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Old King Coal and the story of Oakview Mine

by Nancy Christofferson

All that remains of the Oakview Mine near La Veta.
Photo courtesy busydane on reddit.

LA VETA — “Old King Coal” was the title of a booklet published in the late 1920s by the Oakdale Coal Company, last owner of the Oakdale mine in the little town of Oakview west of La Veta. The book explains the types of coal in the United States (though not in its own mines), gives a general overview of how it is mined, and its principal uses. Mostly it extols the virtues of Oakdale coal, being that it burned clean and stored well without crumbling. Period.

The Oakview post office (had it not closed in 1930!) would celebrate its 110th anniversary this week. It was established December 3, 1907, the exact same day as Farr post office at Cameron mine. Like Farr/Cameron, the names are used interchangeably. Oakview’s first postmaster was a Mr. Hartsuck, who was soon succeeded by George Fruth.

The mine was developed in 1906 by George Fruth and James Autrey of Walsenburg, doing business as the Oakdale Mining Company. The vein had been worked previously to a limited extent but the product was popular with La Veta and area residents as well as the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Fruth and Autrey owned several other mines in Huerfano County, so they knew their business. They soon had 35 miners at work along with 15 “outside” men. By mid June 1908, production had increased to 500 tons per day and in July began to exceed 600 tons daily.

The first superintendent came and went, and W.O. Van Etten replaced him in 1907. W.O. apparently had no first name, just an initial, as even his obituary refers to him as W.O. He resigned as superintendent in 1908 and moved into La Veta to open and run a lumberyard.

The first fatality occurred in March 1908 when the fire boss, Joseph Hamilton, was killed in a gas explosion. The Oakdale was hard on fire bosses – in 1919 another one, William Christopher, was killed in an explosion and in 1920, the third, Martin Kauser, died in a fall of rock. The 1919 explosion also claimed the lives of 17 miners. This is the mine where the electrician was somehow electrocuted.

After Van Etten did all the hard work of getting the mine into production and building the camp into a small town, he was succeeded by a parade of supervisors. He oversaw the building of the tipple even as the D&RG railroad was still surveying for a spur to the mine. When finally the tracks were done, the first shipment of coal went out in October 1907. The spur was occasionally called Tropic, as was the mine, and crossed Middle Creek to run about two miles north into the coal camp.

The Oakdale was one of three producing coal mines within a few miles – the others being Occidental and Ojo – and was by far the best producer. In its 24 years of existence, it produced more 3,300,000 tons, just 500,000 tons less than its “twin”, Cameron.

La Veta quickly saw the benefits of having a coal camp nearby. Incoming miners with families bought their furniture there, and their autos, groceries and dry goods stores increased their stocks of goods, doctors came out on house calls. Local farmers began truck gardens to supply the boardinghouses as well as private ones, and the company store, one started a dairy, and at least one harvested ice to sell in the camp. Building contractors were hired from town, while others were involved with quarrying stone for camp foundations. Many men found work in the forests cutting wood, others made the hundreds of ties and props used in the mine’s construction, and everyone with a good team and strong wagon freighted them in. Some La Vetans tried their hands at mining, others worked as clerks, cleaning crew and cooks. It is no surprise that La Veta herself experienced a building “boom” in 1908, or, at least, a boom for a little town, maybe a semi-boom.

The camp itself developed relatively quickly. Fruth and Autrey leased an old farmhouse along Middle Creek and used it as a boardinghouse for their first employees in 1906. The following year a 14-room boardinghouse in camp was completed a short time before the $6,500 store was finished and opened. It belonged to the Pinon Supply Company belonging to the Dick brothers of Walsenburg. A district school was already operating near Middle Creek to the south, but too far, it was felt, for the children to walk from camp. By the time the new Oakview school replaced the old Baker/Ownbey district one, three teachers were required to handle the increased number of students.

The first ten houses were completed in February 1908, and construction continued throughout the year and into the next. At its peak, Oakview was said to be home to some 500 people, about 150 of them employed by the mine.

Construction was slowed by a major windstorm in January 1909 that lifted roofs and knocked barns, sheds and outhouses off their foundations.

From practically the beginning, Oakview was populated by a wide variety of nationalities and personalities, none of whom really got along. It was often a hotbed of tension. At first, it was said the miners were “mostly American”, but by 1910 many Japanese had found employment and lived not with but near the other residents. The Japanese boardinghouse was no stranger to gunfire and eventually experienced its own explosion.

Early miners included a large Welsh population. At one point there was even a Welsh choir. There was no church in camp, but there was a pool hall, and a club house where “moving pictures” were shown as well as traveling entertainers.

Oakview during the 1913-14 labor strike was the scene of violence, and it was four of the mine’s own guards who were gunned down near La Veta in November 1913. It was at that time the stone turrets were built to guard the camp from intruders of one sort or another.

In October 1921 the miners went on strike because the superintendent had been “firing union men without cause”. They probably weren’t any happier in December when their wages were dramatically reduced and 60 men were laid off completely. The state rangers arrived in February and by March the mine was back to full speed, working with a full crew six days a week. However, the dust left behind the departure of the rangers had hardly settled when a strike was threatened and back came the rangers.

The next disaster to hit Oakview was the mail robbery of 1925, when the entire $5,000 payroll was stolen. Possibly no other mine had experienced two such robberies, but in February 1915 much the same thing had happened when a gunman killed William Dick in his car bound for Oakview with the company payroll.

Oakview was the proud possessor of its own power house. In 1927 it was abandoned when Trinidad Electric built lines into the camp.

In 1928 the company opened a new vein, which hopefully would extend the life of the mine, at the time working sporadically. By 1930 just 51 men were working. Both the post office and the company store, now owned by the Huerfano Trading Company of John Kirkpatrick, closed down for good. More layoffs ensued, and the camp was becoming a ghost town.

“Oakview mine is finished”, read the papers in May 1932. Orders had come down to move the machinery to Oakdale Caol Company’s other mine, Alamo, and to sell the buildings. Houses could be purchased for $25, but the cost to move them was much more. Only the school remained open to serve the local ranch children. Several of the houses were moved into La Veta, others to ranches.

What houses weren’t sold were torn down, some piece by piece as neighbors helped themselves to the materials. Electricity was shut off. The clubhouse, boardinghouse and store were torn down. Oakview was indeed finished

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