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Tabasco was hot stuff

September 21, 2016

by Nancy Christofferson

LAS ANIMAS — One hundred and fifteen years ago, Las Animas County added a new post office. It was named Tabasco, though it was also called Tobasco and Tobasca. It was 17 miles northwest of Trinidad and just one mile from Berwind, or at least part of it was. Tabasco, it is said, was a town divided in two by a mine, namely, Colorado Fuel and Iron Company Mine No. 34.

Tabasco was one of many destinations in Road Canyon. This leads off from the Ludlow site south and west to the coal camps of not only Tabasco, but Berwind, Tollerburg, Vallarosa and Bear Canon as well. Tabasco’s close neighbor, Berwind, was one of the older CF&I mines, having been opened in 1888 on a fine seam of coking coal. Berwind was the camp famously known as being the home of “20 Italians and 500 goats”.

Tabasco was a later edition. Development of the mine started in early 1901. As the company had found to its satisfaction, opening a mine, building a community of homes, and erecting the necessary mine buildings all in one enormous effort resulted in a complete, finished camp in record time.

The mine was operational that spring. In June 1901 a temporary company store, Colorado Supply Company Store No. 30, was opened. It was a small frame structure with no pretentions. Like the residences, it was built practically into the hillside of the narrow canyon – there was nowhere else to put it. At the foot of the hills was Road Canyon creek, which tended to flood.

The brand new Tabasco post office opened September 26, 1901. The camp was now officially on the map.

Tabasco was built in two sections about three quarters of a mile apart. The homes were of types approved by the company’s Sociological Department at the time, and had four to six rooms. Because of the steepness of the hills, one end of a house would be on stilts while the other rested on a shallow, ground level foundation. Two long rows of homes marching along the hillside, one above the other, were separated by the essential outhouses. One smaller batch of houses stood in the bottom of the canyon.

Unlike in some other camps, the company-owned homes were painted in colors chosen by the residents, and many shades were represented. The houses were frame and later, concrete block.

One of the camp’s first concerns was where to place a school building. The children started out attending Berwind, but a site was soon found “on the old goat ranch” that would serve both camps conveniently. A two-story building opened in September, called the Corwin School, and was formally dedicated Oct. 18, 1902. Formalities included an address by Dr. Corwin himself, a reception, and dance with music by an orchestra brought from Trinidad. Special trains from that city were run. It was found that at least 50 couples could dance at once, proving the spaciousness for the second floor assembly hall.

Dr. Albert L. Trout served as camp surgeon, while Dr. George D. Andrews was the general practitioner. In December 1901 a hospital was nearing completion in Tabasco and the foundation for the doctors’ offices was ready. Elsewhere, the electric plant was functioning and a water supply being sought. There was so little of the latter that dowsers were searching high and low for a reliable source. Soon, a well was dug near the company store for the proposed waterworks. In February 1902 construction had started on a new pipeline from the store to houses along “Tabasco Avenue”. Alas, the pipeline froze later that month, just as the camp was suffering through an epidemic of influenza, followed by typhoid. All this may have led to the resignation and sudden departure of Dr. Andrews in April.

As if sickness had not caused enough heartache, in late March, one Thomas Burnett was beheaded when he jumped for a train to hitchhike home on. He was 12 years old.

By this time the little camp had turned into a large one. The population was estimated at around 1,500 people, of whom 485 were employees of the CF&I.

The mine itself, located on a five foot seam of coal, was almost inconsequential. Of more importance were the washeries and beehive coke ovens. At its height, the camp boasted more than 300 ovens which sent 90 percent of the coke produced directly to the CF&I steel mill in Pueblo.

The first superintendent was James Cameron. He was soon replaced by Superintendent Dermott whose resignation in January 1903 brought in Fred Steinhauser.

About the time 40 men, ‘mostly Italians’, were brought in to work the ovens in November 1902, the young people of Tabasco joined with those from Berwind to form an entertainment club for dancing and other activities.

In June 1903, a wall of water came down the creek and kept going, leaving wet carpets and damaging some rails into the mine. A few months later, it seemed the whole camp celebrated the birth of Mrs. Clarence Summers’ baby, a 13 pound boy.

Just up the canyon in Berwind, things were not going well. A January 1903 fire in the company barn killed 43 mules and consumed 13 railroad carloads of hay as well as the barn itself, an estimated $6,000 loss. Not long after, the mine became idle and the camp quiet.

The Road Canyon Railroad, built by Union Pacific Denver and Gulf in 1891 and 1898, served Tabasco. Although it is said there was no passenger service on this line, it seems to have carried people up and down the canyon whenever they felt like traveling. That Dr. Andrews, for instance, had taken the train to get out of camp, and several sick and injured men were transported via the railroad to the hospital in Pueblo.

In the summer of 1916, the new Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church was completed for use by Tabasco and Berwind congregants. It was a cement block structure, with stucco exterior. It looked exactly like the one built in Morley camp shortly after that.

The two camps were now sharing a superintendent and he was George B. Parker. He had replaced Charles O’Neil.

Naturally the camp had a Young Mens Christian Association, or YMCA, usually called The Y. Once again, the building was shared with Berwind. Their basketball team played Trinidad and Walsenburg city teams as well as the other camps in the area. There were Scout programs and numerous social clubs as well.

In 1917 more concrete block homes were built. At the time, miners were earning 68 cents a ton at Tabasco, compared to 73 cents in the Walsenburg district and 83 cents around Canon City.

Those Italians competing for space with 500 goats in early days, and augmented by the ones to work the ovens, now formed their own band, which made its first appearance on New Year’s Eve 1917 in the Y. That holiday season had brought in some 800 people to the Y for the Christmas program, cramming into not only the hall but even the lobby.

In the spring of 1918 CF&I acquired the Toller mine, and Superintendent Parker added that to his list of responsibilities. On the other hand, the coke ovens at Tabasco were closed down. The mine continued operation until about 1925 before it, too, became idle. The post office closed in March ’25. Tabasco’s busy but short life was over.

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