by Paula M. Manini
TRINIDAD — In 1992, the Trinidad-Las Animas County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce embarked on a mission to create a Trinidad Coal Mining Museum and Coal Miner’s Memorial Park. During a recent “Food for Thought” noontime presentation at Trinidad State Junior College, Chamber member Yolanda Romero reported that, thanks to many generous individuals and organizations, including those who donated the museum building, their vision is nearing realization. Trinidad’s newest museum located at 219 West Main Street and the adjacent park will feature historic artifacts, photographs, fine and folk art, and a replica of a mine entrance.
Chamber of Commerce members began by raising funds for a statue of miners working around a coal car for the park’s centerpiece. Next came an oversize statue of a canary in a cage and recently, that of a mule, with two more mules in the works. As charming as they are, the sculptures symbolize the many risks and dangers of coal mining during the previous two centuries. Miners, including children, worked in dangerous conditions and suffered from black lung disease from breathing coal dust. Many also perished when mines collapsed or explosions caused by methane gas leaks occurred in the local and regional coal mining industry. Along with miners, mules and canaries are coal mining heroes.
Bob Butero, of the United Mine Workers Association, talked about these animals as vital to the mining industry. Integral to mining operations, mules did the hard backbreaking work of hauling coal cars, timbers, equipment, and supplies. Mules not only perished in explosions but some spent their entire lives underground, living in corrals or stables set up in the mines when not working. They often became blind, or nearly so, from lack of light. Miners often said their bosses would “rather replace a miner than a mule.”
Canaries were used by safety inspectors to detect methane gas, which is odorless and not only highly explosive but poisonous. Miners carried caged canaries because the birds sickened and died when they breathed the toxic gas, a signal for the inspector to order the miners to evacuate.
Butero also talked about the contentious history of coal mining in southern Colorado and the “Great Coal Field War and Strike of 1913-14” that culminated in the tragic events at Ludlow on April 20, 1914 when men, women and children died at the hands of the Colorado militia. Those stories will be told in the new museum, which is scheduled to open in late April.