Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
The second-deadliest coal mining disaster in U.S. history occurred 100 years ago this week in a northern New Mexico town that no longer exists, save for the small cemetery bearing the remains of many of the 263 miners killed in a massive explosion on the afternoon of Oct. 22, 1913.
Though the town of Dawson and the Stag Canyon No. 2 coal mine are mere footnotes in history to most people, the men who died there a century ago – mostly Italian and Greek immigrants lured to the coal fields by decent-paying jobs and all the amenities a company town like Dawson could offer – are far from forgotten.
In ceremonies today at the Raton Museum, the miners killed in what has become known as the Dawson Mining Disaster will be remembered by descendents, historians and New Mexico’s Italian and Greek communities.
“I think it’s important to honor these men, and all immigrants who helped build America,” said Nicki Panagopoulos, a member of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Albuquerque.
A model mining town
Dawson draws its name from John Barkley Dawson, a cattleman who came to the Vermejo Valley in 1869. In 1901, he and partner Charles Springer sold most of their land – portions of which held vast coal reserves – to the Dawson Fuel Co.
Railroad promoter Charles B. Eddy of El Paso built a 137-mile-long railroad from Dawson to Tucumcari, where it linked with transcontinental railways.
Fed by America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for coal, Phelps Dodge Corp. bought the ever-expanding network of Dawson mines in 1906.
The company built comfortable homes for the miners and their families, installed a water system and constructed a model “company town” that provided most of the community’s needs.
Amenities included the four-story brick Phelps Dodge Mercantile, a well-equipped hospital, movie theater, opera house, golf course, bowling alley, swimming pool, baseball park and two churches – one Catholic and one Protestant. It also leased a saloon to a private barkeep, who named the facility The Snake.
Using gas produced by its coke ovens, a company-built, steam-powered power plant supplied electricity to Dawson, Raton and Walsenburg, Colo.
The company aggressively recruited newly arrived immigrants, and attracted miners from Mexico, Italy, Greece, Poland, Germany, Great Britain, Finland, Sweden, China and elsewhere. The hills around Dawson were dotted with mines – numbered 1 through 10 – and mining camps. During their heyday in 1918, the Dawson mines produced about 4 million tons of coal, and the town was home to about 9,000 residents.
Despite the best efforts by mine inspectors and Phelps Dodge – which had installed sprinklers in the mine to keep down coal dust and had passed a state safety inspection two days before the blast – coal mining remained a dangerous occupation.
On Oct. 22, 1913, 284 miners headed to work inside the Stag Canyon No. 2 mine.
Shortly after 3 p.m., an explosion ripped through the mine, shaking the town of Dawson and sending a rush of rescuers to the site over the next few days. Witnesses said the explosion shot flames more than 100 feet out of the mine’s entrance.
Phelps Dodge sent doctors, nurses and supplies from El Paso, and striking miners in Colorado headed to Dawson to help in the rescue. Two rescuers died during the effort.
As bodies were carried out of the mine, anxious families waited to see who had survived.
Only 23 of the miners survived the blast, which was later determined to have been triggered by an illegal dynamite blast that ignited coal dust and turned the mine into a momentary but lethal inferno.
Historians say the dead included 146 Italian and 36 Greek miners, though the numbers vary slightly depending on their source.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Dawson mine disaster is the second-deadliest coal mining accident in U.S. history. It is eclipsed only by the Dec. 6, 1907, explosion of the Monongah Mines Nos. 6 and 8 in Monongah, W. Va., which claimed 362 lives.
Though the 1913 tragedy led to many mining safety improvements, an explosion in Dawson’s Stag Canyon No. 1 mine killed 123 miners on Feb. 8, 1923. An investigation concluded that a mine car derailed and caused sparks that ignited coal dust inside the mine. Some of those victims, historians say, were sons of the men killed nearly a decade earlier.
The Dawson mines continued to produce coal for decades after the Stag Canyon disasters.
But the nation’s shift to petroleum-based fuels continued eating away at the coal market. In addition, a 25-year contract Phelps Dodge had to provide coal for Southern Pacific Railroad’s locomotives expired.
Phelps Dodge closed the mines – and the town of Dawson – in 1950. Some of its buildings were sold and moved, but most of the town was demolished.
Today, Dawson is a ghost town on private property leased to Colfax Land and Cattle Co., said Joe Bacca, chairman of the commemorative Dawson New Mexico Association.
But even 100 years later, Dawson, its inhabitants and its history pique curiosity.
“We have about 600 to 800 people at the (biennial Labor Day weekend) picnic each year,” Bacca said. “Who would’ve thought that?”