workers. One of these tent colonies was located in Ludlow, about 15 miles north of Trinidad. In April 1914, tensions between miners and owners reached their climax at Ludlow, resulting in National Guard troops attacking the tent colony. Referred to as the Ludlow Massacre, it was the deadliest labor conflict in US history.

Over the next few decades, industrial changes and economic depression resulted in a greatly reduced demand for coal. Mines in the area began to close in the 1920s.

Al Capone

Al Capone

By 1922 the automobile greatly reduced the numbers riding the streetcars that the transportation system was closed. The interurban continued for another year until September 1923, when they too were abandoned. Afterward, the streets in Trinidad were paved with bricks.

During Prohibition, none other than the infamous Al Capone found sanctuary in Las Animas County, venturing between Trinidad and Aguilar. Known for his association with major mafia crime families in New York and Chicago, Capone fit in perfectly with many Italians in the area during the 1920s and 30s. Using the tunnels underground Trinidad, liquor sales, and other illegal operations became a way for these Italian families to gain power in the area.

Dust storms and the Great Depression years of the 1930s brought the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to Trinidad. They built Memorial Square as a tribute to war veterans, Monument Lake buildings, a zoo, and a fish hatchery.

The 1940s brought World War II, and a German POW camp called Camp Trinidad was located about five miles north of the city. Trinidad’s population peaked in 1940, with 13,223 calling the city home. Afterward, however, Trinidad’s mines continued to close because of high extraction costs and increasing competition from other fuels. As a result, Trinidad’s growth ground to a halt, and its population began a slow decline for decades.

In the 1960s, Trinidad was dubbed the “Sex Change Capital of the World” when Dr. Stanley Biber, a veteran surgeon returning from Korea, began performing sex reassignment surgeries and gained international acclaim. Biber was performing roughly four sex-change operations a day at his peak, and the term “taking a trip to Trinidad” became a euphemism for some seeking the procedures he offered. Biber’s surgical practice was taken over in 2003 by Marci Bowers and appeared in several documentaries. She moved her practice to Burlingame, California, in 2010, much to the relief of some of Trinidad’s residents and pastors who were not happy with the town’s title of “Sex Change Capital.”

Drop City in Trinidad, Colorado courtesy A.R. Mitchell Museum

Drop City in Trinidad, Colorado courtesy A.R. Mitchell Museum

Drop City, a counterculture artists’ community, was formed in 1965 on land about four miles north of Trinidad. Founded by art students and filmmakers from the University of Kansas and University of Colorado at Boulder, Drop City became known as the first rural “hippie commune” and received national attention from reporters around the world. The residents constructed and lived in domes, using geometric panels made from the metal of automobile roofs and other inexpensive materials. The commune was abandoned by the early 1970s, and the last of the iconic domes was taken down only in the late 1990s.

Trinidad is now experiencing a new boom with the city’s thriving marijuana industry. This relatively small town prospers from $44 million in annual recreational drug sales, representing about 5.13% of the state’s total sales. In 2018 High Times called the town “Weed Town, USA,” noting the 23 licensed retail marijuana dispensaries servicing less than 10,000 people works out to one dispensary per 352 people.

The population of Trinidad today is about 8,200.

The elegantly detailed1889 McCormick Building in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

The elegantly detailed 1889 McCormick Building in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

The old west comes alive amid the 6.5 miles of winding brick streets and century-old buildings of downtown Trinidad for visitors. Here is the El Corazon De Trinidad National Historic District, which features some 55 adobe and brick buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mine closures and economic decline in the twentieth century ended up saving many of the city’s historic buildings., which have been the target of preservation efforts since the 1960s. With its many almost perfectly preserved Victorian buildings, complete with Italianate stonework facades, give the city an almost European look.

A River Walk runs through the city, and historic markers highlight the people, events, and places of early Trinidad. A walking tour guide to the Corazon De Trinidad National District can be purchased at the Carnegie Public Library, 202 North Animas, and at the museum and selected shops within the district.

The city can be explored on the free Trinidad trolley, which operates from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It departs the Colorado Welcome Center every hour, on the hour, between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Long-abandoned Henry Schneider Brewery in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

Long-abandoned Henry Schneider Brewery in Trinidad, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

Some of Trinidad’s historic buildings include the Holy Trinity Church, the West (Fox) Theater, Columbian Hotel, Schneider Brewery, the Ave Maria Shrine, entire business blocks, and dozens of others. The Mitchell Museum is housed in the grand building that once was Jamieson’s department store. Down the street, the turn-of-the-century J.C. Penney is the new home of the Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre.

The Trinidad History Museum, located on a block along East Main Street, includes the Baca-Bloom Heritage Gardens, the Santa Fe Trail Museum, the Baca House, and the Bloom Mansion.

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated August 2021.

Also See:

Trinidad, Colorado Saloon Gunfight

Colorado Main Page

Colorado Santa Fe Trail

Ludlow and the Colorado Coalfield War

Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Trinidad, Colorado History Museum by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

Trinidad, Colorado History Museum by Carol Highsmith.


Carazon de Trinidad National Historic Places Nomination
Colorado Encyclopedia
History Colorado (Dead Link)
Santa Fe Trail Scenic Byway
University of Texas Libraries