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Historic challenges for Walsenburg, part 1

Boom and bust

by Edi Sheldon

WALSENBURG-  Walsenburg in its heyday was a thriving community.  There were as many as five hotels, lots of restaurants, four or more newspapers and three or four movie houses.  Prosperous bars and entertainment businesses lined Main and Seventh Streets.  There were neighborhood groceries, churches and schools throughout the community as well as in the larger mining camps.

    The City Built on Coal achieved notoriety as a result of the coal mines established in the late 1800’s.  Coal from this area proved to be in high demand because it contained low sulfur and was a bituminous grade with good firing capabilities.  Huerfano County ultimately gave rise to more than 40 coal mines, all of which operated at full tilt during the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th.  Ultimately, more than 500,000,000 tons of coal were shipped out or sold in the area by the 1940’s.  This area was reportedly the richest coal bed west of the Mississippi.

    The railroads running through the middle of the community and providing spur service to many of the mines accounted for lots of activity.  Among the most noted were the Denver & Rio Grande & The Santa Fe, Southern & Union Pacific and The Colorado & Southern RR.  Passenger service accounted for much of the RR traffic as highway travel was still fraught with challenge with somewhat unreliable autos and poor roads.

    During this time the population of the county was reported to be at 15 to 20,000.  More than a third of the population of the county lived in Walsenburg.  Many immigrants came to the county with little more than the clothes on their backs.  The mine owners established coal camps with little frame houses for which the miners had to pay premium rent.  Employees were paid in scrip from the mine which could only be exchanged for goods in the company store in camps owned by the company.

    Miners worked long hard days and nights in the dark, musty tunnels.  They were given little free time and the hardships soon gave rise to widespread dissension among the miners and their families.  When little change occurred, the dissension led to attempts to unionize.  Eventually, all-out war occurred between the miners and the owners, and real battles were fought in the camps and in the city of Walsenburg.

    Along came the mid-1940’s, and the demand for coal rapidly diminished as the cost to produce it increased and as oil and natural gas became the fuels of choice.  Many of the local mines closed putting the miners out of work.  Because the mining companies owned their homes and they had been paid in scrip, many of them had only few possessions and were forced to leave the area for more lucrative employment.  The remains of many of the mining camps can still be noted along county roads and up Colorado Highway 69.  Tailing piles are distinctive markers.

    The population of Walsenburg shrank significantly during the 1940’s and 50’s.  Some found work at the Pueblo Steel Mills and commuted to work.  Others worked in Trinidad, and a few service businesses were able to survive.  The disastrous effect of this exodus of mines and miners was such that Walsenburg has never been able to recover and move forward.  Successive articles will delve into that history and perhaps shed light on the economic struggles faced in Walsenburg today.