Man’s father made a living from area coal mines |

Man’s father made a living from area coal mines

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Joe Llewellyn

Joe Llewellyn’s grandfather came to the United States from Wales in the late 1800s to work in the coal mines. Joe’s dad, Rees Llewellyn, quit school at 13 and went to work mining and studying coal.

Llewellyn: When my dad was in the eighth grade he decided that he was smarter than the teachers and quit school. He was going to be a coal miner and he went to work with my grandpa, who had his own coal mine near Rifle. They delivered coal to the homes in and around Rifle and Silt.

The years after World War I and leading up to the Depression were tough. In those days, nobody had any money so they would barter. Grandpa and Dad would trade a load or a sack of coal for a sack of spuds or a side of beef, and that’s the way they got along.

My grandpa and my dad eventually gave up the mine near Rifle and went to work in the mine near New Castle. My dad worked hard over the years and learned a lot about coal mining and eventually got hired on as the mining superintendent at the South Canyon Mine. He eventually worked so that he was able to buy the mine.

Mining was a dangerous occupation. One of the things my dad and his crew had to work around was the fire in the coal vein. The coal had caught fire when the Vulcan mine exploded in 1896 and again in 1913 killing a lot of men and setting the coal seam on fire. My dad and his men would have to put up cinder block “stoppings” to wall off the part of the coal vein that was smoldering.

These blocks kept the fire from advancing and allowed the men to work around the fire and mine the coal. But occasionally, there would be a buildup of gas in the mine and the fire would ignite it and blow the stoppings out. The men would replace them and keep working.

Gallacher: I can’t imagine working under those conditions.

Llewellyn: Coal mining was all my dad and the men who worked with him knew. They were Italian, Welsh and German immigrants who worked very, very hard. Work was what life was all about in my dad’s mind.

When I was 13, dad decided it was time for me to go to work. I began helping him when I wasn’t in school. There was no time for sports or other activities. He said there was no time for that “foolishness.”

That summer I went to work for my dad loading and weighing coal trucks outside the mine. On weekends, when it was shut down, Dad would go down in “to listen to the mountain work.” He said that when it was quiet he could listen to the mountain move. He could hear it pop and crack and “bounce.” A bounce is when too much coal is taken out at one time and the weight of the mountain explodes the walls of the coal as it tries to settle. That can be very dangerous, and he wanted to make sure it was going to be safe to go back in the next day.

So he taught me how to run the hoist that lowered him into the mine. I wasn’t very big, and I was supposed to work the brake that controlled the speed of the hoist. I would put my feet against the wall and pull the brake as hard as I could. Occasionally, I would lose control of it and my dad would get a really rough stop at the bottom. The mine car would get pitched off the track and my dad would go flyin’. The car was too heavy for one man to set back on the track, and my dad would have to climb out of the mine.

You could hear him comin’ and he didn’t have good names for me at that time. That’s when I would go hide. I would give him a while to cool off and pretty soon I could hear him calling, “Jody.” He called me Jody when he was in a good mood. “Jody come on back, I won’t hurt ya. OK, everything’s OK now. It’s all right come on back,” he would say.

The mine finally blew up in 1951. Fire came out of the portal and burned all the buildings and destroyed everything my dad had worked for. We lost it all, the mine couldn’t be opened again. It was just too hot.

My dad began working a new mine near Marion and Spring Gulch outside of Carbondale. He had about 30 of the coke ovens rebuilt so he could make coke from the coal. He built a mile of road to the mine and began hauling coal. Dad ran that mine for about a year until it played out.

He went next to Thompson Creek after studying all the old mining maps and decided to reopen the Thompson Creek Coal Mine. He partnered with a professor from the Colorado School of Mines. My dad didn’t have any money, so he needed investors and Professor Albert Keenan was able to line them up. They worked together for a while, but my dad didn’t really think that mine was going to be all that profitable, so he eventually sold out to Keenan.

During my dad’s time at Thompson Creek he had met a man from Chicago who had visited the mine and liked my dad and the work he was doing. I remember dad talking on the phone for hours to this man in Chicago. He turned out to be Leighton S. Wood*, a wealthy mining executive. Mr. Wood hired my dad as general manager and doubled his salary. Dad said it was more money than he ever made in his life.

During the next couple of years, dad and I and a crew of about six men prospected for coal all along Thompson Creek, Coal Basin and into the Ragged Mountains. We had all of our gear on mules and horses and we would just follow the coal vein. My dad would find a spot that looked promising and the crew would dig in and blast it out to get to the hard coal and send the samples back to Chicago for testing.

We finally found the spot, which is now the site of what was the Dutch Creek Number 1 Mine above Redstone. Dad and I spent the next couple of years building a road from Redstone into Coal Basin and then on up to the mine site. We had a couple of beat up old bulldozers that my dad had and a brand new one that Mr. Wood had sent out. That mine operated for the next 40 years.

Gallacher: Your dad could read the coal veins.

Llewellyn: Yes, he could. He didn’t have a formal education, but he knew how to find not just coal but other minerals. His next find was one of the richest deposits of magnetite iron ore in the West on the top of a mountain above Ashcroft. I was in the Marine Corps at the time. Dad was right he had discovered a rich deposit. Eventually Morrison Knudsen, a big international construction company, came in and ran the project. I worked there when I got out of the Marines.

This was about the time that my dad started to get sick with emphysema from all the coal dust he had inhaled over the years. He died in 1962 at the age of 57 before he really had a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He never had taken a week off in his entire life. I learned from watching him that I didn’t want to work as hard as he did without a vacation. That was his gift to me, he taught me what a day’s work was and how to act responsibly.

*Leighton S. Wood became president of the Mid-Continent Coal and Coke Co., which has an extensive coal and coke business in various areas of the United States as well as this major coal operation in Colorado. The L.S. Wood Trust was funded by Mr. Wood’s equities in these companies.

Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.

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