DELAGUA — A horrific disaster visited Las Animas County on Nov. 8, 1910 – 105 years ago – when the Delagua coal mine exploded. Seventy-six men died as a result. It was neither the first nor the worst mining disaster for the county, and it certainly would not be the last. It was, however, the first and worst experienced by the mine operators. Delagua mine was opened in 1903 by the Victor Fuel Company. It was located in Canon Del Agua, about three miles west of the Hastings mine. East of Hastings, where the canyon opened up to meet the prairie, is best known to history as the site of the Ludlow massacre. John C. Osgood, credited with being the organizer of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company back in 1883, had formed the Victor Fuel Company 20 years later when he lost control of the board of directors of CF&I when new controlling stockholders took their seats on the board. Their names were John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. Had these men not bought their shares, the company would have defaulted. Since Osgood had been involved with mining and
railroad interests since 1870, he decided to stay in the business and go into competition with the CF&I. Delagua was one of the first properties developed by Victor but within a year the company owned nine mines in Colorado and also operated some in New Mexico. In 1909 Victor combined its bi-state operations and became the Victor American Fuel Company, also developing properties in Huerfano and Fremont counties. Victor American became the second biggest coal producer in the state within a short time. Delagua also was a coking property, though not one of the principal ones in the area. With the opening of the mine came the camp. It came quickly, as miners were attracted to the site at the head of the canyon, with its lively creek and attractive location. The Colorado and Southeastern Railroad was soon extended to the new town. On April 30, 1903, the post office was established, and Delagua was on the map. November 8, 1910 was a Tuesday, so children were in school and the housewives were attending to chores just like every other day, when about 2 pm a huge roar was heard as glass shattered and the ground rocked. Life in a coal camp had taught both adults and children just what that noise symbolized, and the dread must have been palpable. Immediately, camp residents rushed outdoors and toward the opening of Mine No. 3, from which smoke was issuing. Just outside of the mine, three men were dead, and five injured, some frightfully. Three of these men were the Jennings family, father and sons. The underground detonation caused props, railroad ties and rails and timbers of all sizes to burst up out of the mine and rain down on outside employees and mine buildings where others were working. It was said around camp that 135 men were entombed. It turned out there were many more. Within an hour of the blast, 42 “begrimed miners, swinging their dinner pails”, staggered out of the entrance to Mine No. 2, which ran parallel to No. 3. That night four Slavs were found unharmed, though thoroughly blackened, nearby, and then 23 more were led out of the debris. The explosion was heard down the canyon at Hastings, and a relief party organized. Berwind, just south of Hastings, did the same, and others came from Aguilar, Cokedale, Gray Creek, Starkville and Primero. One of the first on the scene was Willis Evans, leader of the CF&I rescue crew. He made many trips through the mine workings searching for signs of life. Around 2 am the following morning, his inert body was discovered in the debris by his co-workers, without his helmet. He was brought out and attended by the physicians who’d gathered to help, and who gave him artificial respiration, but he died on the stretcher as he was being taken to the train that would have borne him to the hospital. His death was a hard blow to his crew as well as all those who knew him. He was a former football player, had attended Colorado School of Mines, and was popular with his men and community. Concerned men, including miners, doctors, telegraph operators, company officials, journalists and photographers, flocked to the scene from other camps and around the countryside. The railroad cars kept disgorging them and pandemonium ensued. The county sheriff duly sent deputies to Delagua to help with crowd control. That Tuesday was election day, and the newspapers couldn’t help but mention that the events of the day resulted in the lightest vote cast in years. The papers also did some addition. For those who hadn’t been paying attention, they reported that within one single month, the lives of 136 miners had been lost in Las Animas County, for on Oct. 8, an explosion in the Starkville mine had claimed 57. These could be added to other 1910 victims such as those in the Primero mine blow-up that killed 79. And, little did they know, but some of their rescuers may have been among the victims of the awful 1917 blast in the nearby Hastings mine that took 121 lives. 1910 was the worst year ever for the Trinidad district in mining fatalities. On the other hand, it might be pointed out that 1910 was an excellent year for production. More coal was shipped, more coke produced and more miners employed than ever before and for many years afterward. Las Animas maintained its lead in tonnage and employment statewide for decades, with Huerfano and Weld counties claiming second and third. In the aftermath of Nov. 8, the dead were identified. Mine Superintendent William Lewis was one, as was Assistant Superintendent W.J. Evans. William C. Kilpatrick, the outside foreman, had died, along with Llewellyn Evans, pit boss, James Young, master mechanic, and David Bell, motorman. There were black and white victims. There were Slavs, Italians, Japanese, Austrian, Scots, Greeks and no fewer than seven natives of Montenegro. They worked as pick miners, timbermen, tracklayers, and pumpers. More than half of the men were married, and some left large families of fatherless children. There were four victims surnamed Lopez, and judging from their ages, 50, 30, 25 and 23, they may have been father and sons like the Jenningses. When the smoke cleared and the safety inspectors could enter the mine, they released the information that the accident was started by an explosion of gas and dust caused by the open flame of a head lamp. And, five days after the tragedy, a lone mule, forlorn and slightly scorched, wandered out of the workings and began braying his displeasure. Delagua again saw death during the infamous 1913-14 coal strike. In 1914 it was said to be the “largest mine in terms of output west of the Mississippi River”. At the time it employed around 900 men. Victor American continued working the mine until 1952 when 120 men were still on the payroll. The company blamed diesel engines for the decline in demand. The mine was closed in March. Put up for auction were 87 buildings and houses, mining equipment and machinery. The mine was leased to independents and finally abandoned entirely in 1969.