Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
DAWSON – Edward and Betty Zavala step down gingerly from a friend’s red Ford F-250 Super Duty pickup truck and make their way across the newly manicured burial grounds at Dawson Cemetery.
Edward, 88, and Betty, 84, are carrying colorful bouquets of artificial flowers – vivid blues and oranges and pinks and yellows – toward the grave of Edward’s father, Jesus V. Zavala, the last miner to be buried in this historic cemetery in 1950, according to the family. It is also the resting place for Edward’s brother Raoul, a 21-year-old radio operator whose B-29 was downed by a kamikaze pilot over Manchuria in World War II.
The graves sit a good stone’s throw from the cemetery’s most striking characteristic, a sea of white iron crosses memorializing the nearly 400 miners who died in two of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history in 1913 and 1923. The first, which claimed the lives of 261 miners and two rescuers, still stands today as the nation’s second deadliest.
The Raton couple are regular visitors to the cemetery, situated in Colfax County roughly 220 miles northeast of Downtown Albuquerque. Edward and Betty make the trip every Memorial Day, Labor Day and on the birthdays of Jesus and Raoul to pay their respects and to swap out the flowers, whose colors fade quickly under the blistering New Mexico sun.
Understandably, this visit rekindles childhood memories for Edward, a Dawson native who spent many an early morning here cutting weeds as a teen.
“There were three of us …We used to work a couple of hours and then go to school,” he says. “We’d go home and get ready for school.”
On this overcast August morning, however, the Zavalas are here for another reason: to see first-hand the recently completed preservation work.
Count Betty among the early enthusiasts.
“The way that they love this place, they are going to be impressed, they really are,” she says, referring to the hundreds of former Dawsonites and their families who gather here every two years for a picnic reunion over Labor Day weekend.
Betty should know. She and her husband have been fixtures at every biennial reunion since 1974 with the exception of 1996, the year her mother died. They both plan to attend the next one in 2020 – 70 years after the mining town shut down.
Those so impressed can thank the generosity of the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation, the charitable arm of the Phoenix-based international mining company that acquired the Phelps Dodge Corp. in 2007. Phelps Dodge owned and operated the town of Dawson and its coal mines from 1905 until it ceased operations in 1950, due in part to the emergence of petroleum-based products as a preferred alternative to coal.
On March 28, the foundation awarded a $65,000 grant to the Raton Museum, the fiscal agent for the Dawson New Mexico Association, to be used toward much-needed preservation work at the cemetery. The grant was part of $16 million the foundation generally awards each year to support cultural, educational, environmental and other community projects within the states where the company has a presence.
The cemetery work, which was completed this summer, consisted of:
• A new 8-foot-high game fence to protect the cemetery from damage caused by wandering wildlife, particularly cattle and elk, which over the years have damaged many headstones and grave markers.
• An upgraded drainage system to prevent stormwater from washing away topsoil around the tombstones and crosses.
• And a general sprucing up of the grounds, such as the trimming of weeds, removal of bushes and discarding of remnants from fallen trees.
“The historic Dawson Cemetery represents a part of mining history, and we wanted to honor the memories of those laid to rest there,” says Tracy Bame, president of the foundation and director of social responsibility and community development for the Americas, in an email. “We are pleased the grant-funded restoration work will improve the cemetery, which hosts the Dawson Reunion every two years where families and friends visit and celebrate the lives of their loved ones.”
The foundation also has committed to providing money for general maintenance work in 2020.
Joe Bacca never lived in Dawson, but he might as well have.
His great-grandparents Alex and Margarita Bacca are buried here. His grandfather Joe Bacca worked in the Dawson coal mines right up until their final day. His father, Fred, was born in Dawson and graduated from the town’s high school.
So it should come as no surprise Bacca is now in his eighth year as chairman of the Dawson New Mexico Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the memory of the old coal town alive.
Over the years, the 63-year-old Raton resident has volunteered countless hours to help maintain the cemetery grounds, served as an intermediary for families trying to find the graves of their loved ones, and personally oversaw this summer’s construction work. If that weren’t enough, every few years he is joined by his two daughters and other family members to repaint the hundreds of white iron crosses that mark the gravesites of the miners who died in the two explosions.
On this August day, Bacca is serving as a tour guide of sorts, pointing out the cemetery improvements to the Zavalas and a reporter.
His presence is also welcomed by some unexpected visitors, a mother and her two daughters from British Columbia who made a trip to the cemetery as part of their summer vacation. Joined by the Zavalas, Bacca patiently answers their questions and offers up a short history of Dawson, the birthplace of American labor leader Dolores Huerta.
Visitors are fairly common despite the cemetery’s isolated location, roughly 18 miles off Interstate 25’s Maxwell exit – the last 5 miles over deserted and gravel-covered Dawson Road.
“The guys that were cleaning, I talked to them yesterday and they said, ‘You know, you wouldn’t believe how many people show up out here during the day,'” Bacca says. “It’s nothing to see 10 cars come out here with people … to visit who have no affiliation with the cemetery. They just read about it on the internet.”
For Bacca, the Freeport-McMoRan contribution couldn’t have come at a better time, given the consistent wear and tear on the cemetery over the years from cattle and elk, flooding and other factors.
“I’m glad something finally got done because it was deteriorating fast,” he says. “If we wouldn’t have got that fence up, I don’t know …”
“I’ve never seen the cemetery this nice.”
That wasn’t the case 19 years ago when Albuquerque resident Dale Christian and his brother Lloyd embarked on a metal-detecting expedition one day to Colfax County, including a stop at the old mining town of Dawson.
To say they were surprised by what they found would be an understatement.
“We were both shocked at the cemetery,” Dale Christian told Morrow Hall, whose weekly column at the time was carried by the Rio Rancho Observer. “It looked like a miniature Arlington. It contained row upon row of white iron crosses. It appeared to be abandoned and uncared for.”
After he returned home, Christian contacted the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division and offered to work with the state to get the cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the next 18 months, he provided the state with photographs, maps, diagrams, measurements and other details. He also researched the history of Dawson and its two mine disasters.
In the first, an unidentified miner set off an explosive charge while 284 workers were underground – a violation of both company rules and state law. In the second, an electric mine car jumped its track, creating a spark that ignited the highly flammable coal dust in the mine. Most of the men who died were European immigrants, particularly Italians or Greeks. Twenty-three men survived the first explosion; only two of 122 the second.
On Feb. 18, 1992, the state submitted a meticulous 80-page nomination form to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. While cemeteries have to meet strict criteria to be eligible for the list, according to NPS guidelines, Dawson Cemetery was accepted onto the national register seven weeks later.
A black mailbox near the entrance to Dawson Cemetery contains a black pen and small notebook that visitors can use to record their thoughts.
In the past few months alone, visitors from Arizona, Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have taken the time to do just that.
The solemnity of the occasion is not lost on those who walk these burial grounds.
“What a beautiful reminder of those who came before!” wrote Sean and Amy Maxey of Calumet City, Illinois, who made a July visit part of their trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch, where they met and married years before.
“Such overwhelming sadness for the miners and their families,” wrote Steve and Teresa Blattman of Arizona that same day. “God bless.”
Nick Pappas is a former city editor at the Albuquerque Journal. He is currently working on a nonfiction book about Dawson’s remarkable history.