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March in the camps

by Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO/LAS ANIMAS — More than a century ago, coal mines were flourishing throughout Las Animas and Huerfano counties. While the rest of the populace was planning for planting season, delivering calves and enduring cold and snowy weather, the miners and their families were entertaining themselves and enjoying camp life.

In Segundo, in Las Animas County, for instance, in March of 1902, things were looking good. Many of the older buildings, such as the original store, commissary buildings and bunkhouse were being demolished to make room for more coke ovens. A fine new Colorado Supply Company store was under construction on a “commanding bluff across the river”, i.e., on the west side of the Purgatory, and was scheduled to officially open April 5. Naturally, such an exciting event would be celebrated with a community dance that everyone would have been looking forward to.

The Segundo ovens at the time, employed some 750 men, though in March, about 100 were laid off because of a “lack of material”. While the new ovens were going up, the river was rip-rapped around a curve nearby to prevent their being washed out. Just south of the new bank of ovens, the Colorado and Wyoming Railroad was having piers built for construction of a stronger bridge over the river. A further improvement was a new washery being planned, and a railway round house.

All was not perfect, of course, especially considering the death of Andrew Welsh from his injuries incurred when a smokestack fell on him.

Just up Smith Canyon to the east, the folks in Primero were gossiping about a murder. Frank McPherson, owner and operator of a local saloon, had killed a man who was shooting a pistol on the saloon premises, so it was probably ruled self-defense. This grisly news no doubt replaced the favorite topic of the day, the recent masquerade ball in the new camp store, which had opened Feb. 28. The new school was set to open April 3 and preparations were being made to build a new row of houses. The railroad tracks had bypassed camp and were five miles beyond Weston on their way to the just developing Tercio mine and ovens.

Just the day before, Feb. 27, Primero miners set a record when 74 railroad carloads of coal, or 2,268 tons, were loaded. Of course, the mine had just opened the previous year, but it promised to be a big producer. A new boxcar loader was being built to increase ouput so more records were bound to be broken.

Others were made happy when a box containing 50 reference books was received from the Federation of Womans Clubs of Colorado and were placed in the doctor’s office.

In Starkville not far down the river, the future also was being pleasantly anticipated. The news was spreading about an electric railroad to be built connecting Trinidad with the coal camps along the Purgatory which would make trips into the county seat as well as the other mines for shopping, business and entertainment provided by sports, dances and socials. Meanwhile, “Snowballing and sledding are in vogue at present with young and old alike enjoying the fun,” reported Camp and Plant magazine, the weekly newsletter put out by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company’s Sociological Department.

The local school board of District No. 30, which included Starkville, was making arrangements to build a fence, level and otherwise improve the school grounds.

For fun, residents were entertained by an old fashioned medicine show for a week, and also “a strong man and some glove contests were enjoyed here this week.” One presumes the glove contests were of the actual boxing kind rather than the bar fight kind, though both were popular. On the other hand, a man named Roberts was “killed at the rock crusher when some how a fulminating cap exploded.” Just a week or so later Dominic Banatta was instantly killed in a fall of rock while his son was injured. Mr. Banatta left a wife and seven children.

Over in Engleville, east of Trinidad, the wedding of Alfonso Trujillo and Miss Rafaelita Garcia March 15 as a glorious affair, followed by a big dance in Tarabino’s Hall. Engleville had also received reference books from the Federation of Womans clubs, but also had available an array of “popular magazines”. March saw a change in superintendents when Robert O’Neil was transferred out after three years on the job, and James Cameron transferred in.

In the Berwind and Tabasco neighborhood, another new superintendent was hired for the former mine. William McDermott was his name, and since he was the former mine foreman, he was well acquainted with the men. The store of John Aiello received a new addition and the ground was being cleared for a new school building. The Tabasco community was in shock after the death of a boy, just 12 years old, who was beheaded when he tried to hop on a train for a ride home from school.

Across the county line to the north, Rouse camp was in full swing with a party for 36 guests at the home of H.G. Lamme. The ladies Columbine Club was entertained grandly, and there was jubilation over the birth of a 12-pound son to the Andrew Dicks. The camp was visited by a band of gypsies and a number of the women had their fortunes told.

Just north of Rouse in Hezron, Superintendent J.E. McLaughlin resigned and was replaced by Archie Chalmers. A new company store, to be managed by Lamme, was in the course of construction. Residents enjoyed the Passion Play, described as “the drama about the life of Christ … splendidly portrayed Saturday night in Osgood Hall by stereopticon views.”

In Walsen camp, adjoining Walsenburg on the west, the first snowstorm of the season was reported. Walsen was one of the older mines at 25 years in 1902 and the two original veins had been exhausted and new ones opened. Walsen camp included the employees of the Robinson mine, less than a mile away. It was said the camp included 13 nationalities at the time, mostly Italian but including 32 Japanese and 32 Scots, 21 Slavs and even one Swede. Walsen had about 250 employees and the Robinson about 100. The most exciting news of the month was the opening of the new Walsen post office on March 29. It remained operational for 30 years, until after the mines were closed.

North of Walsenburg was the Pictou mine. The big excitement in camp there was the recent loss by the camp’s boys baseball team to Walsenburg 27-25. The boys, between the ages of 12 and 16, were looking forward to “sweet revenge”. The camp was anticipating fielding four baseball teams that summer – “We have almost any size or color”, they claimed. Some of the adults were more interested in the wedding festivities of John Odovich and Elizabeth Rock. The marriage party and guests celebrated “for three days, Slavonian style”. The African Americans threw themselves an Easter party, and organized both a literary society and a debating club. Of course there was a dance in the schoolhouse that month, while the foundation for a new school building was completed. The school was forecast to be one of the finest in the county.

The month saw the death of a Pictou miner killed by a shot of explosive that fractured his skull and the previous day, another had died from the blast of a shot.

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