It’s About Time column: Planning the South Canyon Coal Camp historical site |

It’s About Time column: Planning the South Canyon Coal Camp historical site

Bill Kight
It’s About Time
Bill Kight

The West is replete with the ruins of once-thriving mining camps, like the one a few miles west of Glenwood Springs in South Canyon.

Life at the South Canyon Coal Camp was not easy on families compared with the way we live today with all our modern conveniences. There was no indoor plumbing, so privies built outside the houses sufficed for toilets.

The isolation of the South Canyon mines was overcome somewhat by the social life of the camp, with dances taking place on occasion — and holidays like the Fourth of July that were celebrated with enthusiasm.

Christmas was special for the children, who were given stockings filled with candy and oranges — treats that came but once a year.

In August 1903, School District 36 was organized. James Duce was named president of the school board, and the actual school building would come later.

In the summer there was a baseball team that played other teams from nearby towns, and fresh fruits and vegetables were brought in from Peach Valley.

Amenities included the hot springs, located in the middle of South Canyon, with a bathhouse where certain hours were set aside for women and children.

The very difficult work of mining was done by hard-working Italian, German and Welsh immigrants. Some of you reading this column are descendants of these miners.

The miner’s life was fraught with danger, as coal mining was a dangerous job. Reading the Frontier Museum’s archived newspapers during the early 1900s makes one ponder the risks to life and limb that the miners faced.

The Avalanche Echo of Sept. 3, 1903, reported, “A small blowout at the mine last Thursday was the cause of two men being badly burned on the face and hands.”

On Oct. 5, 1912, the paper read: “George Lacy and Tony Zitz were killed in an explosion … Oct. 1, 1912. They were fire bosses, and if the fire had occurred 40 minutes later, the entire shift would have been on duty.”

One ever-present danger to the miners was the burning coal veins that resulted from the Vulcan Mine explosions of 1896 and 1913. Cinder block walls were erected to keep the smoldering coal away from the working miners.

In 2002, the burning coal in South Canyon ignited the Coal Seam Fire that ended up destroying 29 homes and buildings in Glenwood Springs.

Miners resorted to strikes in an attempt to improve their conditions, winning an eight-hour day but forfeiting an increase in wages.

When the city of Glenwood Springs awarded the historical society a grant to start an integrated management plan for the South Canyon Coal Camp historical site, I had hoped to start in January. But neither myself nor Eric Twitty of Mountain States Historical, a cultural resource consulting firm, were able to proceed until now.

Writing these words at my desk now, I reflect on how to stretch the $10,000 city grant as far as possible. Frugality is a necessity for any nonprofit but especially the Historical Society and Museum.

There’s the leak in the photography archives that means fixing the roof with money we don’t yet have. Stopping the building from settling and other costly repairs on the 114-year-old building means we will need to hire an experienced grant writer to apply for a Colorado Historic Fund grant. Cha-ching! The list of museum to-dos adds up quickly.

But right now, the most important thing is to honor those miners and their families from South Canyon Coal Camp, with a management plan that advises how to best tell their important story and its effect on the settlement of our community.

Paying homage and recognizing the lives and sacrifice of some of the men and women who made our country an industrial leader is long overdue.

Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.

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