When coal was king of the valley
April 14, 2006
From Meeker to Paonia across the Colorado and Crystal river valleys, along the knobby spine of the Grand Hogback, run veins of black gold that spelled both prosperity and heartbreak to the people who live there.In the late 1800s, coal drove the locomotives and fired the silver smelters of Aspen and Leadville and brought men and their families into the valley. Men and women brought the black rock out of mines in Rifle Gap, Harvey Gap, New Castle, South Canyon, Sunlight, Marion, Jerome Park, Thompson Creek, Coal Basin and Somerset.But as former Roaring Fork Valley Journal publisher Pat Noel said in a magazine story published in 1981, coal brought great booms and equally great busts. coal’s heatbreak, Noel said, rests with the Ute Curse, an evil pronouncement made by the tribes of the valley when they were foreced to leave their land for reservations farther West.The first mines opened in the 1880s and 1890s. The busy towns that grew up around them are shadows now: Marion near Carbondale, Janeway on the Crystal River near Avalanche Creek, Placita and Coal Basin, all were prosperous mining towns that were home to hundreds of workers and their families.In 1892, according to records at the Frontier Historical Museum in Glenwood Springs, there were 70 miners in Sunshine, near Sunlight Mountain Resort, who produced 43,780 tons of coal that year.Marion mine was worked by 100 miners in 1889. Two years later, it was producing over 50,000 tons of coal. The mine at Spring Gulch had 170 miners in 1892, produced 77,576 tons and by 1907 had a population of 1,200 and a $25,000 mine payroll.Perhaps the most ambitious of the valley mines were those of Coal Basin near Redstone, first discovered in 1881 by C.D. Griffith and W.D. Perry. The men sold their claims in 1885 to John Cleveland Osgood, who had wrested the Pueblo-based, steel-producing Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. from fellow financier John D. Rockefeller. The first coal to come out of the mine was tested and “found to be some of the best metallurgical grade ever discovered,” Noel wrote.The mines went into full production in 1892 and by 1908 were producing 25,000 tons a month. The relatively soft bituminous coal, although useless for home heating, if burned in a oxygen-reduced oven became coke, which was used in the steel smelting process. Coal Basin coal was shipped by train over the high passes to Pueblo’s CF&I steel plants.
On Jan. 12, 1909, the mine bosses rode up the streets of Coal Basin town and told the miners and their families to pack up and get out because the mines were closing up.Behind the scenes, Rockefeller had managed to win back controlling interest in CF&I and Osgood was out.By then, silver was dropped from the monetary standard and trains were driven by diesel motors, and the market for Colorado West Slope coal hit rock bottom.Rees Llewellyn gives coal a boostCoal mining was in Rees Llewellyn’s blood. He came from a long family of coal miners in Wales. His grandfather, who brought his skills to the West after he immigrated from Wales, opened coal mines in Rifle and Silt in the 1890s, said Rees’ son Joe Llewellyn. Following his father, Rees worked in the South Canyon mine, just west of Glenwood Springs.”We moved there when I was 3 years old,” Joe said. “I went to a one-room school house. We walked to school and we kidded it was uphill both directions.”Joe’s dad “had a knack for coal” even though he had only an eighth-grade education, Joe said.In 1949 the South Canyon mine “blew up,” a common occurrence in the methane-loaded underground workings of the Hogback coal seam. No one was in the mine at the time but that was effectively the end of production.
That year Rees began to look for coal. He found the old workings at Marion and Spring Gulch and found another, higher vein. He took over and reworked the coke ovens. Joe helped out, working alongside his dad and a couple miners.One day a “Mr. Wood,” dressed up like a banker, showed up at the site. L.S. Wood owned coal mines in Kentucky and “heard about dad’s operation,” Joe said.He hired Ress to prospect for coal along the run of coal vein to the south. There were no roads then and the searching was by horseback.”They followed the vein and would stop and dig out by hand,” Joe said, taking samples that Wood sent back to his office in Chicago for testing.The survey party went all the way to the Coal Basin and Wood acquired the leases for the coal Osgood had abandoned in almost 50 years earlier.Rees opened the Dutch Creek No. 1 mine in 1953 and became mine supervisor, Joe said. Although his father had discouraged him from working underground, Joe, who had just graduated from high school, worked on the road that had to be built into the mine.The coal was hauled down to the coke ovens at Redstone, which had been rebuilt. They were used until 1960 when CF&I opened a modern and more efficient coking plant in Pueblo, Joe said.Mid-Continent Resources had spread out into the valley with a loadout just east of Carbondale where the coal was transferred to rail cars. Two limestone quarries operated just above Glenwood Springs – their scars can still be seen today – that produced rock dust used in the mines as a fire retardant.”The economy was really good around here,” Joe said. “It was all the result of my dad. He got it all started and he never got credit for it (from) all the people who made a good living from it.”
Ernest Gerbaz, bankerFor 40 years, from the 1950s to the ’90s, Ernest Gerbaz saw the economic turns taken in Glenwood Springs’ economy. Working his way up from janitor to president of the First National Bank, he saw how coal became king.In the ’50s, “farming and ranching were the main industries,” he said. “It was a real laid-back economy.”Gerbaz, who grew up in Redstone on the family homestead, remembers walking into the deserted Coal Basin company town. “The store had the fashion books still under the counter.”With the opening of Coal Basin mines, the industry “really took off,” Gerbaz said. The Thompson Creek Mine, in the hills above Carbondale and close to the ghost town of Marion, employed almost as many miners as Coal Basin. By the 1980s, more than 400 miners worked at Coal Basin and 300 at Thompson Creek. Arguably, the mines were the county’s largest employer.The good paychecks and economic stability saw the advent of more shopping opportunities in Glenwood such as car dealerships, furniture stores, and banks.”Mining stabilized and advanced a lot of lending institutions because of the wages of the people (working in the mines),” he said.But the ’80s began a period of decline for the mines.
“A complicated energy policy combined with an unsteady national economy” had reined in the coal industry, Noel wrote in his Glenwood Springs Magazine piece.In 1981, the same year that 15 miners died in an explosion in the Dutch Creek No. 1 mine, Mid-Continent announced it would cut back on its workforce and shut down one of the four operating mines.Environmental regulations, especially air quality controls put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency, forced both the mines and the steel mills in Utah and California to install expensive air filtering systems. Steel production dropped and the market for coal began to collapse. According to Noel, Mid-Continent sought markets further afield, in Japan and Korea.Noel quoted Mid-Continent vice president Bob Delaney as saying, “The coal produced in the valley is an ‘iffy’ proposition.”In 1991, the mines were shut down and the long drawn out reclamation process began.Today, Redstone is a thriving little tourist town. But across the highway by the crumbling coke ovens is the road that leads up into Coal Basin. The mine buildings and the town are gone, hauled away for scrap, and the piles of coal stabilized and seeded. But the roads remain and the shut-in mine portals. Only the towering cliffs, laced with snow, are unchanged by the rush for black gold.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org