Frontier Diary: Coal was mined in South Canyon for more than 60 years
Frontier Historical Society
On weekends when it was shut down, Dad would go down and “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 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.
— Joe Llewellyn, Immigrant Stories with Walter Gallacher, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Dec. 14, 2009
Coal — the foundation of the American economy. It heated homes and fueled industry and innovation. Its extraction was dirty and dangerous, but for the thousands of men who worked in coal mines, mining was a paycheck and economic security for themselves and their families.
In the mid-1880s, Edward E. Pray began the development of 640 acres of the rich coal fields existing in South Canyon west of Glenwood Springs. From Pray came the investors from New York and New Jersey sold on the potential of South Canyon (or “South Canon,” as it was spelled in newspaper reports of the day). Merchants selling bituminous coal extracted from South Canyon in 1887 proclaimed the high quality of the fuel, with “no clinkers, no slack and no dirt.”
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, mining by the Boston-Colorado Coal Co. at South Canyon began in earnest on the Wheeler vein. A miner’s camp complete with houses for 300 miners, a bath house and mercantile was located near today’s Glenwood Springs city dump road. An electric tram brought the coal to the industrial complex located near today’s South Canyon Bridge. From the tipple near the Colorado River, rail cars of the Colorado Midland Railway were loaded with coal for shipment.
Production started in June 1904 with 20,948 tons of coal produced that year. Panic struck in December 1904 when the Wheeler vein caught fire. The fire could not be extinguished, but production did not slow. 1906 saw miners producing 55,885 tons of coal, a peak year for production.
Financial difficulties forced the Boston-Colorado Coal Co. into receivership in 1905. The company’s stockholders purchased the corporation and resumed operations as the South Canyon Coal Co. However, falling demand for coal, and the failure of the Colorado Midland Railway, closed the mining operations at South Canyon in about 1916.
Mining resumed in the early 1920s on a smaller scale, supplying the coal to heat homes and businesses. With the previous large-scale mining operations dismantled and removed, a smaller coal camp was located closer to the mine on the road to today’s Glenwood Springs shooting range. Horse-drawn wagons brought coal from the mines, but later the coal was hauled to waiting rail cars by trucks.
When the demand for coal lessened in the summer months, many miners took other jobs to supplement their income. Those jobs often paid better than the wages they received for mining.
Roughly 10 houses were built in South Canyon’s Coal Camp, providing homes for miners of many nationalities. The houses contained one or two bedrooms, a kitchen and living room. With no running water, outhouses were the only bathroom. Bathing was done weekly in the kitchen in a tub filled with water heated from the stove. Houses were lighted by lamps, and the camp’s only telephone was located at the home of the mine boss. Vegetable gardens supplied summer and fall food, with irrigation coming from the nearby creek. Groceries were delivered once per month. To supply a good meal, rabbits were hunted year-round, and deer hunted in the fall. Homemade sauerkraut stored in stone crocks was a winter staple. Stone crocks also contained eggs suspended in water and a sodium silicate preservative called Water Glass, which kept eggs usable during the winter.
Children walked about one quarter mile to the one-room school. Coal Camp provided ample space for games and activities and imagination. However, children were reminded of the dangers of living in a coal camp and were reprimanded for playing in dangerous areas.
For decades the Wheeler vein had been on fire, and the miners found ways to work around the fire. But in 1951, the mine exploded, with fire destroying the operations. With no way to ever extinguish the fire, coal mining at South Canyon was now at an end.
Much of South Canyon’s land was a working industrial complex, and that complex carries a legacy of the impacts from mining. Today, fire still smolders underground through the veins of coal. Vegetation has covered the ventilation shafts and portals of the many mines dotting the canyon, creating a collapse hazard for hikers and the curious.
Tread respectfully and with caution at South Canyon. Much of South Canyon’s history lives silently and actively in places unseen.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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I’m not often given to public displays of affection, but on the morning of Monday, July 19, I felt it necessary to give an old and dear friend a proper send off.