Drowned but not forgotten
by Nancy Christofferson
SOPRIS — If the old coal camp of Sopris were in existence today, it would be observing its 130th birthday. Sort of.
The mine at Sopris actually began operations in November 1887, and the first coal was shipped the following January. It was owned by General Elbridge B. Sopris, said to be a veteran Indian fighter and officer of the Colorado Volunteers back in the day. Otherwise he was best known for operating a saloon in the wide-open Trinidad of the 1880s and working as a surveyor and promoter.
Sopris and his Denver Fuel Company platted the town February 26,1888. It was variously described as being four, five, or six miles southwest of Trinidad. It was never incorporated.
Also in 1888, 100 beehive coke ovens were constructed. Sopris’s coal was rated superior, perhaps the best in the state, suitable for generating steam, gas, smithing and coking. Its coke was used even in smelting precious metals.
Sopris produced about 1,400 tons of coal a day and by April 1, 1889, it had a total production of 224,689 tons. Of that, about 15,069 tons had been manufactured into coke. On that same date, the company and mine were purchased for nearly $l.l million by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Sopris became officially known as CF&I Mine Number 4.
The youthful settlement welcomed a post office July 25, 1888 – thus the 130 years of history. Nevermind that it closed at the beginning of 1969.
On September 1, 1888, the Colorado Supply Company opened its first store in Sopris. A two-story frame affair, it was then and forever known as Store Number 1.
That Sopris had a certain joie de vivre about it may be seen by the writing of Perry Eberhart, for several decades one of Colorado’s most popular writers about all things ghost town . He wrote, “Sopris is an emotional thing. It’s inexplicable. The author has only spent a few days there – before and after its final death. He has visited and studied hundreds, thousands, of ghost towns… It had a personality, different from any other. In its final days it had a vitality, even while being raped and humiliated. It had fallen on hard, deathly times. But it was still proud and cheerful.”
CF&I began realizing the benefits of its investment in the Sopris mine almost immediately. In 1890 it was the biggest producer in the state with an average capacity of 1,750 tons daily, though on one particularly busy day, 2,000 tons were loaded in less than 10 hours. Production for the year stood at 301,225, not bad for any year but very special in 1890.
In those early days, CF&I allowed its employees to provide their own living quarters. Naturally these were constructed as cheaply as possible from available materials (rocks, mud, used lumber, fallen trees or any combination imaginable) and the resulting camp was one of shanties, tents and eyesores barely habitable by man. Visitors, especially newspaper reporters, evidently delighted in pointing out the hovels, complete with photos. The company was very proud of itself when it began building miners’ homes and providing services. Still, the damage had been done. During the congressional hearings concerning the deadly strike of 1913-14, those old photos, with added testimony, were ponied out as an example of what CF&I provided its workers.
In 1892 the company added more ovens, and with 222 of them, produced 60,000 tons of coke. In 1900 it bought 50 of the very latest in improved coke ovens. This brought the production of coke to some 3,000 tons per day and put Sopris on the map as one of the largest coking camps in the state. Until the modern ovens were introduced, coking was a tedious, time consuming process requiring 48 hours for completion.
The Sopris mine was “gassy”. For this reason, it remained mostly unmechanized and relied on ropes rather than motors to transport men and coal. An explosion in March 1922 that killed 17 men was caused by a CH4 (methane) gas and dust explosion, sparked by an electric arc cutting machine, proved the point. The first death in the mine, by the way, apparently was on August 29, 1888 when Antonio Romero was killed by a fall of coal. Perhaps the family most impacted by mine accidents were the Sebbens, who lost three members between 1914 and 1923 by three forms, the ubiquitous fall of rock, being struck by a mine car, and being run over.
Around 1900, Sopris was sporting neat two-story duplexes, small one family residences, all lined up in tidy rows, a good school, large clubhouse, company store, circulating library, and at least one hotel. Its population was about 1,500, of which more than 300 constituted the work force. On the other hand, it had dirt streets, no sewage system and relied on wells for water. It was served daily by the Trinidad Gas and Electric trolley system and the Colorado and Wyoming Railroad.
In 1901, the CF&I’s company bulletin, Camp and Plant, called Sopris “a model camp.” Superintendent W.B. Danford was in charge.
In June 1902 one G.S. Thompson became superintendent. For some reason, he took over the mine and its production, and for a time Sopris was known as the Thompson mine. Readers of Camp and Plant were no doubt moved that year to read of the death of Lizzie Scheimenz from rheumatism. She was nine years old.
Correspondents from the camps provided the “society” news for Camp and Plant. Thus we learn of the Knights of the Protective Arc being organized in April 1903 with 25 charter members, and, a month later, the organization of a boys baseball team. The kindergarten presented a “novel entertainment” in the form of a Japanese garden, the young people enjoyed a dance and quite a few residents went to a circus in Trinidad. Store Number 1 advertised in the bulletin. When the Colorado Supply said it had everything, it followed up with listing a few – “Clothing, Shoes, Hats, Jewelry, Navajo Blankets, Crockery, Glassware, Musical Instruments, Furniture, Carpets, Drugs, Tobaccos, Stoves and Ranges”. Annual inventory must have been exhausting.
The newsletter also reported in 1903 of the rivalry between the camps of Sopris and Rouse. Rouse mine was a year younger but not intimidated, calling itself “ideally located”. We learn that when Sopris installed a drinking fountain in the school, Rouse answered by building an ornate fence around its schoolyard. And so on.
By 1917, Sopris was on the Trinidad water system. In 1918 it had the new $23,000 Lincoln Community School, dedicated March 19. It boasted 11 rooms plus a basement. It was compared favorably with the old 1878 one-roomed adobe “shack” and the 1890 four-room brick number.
Sopris had sent 67 to war by July 1918. The Junior Red Cross had completed so many garments – 476 – it had turned its attention to sewing for refugees. Sopris supposedly had the first business school in southern Colorado, the first YMCA two-story stone building (with a bowling alley), a bandstand provided by John D. Rockefeller personally and some exceptional young men. The story went, in the summer of 1915, one Tony Cunico, a Boy Scout, was accidentally shot outside town. “Quick thinking by his troop members, who had taken first aid training, stopped two hemorrhages before they carried him to medical aid”.
In 1921 Sopris student Mary Paciouk won the county spelling contest, then placed fifth in state.
That summer at the CF&I field day, “Mrs. Brunelli of Sopris won the title of heaviest wife at 262 pounds.”
During World War I, John Deldosso was superintendent. He may have still been when in 1922 CF&I closed six of its mines in Las Animas County because he took over the mine. He closed it in 1940.
Residents were allowed to stay in their homes after the mine ceased operations. Their numbers decreased but the school kept operating. When word was received of the new Trinidad Reservoir to be built, about 300 or 400 people were still living in camp. They slowly packed up, abandoned their homes, and watched as others came in and took everything useable – from copper wiring to doorknobs.
When Trinidad Lake finally began filling in the late 1970s, the town had been razed, bulldozed and buried under tons of water. Only the memories were alive.