HUERFANO/ LAS ANIMAS — Any overview of Huerfano and Las Animas counties histories would not be complete without the inclusion of the once influential Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, usually called simply the CF&I. Practically an institution, CF&I maintained a strong presence here for more than 100 years. This area owes a debt to the CF&I – for its railroads, financial benefits, diverse heritage and population growth. When the CF&I faltered, so did the entire region. The two-county area was the site of literally hundreds of coal mines, and the CF&I was the owner of the largest of them. The company was not always kind, but nevertheless it can be said it gave as good as it got. At one time or another, CF&I operated Starkville, Sopris, El Moro, Engle, Berwind, Tabasco, Toller, Morley, Cornell, Frederick, Primero, Segundo, Tercio, Cuatro, Quinto and Allen mines in Las Animas County, and Walsen and Robinson, Cameron, Pictou, Hezron, Santa Clara, Rouse, Lester, Jobal, McNally, Ideal and Kebler 1 (Tioga) and 2 (Big Four) mines in Huerfano. In addition, it had an iron mine on La Veta Pass in Costilla County, and many other properties in Fremont, Weld, Routt, Gunnison and Mesa counties in Colorado, as well as in Utah and Wyoming. To access the mineral wealth of Colorado Territory, a railroad was necessary. To this end, William J. Palmer and associates incorporated the Denver and Rio Grande Railway Company Oct. 27, 1870. Raising capital in Europe, the D&RG completed its first
right of way one year later, then reached Pueblo in 1872. From the beginning, Palmer had every intention of capitalizing on the territory’s resources from crops in the Arkansas Valley to precious metals in the San Juans. Equally important, though, was the control of coal fields which would fire the steam locomotives. At the same time, speculation was rife in Pueblo about building a steel mill using the new Bessemer process. D&RG officials organized the Central Colorado Improvement Company, or CCI in 1871. Part of its mission was to develop the Arkansas Valley, especially the Pueblo area. As a sideline, the CCI opened its first coal mine in 1872 near Canon City. In 1874 D&RG took over the mine. CCI merged with several other companies in 1880 including the Colorado Coal and Steel Works Company to become Colorado Coal and Iron Company. As CC&I, this entity became heavily involved with coal mining. Working hand in glove with the D&RG, CC&I began developing vacant coal land as well as purchasing working mines. D&RG would immediately construct tracks and facilities to serve these mines. CC&I had many rivals in the coal mining business, notably the Colorado Fuel Company which was allied with several railroads itself. On Oct. 21, 1892, the two rivals merged into the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company with its main offices in Denver, its steel plant in Pueblo and its coal mines scattered across mountains and plains. In order to make steel, extremely high temperatures were required. To achieve this, coke was needed. Coke, simply though rather inaccurately explained (to avoid chemistry and physics), is the product made by removing impurities from coal through heat. Most of the coal used to make coke in the West was called “hard bituminous”, a sort of oxymoron meaning hard soft coal (as opposed to hard hard coal, or anthracite). CC&I relied on mines in several counties to provide coking coal. Notably in Las Animas County was the El Moro mine, opened in 1877 four miles southeast of Trinidad. The name was changed to the Engle or Engleville mine in the 1890s. Coke ovens were built six miles north and that site was also called El Moro. The D&RG reached the coke ovens in 1877 and shipping began. Through the ensuing years, CF&I developed other camps devoted partly or entirely to coking. By 1893 Las Animas County was producing 42% of CF&I’s coke, and by 1903, 52%. Beside directing coke to its own steel mill, CF&I shipped coal to many smelters and foundries in western Colorado and beyond. During World War I, coke byproducts were used as chemicals to make explosives of many kinds, gasoline and motor oil. The steel plant, or, formally, Minnequa Steel Works, had dozens of divisions. Some of their more long-lasting products included barbed wire, nails, staves, wheels, rods, pipes and, of course, the nuts and bolts of the operation, the bolts and nuts department. Between its many industrial operations, CF&I held interests in several railroads, Mountain Telegraph Company, the Minnequa Town Company, Rocky Mountain Timber Company and many others. The timber company was active in the Purgatory Valley after CF&I purchased the north portion, that lying in Colorado, of the old Maxwell Land Grant. This company could produce props and ties as well as lumber to build company homes and other structures. CF&I also leased out grazing lands to stockraisers. The company employed tens of thousands of workers through the years, from the very specialized chemists, surveyors, architects, master mechanics, engineers through the hundreds of miners, clerical help, sales people, and even the man employed with his wheelbarrow spreading ashes and slag on muddy camp streets. CF&I also maintained its own medical services. Each coal camp had its own physician, and Dr. Richard Corwin’s hospital in Pueblo served those suffering from major and contagious illnesses, surgeries and mystery ailments. The hospital offered classes and degrees in nursing. The company owned Colorado Supply Company, the store everyone loved to hate. Every camp had its own store and many of them were luxurious with palm trees, fancy yard goods and relatively rare grocery items. With no competition, prices were high. CF&I’s longtime owner, John D. Rockefeller, personally donated land and cash for any denomination to build churches in the different camps. Some camps boasted as many as five churches. Colorado Fuel and Iron advertised throughout Europe for miners. As a result, company camps filled with hopeful immigrants, most of whom did not speak English or understand the American way of life. The Sociological Department of the company, activated by Dr. Corwin, oversaw the importance of teaching practical crafts and English, and to generally offer to help newcomers adjust to life in this foreign land. The department introduced Kindergarten classes open to children and their mothers. They learned not only to communicate, but gained practical and social skills. Dr. Corwin believed in the benefits of exercise of mind and body. The company built clubhouses in its early camps for these. Later, many of the larger towns got impressive YMCA (Young Mens Christian Association) buildings of many rooms for recreation and education, designed with entire families in mind. CF&I and other companies maintaining mining camps and enforcing their own strict and occasionally unmerciful policies had many detractors, and still do. In retrospect they seem cruel and greedy. And yet, Huerfano and Las Animas counties were greatly enriched by the foreign elements the companies introduced, and county coffers were beneficiaries as well.