Sunday tour looks at Coal Camp history
On Sunday afternoon, locals will have a chance to learn about the history of the South Canyon Coal Camp from men who lived it.
Rusty Ford and Joe Llewellyn will share their experience in a tour arranged by the Frontier Historical Museum and Historic Preservation Commission, beginning just west of the bridge at 2 p.m.
Little remains of the historic mining town’s first iteration, but just up the road, where Ford and Llewellyn grew up, crumbling walls, scraps of metal, and even traces of old gardens have survived fire and the years.
Coal mining in South Canyon dates back to 1887. In the early days, the railroad tracks were on the other side of the river, and with no bridge, coal and miners were brought back and forth by ferry, and later an electric tram known as “The Lightning Bug.” The operation was overseen by E.E. Pray, who bred resentment among the ranks by maintaining a fancy house — complete with a Chinese servant — near the current site of Glenwood Meadows.
By 1903 the town was big enough to warrant its own post office.
In 1913, however, an explosion at the Vulcan Mine near New Castle killed 37 men and altered the course of coal mining in the area. The fire spread along the coal seam, leaving patches of smoking earth on the surface and obliging miners throughout the area to work around blocked-off patches of smoldering coal.
“They kept somehow going back into mines on fire,” Llewellyn said.
The first town, complete with saloon and mill, was gone by 1927. The rails were pulled up during World War I, and Llewellyn and Ford would later hunt for steel scraps to support U.S. forces in World War II.
Before coming to South Canyon in 1940, Llewellyn’s family lived in Silt. His father supported the family through the Great Depression by delivering domestic coal from downvalley mines — a different grade from the coking coal mined in Thompson Creek and Coal Basin for steel — to houses around the valley for heat and cooking.
“Nobody got paid,” Llewellyn recalled. “You just traded for labor.”
Llewellyn and Ford were the same age and started school together in the canyon.
“We walked to school,” recalled Llewellyn, pointing out the site next to an ancient box elder where the schoolhouse stood before it burned down.
“You’ll notice going down it’s still uphill,” he quipped.
Llewellyn never really had a passion for coal.
“My dad took me inside the mine one time and that was enough for me,” he said.
Instead, at the age of 13, he took up running the hoist at the entrance, a difficult job for a boy his size.
Ford, for his part, wanted to work in the mine as soon as he could, but his adoptive parents insisted he go to high school. So he moved in with Llewellyn’s family and was in the process of earning a diploma in 1951 when the mine blew up.
When his father, who ran the mine, arrived to find the tipple burning and the tunnel full of flames, he decided to throw in the towel.
“Coal fires aren’t easy to put out. They’re not fun,” said Ford, who went on to work in Coal Basin.
Subsequent attempts to mine coal in South Canyon never quite took off, and the city of Glenwood eventually bought the land.
In 2002, a patch of smoldering coal near the surface ignited the Coal Seam Fire, which rampaged over the long-abandoned town, torched newer homes, and threatened Glenwood Springs itself.
The ignition point is still visible along the rim of the canyon, and in patches all along the Grand Hogback, the fire melts away snow in winter.
Ford worries about the possibility of trails and wanderers in the unstable terrain.
“It’s not a place to recreate. It’s dangerous up here,” he said. “Back in those days, when you closed a mine down you just walked away from it.”
With Ford, Llewellyn and guidance from senior city planner Gretchen Ricehill and museum director Cindy Hines, Sunday’s event offers history buffs a safe and through trip behind the no-trespassing signs.
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