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It was in January 2019, a crisp, winter day, that Nick Pappas first traveled to Dawson, a Colfax County ghost town 15 miles or so northeast of Cimarron.
He went first to the cemetery, which is the most significant portion of Dawson that still exists. The coal mining town was shut down in 1950 and many of the buildings dismantled and moved and others demolished.
“The cemetery is about 5½ miles off the nearest main road,” Pappas said. “There is this sea of nearly 400 white crosses. No one else is there. Not a sound could be heard. It was very, very striking. It was emotional. Just looking at all these names on all these white crosses.”
Those are the names of men killed in two separate coal-mine explosions in Dawson. The first, in October 1913, took the lives of 263 men, including two members of a rescue team. The second explosion happened in February 1923 and killed 120 miners.
Pappas, who retired in November 2018 as city editor of the Albuquerque Journal, had been thinking for a few years of writing a book about Dawson. The visit to the cemetery convinced him he should.
“It personalized it for me,” he said. “When I got back in the car I really knew I wanted to do this, to pursue a narrative history of this place.”
More than disasters
Pappas is in the final weeks of work on his Dawson book, which is scheduled to be published next year by the University of New Mexico Press. He will give a talk about the town’s history at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Special Collections Library, 423 Central NE.
“The story of Dawson is more than just these two horrible mining disasters,” he said. “It’s a story of a fascinating time in New Mexico and American history. I realized there were a lot of mini stories.”
Pappas, 67, grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and worked during his journalism career for five newspapers. He joined the Journal in July 2013, serving as assistant business editor before becoming city editor.
He didn’t know anything about Dawson until the Journal published a story about the town in 2013, the hundred-year anniversary of the first mining disaster.
“From the moment I read the story in the Journal, I was fascinated,” he said. “The first Dawson mining disaster is still the second deadliest mining disaster in U.S. history. The fact Dawson had another mining disaster just added to the tragedy.”
And the fact that many of the men killed in the 1913 mine explosion were immigrants, especially from Italy and Greece, also resonated with Pappas, whose father immigrated to this country from Greece.
“Dawson is the story of immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” he said. “It is the story of the labor movement in the early 1900s. It is the story of the land being settled by John Dawson, a rancher and one-time Texas Ranger.”
Dawson sold his coal-rich land to the Dawson Fuel Co. at the turn of the 20th century, and that company in turn sold its mines a few years later to the Phelps Dodge Corp., which turned Dawson into a model mining town.
“It had a thousand-seat opera house, a huge mercantile store, an excellent school system and two churches,” Pappas said. “It was said to have the highest-elevation golf course, 6,674 feet, in the United States in the early 1900s.”
Pappas has talked to people who were living in Dawson in 1950, when Phelps Dodge closed the mines.
“They remember what that was like, seeing houses moved, some of the houses moved to Raton,” he said. “They loved this place. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Even though the town shut down in 1950, the community still exists more than 70 years later.”
About 600 people attended the Dawson reunion on the old town site this past Sunday. The reunions date back to 1954 in Pasadena, California, and have been held roughly every two years on Labor Day weekend. Since the 1980s they have been at Dawson, which is now privately owned. Due to COVID, Sunday’s reunion was the first since 2018 and the only one Pappas has been able to attend.
He said there is not much standing on the old town site, but people’s memories fill in the blanks.
“They say, ‘That’s where my house was, or that is where the high school was, or that’s where my dad parked his car,'” he said. “Even though there were mining disasters they don’t have anything negative to say. Dawson was a cosmopolitan place made up of all these ethnic groups. People say, ‘I wish I could have lived here all my life.'”