COKEDALE — Back in the days of coal mining there were dozens of miniature cities scattered about the prairies and foothills of Huerfano and Las Animas counties. Today we call them coal camps, and while some were home to a few scores of people, others numbered in the hundreds. In most of the company towns, homes, stores, mine structures, schools and churches were moved or razed, but one remains. It is Cokedale. Cokedale may be the only coal camp in the bi-county area with a name that totally fits its purpose, i.e., to make coke. The area’s mining giant, Colorado Fuel and Iron, liked more picturesque (and misleading) sobriquets for their smoky and dusty little towns. Cokedale was founded by the American Smelting and Refining Company to provide coke for its factories. The first mine was opened west of town, seven miles west of Trinidad on the Scenic Highway of Legends in 1906. A second mine was opened to the east not long after. The Cokedale post office was established the same year. The mine was first called the Reilly Canyon. Miners
and their families first lived in a tent city, but by 1907 the company had spent an estimated one million dollars to build a model camp. Two years later the town was claiming a population of 1,500 souls. Some 450 of these were mining coal. The company strove to give its employees every luxury available in that time and place, including comfortable and sturdy homes of concrete block (available for rent at $2.00 per room), water service (one hydrant per two homes), telephones, a sizeable school with five teachers, hotel, restaurants and transportation into Trinidad by stage and railroad. In 1908 the trolley lines from Trinidad were extended to Cokedale. The streetcar, belonging to the Trinidad Gas and Electric Company Railroad, made 12 trips daily for 25 cents each. This service was terminated in 1923. Eventually, Cokedale camp had amenities like an ice house, Catholic church and resident doctor (many camps shared the services of a physician). In the early years, there was a saloon, but that was closed with the rise of the temperance movement in the ‘teens and turned into a dance hall. The Gottlieb Mercantile Company built an imposing stone building to house its large and varied stock of goods. The post office was located in the store and L.R. Gottlieb was postmaster for a time. A large, 22-room boardinghouse was added to house the bachelors, and a clubhouse built to provide activities such as billiards, bowling, swimming and card playing. It also had a soda fountain and library. In 1911 the mine suffered its worst tragedy when an explosion caused by blasting powder killed 17 men, including the acting superintendent. For passing motorists, the most visible characteristic of Cokedale is the remaining coke ovens arcing around the valley south of town. Once there were 350 of these ovens which turned out 800 tons of coke. Coke ovens, which generated tremendous heat, were used to refine soft, or bituminous, coal into a hard product capable of producing heat sufficient to make steel. The process removes impurities and moisture. Not all bituminous coal is suitable for coking, just that coal referred to as “hard soft coal”. And that’s the geologists’ term! Cokedale evidently bypassed the violence of the strike of 1913-14 that caused so much distress and violence all around it. It remained a non-union camp into the mid-1930s. World War I increased the need for coal and coke, so the company opened the Bon Carbo mine about nine miles up Reilly Canyon. Some homes for miners were moved to the new site, but many miners availed themselves of the train service between camps and became early commuters. Freight and passenger service was provided by the Reilly Canyon Branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.. The mines again stepped up to supply coal during World War II, but the end was near. The need and demand for coal and coke were diminishing, and the company announced closure of the mines and camp in January 1947. In May the entire property comprising Cokedale was sold to a Denver company for $225,000. The company offered to sell the homes to their residents for $100 a room, and $50 for the lots they were built on. About 50 families took advantage of the deal, bought their longtime homes and incorporated the town March 15, 1948. At its height, the camp had about 125 dwellings of assorted sizes and shapes. Cokedale had left its industrial life behind, and started a residential one. Town residents decided to keep the camp much as it was. Hence, the house numbers remained, and the narrow, winding and steep streets. While most of the mine buildings were demolished, much of the washery remained, as did the school and company store. The buildings have seen several more reincarnations since 1948. The company store, for instance, in the 1980s became the workshop of Garry Coulter, a wagon and carriage restorer. Coulter, a former teacher at Hoehne, was nationally known for his careful work, and customers from all over the United States, including Alaska, and as far as the Polynesian Islands, took advantage of his painstaking carpentry work. In 1991, Abilene Christian University sent students to do field work in Cokedale. As a unique example of a model company town, it was ripe for oral histories and historic preservation projects. By 1993 the students had restored the company store and equipped a museum in it. They also mapped and photographed 175 of the remaining coke ovens, excavated old dumps and located former building sites. Also in the ‘90s, the boarding house became the center of a Quaker retreat and homeless center. Cokedale has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984. In the 100 years since having its peak population of 1,500, the 2010 census counted just 129 in Cokedale.