Jeff Buerger knows ranches.
The Colorado native grew up on a ranch. He worked on a ranch. And, for the past 25 years, he has been in the business of selling ranches.
But he has never represented a ranch with a history quite like the Dawson Elk Valley Ranch in New Mexico.
“No, I have not. It’s unprecedented to have a ranch for sale right now that is steeped in this kind of history — both good and bad,” he told the Journal. “The unfortunate accidents that occurred there, I mean, this is a horrific thing.”
Buerger, 45, is the broker for a 50,000-acre private ranch that replaced the coal town of Dawson, at one time the largest company-owned town in the Southwest and site of the second-deadliest mine disaster in U.S. history.
Today, all that remains of the Colfax County town is a nationally recognized cemetery that memorializes the 263 miners killed in 1913 and another 120 who lost their lives in a second explosion 10 years later. After roughly 50 years in operation, the mines were shut down by the Phelps Dodge Corp. in 1950; nearly all the buildings were moved or razed.
Billionaire Brad Kelley, the nation’s eighth-largest private landowner last year, according to The Land Report, has owned the Dawson ranch for 13 years. Situated along Highway 64 between Cimarron and Raton, the ranch sits adjacent to the 560,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch owned by media magnate Ted Turner.
The listing and asking price for the ranch — $96 million — was first reported by The Wall Street Journal last month.
Hall and Hall, the national brokerage firm retained to sell the property, describes the Dawson ranch as one of the most iconic in New Mexico. As the name suggests, it is known for its elk hunting, though it is also home to a lesser number of black bear, bobcat, coyote, Merriam’s wild turkey, mountain lion, mule deer and white-tailed deer.
Buerger, a real estate partner for the firm, singled out several traits that distinguish the Dawson ranch from others on the market. Among them:
• The size and extremely private nature of the property, which is bordered on three sides by Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch.
• Water rights to the Vermejo River, which flows through the ranch for 11 miles.
• All executive rights and 50% of oil, gas, and other mineral rights on the land, which still holds an estimated 110 million tons of unmined bituminous coal. For context, the Dawson mines produced 33 million tons of coal between 1899 and 1950.
Buerger said the attraction of mining rights will depend on the buyer. For example, they might be critical to a buyer from Texas, he said, but less so to a hedge fund manager from New York or a high-tech executive from California.
• A 50% interest in the 37-mile York Canyon Branch Railway, a now idle line that once serviced the coal mines of York Canyon and runs through the property for 11 miles.
“It’s pretty unusual to have a private railroad going through your ranch,” said Buerger, noting one of his early inquiries was from a self-described train enthusiast. “I’ve only dealt with that one other time. You know, I don’t know what someone does with that.”
The listing of the property particularly interests the Dawson New Mexico Association, a volunteer group that oversees and maintains historic Dawson Cemetery. The association also organizes and hosts the Dawson reunions, which still take place every other Labor Day weekend on the old townsite with the permission of the owner. The next one is scheduled for Sept. 6.
Chairman Joe Bacca of Raton told the Journal the association has enjoyed a good working relationship with the current ownership and would expect that to continue were the property to change hands.
“You know, I really don’t,” he said when asked if he had any concerns. “I think we can work with the new owner.”
For his part, Buerger knows he has something special here.
“I just really believe this is going to open up the eyes of a lot of folks who haven’t necessarily considered investing in land as an alternative investment class,” he said. “I personally think this is going to bring a whole lot of people to the table who say, ‘What do you mean I can own this?'”
Nick Pappas is a former city editor at the Albuquerque Journal. He is currently working on a nonfiction book about Dawson’s history.