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Disaster at Oakdale

by Carol Stevens

LA VETA-  Oakdale mine was located west of La Veta. On August 18, 1919 tragedy struck, and was the worst mining disaster in Huerfano County since the 16 Maitland mine deaths in 1906.  A gas explosion caused by a defective safety lamp killed 18 of the 150 men who were working the mine.  The majority of the workers were able to flee through various exits while others were assisted out.   Many of the dead were buried at the Oakview Cemetery, but sadly only a few of the graves remain marked.

    It was reported that many Japanese were killed, but their names were not released.  It is interesting to note that the Japanese were the only miners not allowed to join the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. During a mining census, taken April 1, 1915, of the 3500 miners employed in Huerfano County, only 41 were Japanese.  Interestingly, in  1920, a poll showed 12,799 men employed in mines throughout Colorado, of whom 18 were Japanese.  (source: United States Mine Rescue Association).

        B. L. Smith, who sold in 1906 to George Fruth and James Autrey, owned the Oakdale mine. Autrey and Fruth had a few other mining interests, as well as a large ranch north of Walsenburg. New York stockholders purchased the mine from Autrey and Fruth for over $300,000, in September 1910. John D. Johns was the superintendent and South Canon Coal Company was the new owner. The mine was sold once again in January 1911, and Oakdale Coal Company of New York became the new owner.

    Oakdale mine was in operation from 1906 to 1932, and produced 3,340,073 tons of coal.  In later days, the Oakdale area became home to several small “wagon mines” meaning coal was mined by individuals and transported to the local market by wagon or truck.

    To learn more about Huerfano County’s mining heritage, check  out local historian Karen Mitchell’s website, and read  Nancy Christofferson’s book, When Coal Was King. 

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