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Coal Seam Fire couldn’t erase coal mining history

Tamie Meck
Staff Writer

Nature spared Coal Camp.

Days after the Coal Seam Fire swept through South Canyon, no one seemed to know the fate of the small archaeological site, where once a town of coal miners and their families thrived.

The nearby Glenwood Gun Club gun range and city landfill also remained virtually unscathed.

Doug Johnston, an information officer on the Coal Seam Fire, drove down the South Canyon drainage from Coal Camp Monday to inspect damages.

He noted where the timbers holding a power line had been burned away at one point, leaving the insulators and cross beam dangling high above the ground. Poles close by along the line remained intact on the charred ground.

“That’s just one of the little oddities of a fire,” he said.

It was one of those “little oddities,” it seems, that saved Coal Camp.

Coal Camp lies about two miles south of Interstate 70 on the South Canyon road. The camp is located on a 2,800 acres purchased for $17,000 in 1956 by the city of Glenwood Springs. It is designated city park land.

Jim OIp of Glenwood Springs has been exploring the Coal Camp area for more than 20 years. He compiled a history of the area and has been advocating its protection for more than a decade. He had been waiting for word on the site’s condition since the fire. As of Monday, South Canyon was open only to residents and fire crews.

“I’m glad to hear it’s all in one piece,” said Olp, who spends much of his spare time studying Coal Camp. “It’s an important piece of Glenwood Springs history.”

Olp noted that some long-time Glenwood families spent their first generations here living at Coal Camp. “I’ll bet those people will be glad to hear that their heritage is still preserved,” he said.

The fire charred much of the lower South Canyon drainage and the steep surrounding hillsides, but skipped from west to east over the top of the old mining camp.

The brunt of the burn area in South Canyon lies downstream, to the north of Coal Camp.

The fire, believed to have started when a hot coal seam just to the west of the site ignited dry brush, burned large areas above the camp and on both sides of the South Canyon road.

Within the site, a few trees and patches of ground cover were charred. Other than that, the archaeological treasures within the area suffered little damage.

In the fall of 1998, members of the Roaring Fork Chapter of the Colorado Historical Society began an archaeological survey of the area, and conducted interviews with past residents. The survey, which was completed two years ago, documented the area and gave chapter members practical survey experience.

White River National Forest archaeologist and chapter member Alice Gustafson helped oversee the survey. Gustafson hadn’t been in the area as of Monday, but was relieved to know it was still intact. If it had burned, artifacts such as shoes, belts, buttons, and certainly anything wooden would have been destroyed.

“Those are the things we look for and kind of get excited about,” said Gustafson, speaking from her archaeologist’s perspective.

Most of the wooden structures are already gone, and much of what exists includes stone foundations, roads, bundles of cable and an old cable line that runs up to a long-abandoned coal mine.

Above and to the east of camp, a coal seam smolders and smokes as it has for decades. To the west and in sight of the former town lies the coal seam believed to have started the June 8 Coal Seam fire.

According to Olp’s history, in 1903 “a model coal camp” flourished in South Canyon. By 1905, the town boasted a post office, a dining hall that seated 80, and a school attended by 40 children, mainly those of immigrant miners.

The Boston and Colorado Coal Co., which operated the mines, was known for its fine treatment of employees. Black families, often spurned in other communities, were welcome at Coal Camp.

There was a store, a church, a library, 27 cottages, a blacksmith shop and a large bunkhouse. The town even supported a baseball team, a 1,200-volume library and a literary society.

Coal miners used the nearby natural hot springs to bathe. A fresh-water spring, it is believed, provided the camp with drinking water.

Coal Camp remained active up until the 1940s. Since then, a combination of nature and vandalism have taken their toll on the area.

Mike Pelletier, senior planner for the city of Glenwood Springs and staff member to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said he was relieved that the area hadn’t burned. The site doesn’t lie within city boundaries, but is located on city property and may, therefore, fall under the commission’s jurisdiction.

At the last HPC meeting, members discussed the possibility of seeking an historical designation through the Colorado Preservation Inc., a statewide nonprofit historic preservation organization seeking to preserve structures, landscapes and streetscapes in danger of being lost or destroyed.

Once a site gains historical recognition, it can be eligible for grants through other historic preservation organizations.

According to an Aug. 18, 2000, article in the Glenwood Post, members of the Roaring Fork Archaeological Society envisioned a walking trail through the site, complete with interpretive signs.

“Now we can start looking into the future” of Coal Camp, said Olp.


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