Immigrant Stories: Dangerous mining work was a steady job that paid well
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
David Dominguez tells his story to Walter Gallacher’s Immigrant Stories project.
Dominguez: I was born in Delcarbon, a mining camp outside Walsenburg, Colorado, in 1928. There were a lot of mining camps around there at that time. My dad was working in the mines, but there was a lot of trouble in the coalfields then, and my dad finally decided to take the family back to Mexico.
He had heard that they were giving farming plots to Mexican families, so he applied for one. He didn’t get a plot, but he decided that we should go anyway. He went to Denver and bought a truck and came back and loaded all our possessions and my sister and my two brothers and me, and we headed for Mexico.
Gallacher: How old were you?
Dominguez: I was 7. Everything was loaded to the top with a big tarp so I rode on the back with my dog. We ended up camping outside of Nogales, Mexico, because there were a lot of farms and ranches there.
My dad went to all of the ranches and got whatever was in season and sold it in the different towns around there. That’s how we made a living. He did pretty good doing that.
Gallacher: What do you remember about living outside?
Dominguez: It was a good time for me. We were camped near a river so I would play in the sand. My dad started making trips to the Gulf of California, where he bought dried fish and brought it back to sell. In the fall, he would cut firewood and bundle it for sale. That’s how we got by, moving around and camping here and there.
We finally ended up in Cananea, a big copper mining town. That’s where we found housing, but my dad kept selling out of his truck. We did that for about five years until he got sick with appendicitis and died. I was 12 years old and just finishing grammar school, but when he died that was the end of school for me.
With dad gone we couldn’t afford housing, but an old couple my dad knew heard about us and took us in. They had an orchard outside of town, and they let us move into their barn that had some rooms in it. My mom, who was six months pregnant with my little sister, went to work washing and ironing clothes for the engineers who lived in the boarding house for the mine.
Gallacher: Who took care of the baby while your mother worked?
Dominguez: The rest of us kids. I was already doing odd jobs after school at the grocery store and the bar next door, so I just started doing more. I built myself a shoeshine box and carried it with me when I did other jobs.
I made friends with an old man who lived next to the orchard, and one day he invited me to go with him to the slaughterhouse. While I waited for him I helped clean up the blood. The next time he took me I asked for a knife and started helping the men butcher.
Gallacher: Did they hire you?
Dominguez: No one was hired. Everybody that worked there was getting paid in meat. I brought meat home to my mom, and after a while I started bringing enough home to be able to sell it other people. It was another way to make money. I talked about going to work in the copper mine, but my mom wouldn’t let me. She had seen all the funerals for miners dying of silicosis when we lived in town.
We were just starting to recover from my dad’s death when we lost my little brother.
Gallacher: How did that happen?
Dominguez: The people on the ranch made their own soap and, one day, they left a jar of lye on the table. My brother, who was 4 years old at the time, thought it was water and drank it. It burned him up inside. He only lasted a few days. I remember carrying him to the hospital, but there was nothing they could do.
Gallacher: Your poor mother.
Dominguez: Yeah, it was hard on all of us, but it was especially hard on her. I remember her saying that she was so worried about what would happen to the rest of us that she never had a chance to grieve for my father or my brother.
When I got to be old enough to work in the copper mine my mom hired a guy to help move us to Agua Prieta just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She didn’t want her sons in the mine, so we loaded all our stuff on this guy’s truck, and he left us under a tree by the railroad station. We stayed under that tree for two days while my mom looked for a place for us to stay. The morning after we got there I met the train and started working carrying passengers’ luggage. Mom found us a place. It was a shed made of adobe.
I crossed into Douglas and got a job in a soda bottling plant. Back then you could cross the border by just telling them you were an American citizen. I started at a dollar a day, and when I left two years later I was making $19 a week.
I finally decided that I had to make a change. I was 18 and wanted to make more money for my family and myself. So I wrote my grandmother in Walsenburg and asked to borrow $150 so I could move there with my two little brothers.
She sent the money the next week, and we moved. My brothers went to live with my aunt and uncle, and I got a room with an old couple. I got a job loading railroad cars with 100 pound sacks of alfalfa. That lasted into the fall.
By then I was tired of jumping from job to job. I wanted something that was steady and paid well, so I wrote my uncle who worked in the coal mines in Mount Harris outside of Hayden, Colorado, and asked him to see if he could get me on. He wrote back and told me to come. I got there on a Friday and went to work on Monday.
Gallacher: What was your first job?
Dominguez: They handed me a shovel and told me to start loading cars. I would load one and they would bring me another. They eventually moved me to the face and had me clearing coal away from the machines. That was dangerous work.
When they started cutting at the face big chunks of coal could be falling from anywhere, so I had to shovel and keep an eye out. It was a good thing I had been lifting hundred pound sacks on my last job, or I wouldn’t have lasted a day.
I eventually became good friends with one of the foremen and he gave me overtime work helping him pull support pillars out of parts of the mine that weren’t being used anymore.
Gallacher: That sounds really dangerous.
Dominguez: It was, but we were careful, we tied ropes around the timbers and used a machine to pull them from a distance. That worked pretty well most of the time but sometimes big chunks fell and we got out of there. And a few times things fell all at once and the force blew us off our feet.
Gallacher: Why did you like work that was so dangerous?
Dominguez: It was exciting. I didn’t realize until years later just how addictive that kind of danger can be. It also helped that the pay was great. I was making more money than I ever had. I was able to get mine housing and bring my two brothers to live with me and relieve my aunt and uncle. I put them in school right away, and we did all right together. I don’t think they cared much for my cooking. The first time I boiled a chicken I put it in the pot, giblet sack and all. They never let me forget that.
Gallacher: You were probably the only father they remembered.
Dominguez: Yeah, I started taking care of them when they were real young. Somehow, I was able to manage. Things just came my way.
Gallacher: I think you worked hard to make things come your way just like your dad did. When did you find time to meet and fall in love with your wife, Molly?
Dominguez: She and her parents were our neighbors in Mt. Harris. She was born in the coal camps just like me. We became good friends and got married just before I went off to the service in 1954. My brothers were in high school by then.
When I came back in ‘56, Molly’s dad and brother were working in the Thompson Creek Mine (near Redstone), and they got me a job. I worked there until it closed, and then I started working at Mid-Continent. I took advantage of the training they offered there and got my mine foreman certification. I worked the graveyard shift, 11 to 7, for most of the 23 years I was there. That allowed me to sleep during the day and be around for the kids’ school activities.
Three of my four kids went to college, and Mid-Continent gave them $2,000 a year towards their education. Working in the mines was a good experience for me. I was lucky the only injury I got was a broken finger.
Gallacher: When did you retire?
Dominguez: When I was 62, just two months before the mine caught fire and had to close. I had already decided that it was deep enough for me.