by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA, COLO. Aug. 18, 1919. Shortly before noon Monday word was received of a terrible disaster at the Oakdale Mine seven miles west of this place.
So began the report of the deadly gas explosion that took the lives of at least 18 of the 150 men working that day in the Oakdale coal mine. This tragedy proved to be Huerfano County’s worst mine disaster, thankfully, compared to the hundreds killed in explosions in other mines, in other counties, in other states. In Las Animas County, for instance, the worst explosion claimed 121 lives. That was in the Hastings mine, just west of Interstate 25, in April 1917. And in the Phelps-Dodge coal mine at Dawson in northern New Mexico, not so far from here as the crow flies, more than 250 died in a single explosion in 1913.
The Oakdale mine was opened in 1906 by James Autrey and George Fruth of Walsenburg. The property had been worked for several decades as wagon mines along its many veins. Fruth and Autrey made it a paying enterprise by leasing 600 acres in the vicinity and seriously drilling for coal. Several large veins were promising, and production began even before the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built to the site in October 1907. That year most of the camp was built, including the Piñon Supply Company store, a boardinghouse and tipple. A town site was laid out in an orderly fashion, and named Oakview.
During initial construction of the main entry, a Joe Dratter was killed in a fall of rock. This was evidently considered to be a construction accident and not necessarily a mining accident.
March 31, 1908 saw the first official fatality in the mine, when the fire boss, Joe Hamilton, was burned in a gas explosion and subsequently died of his injuries. Nov. 18 was the second. At that time Mike Blozosky, “Slavonian”, was killed by a trip of runaway mine cars. Both Hamilton and Blozosky left families to mourn them. Before the 1919 disaster, at least 20 other miners had been killed in the mine, yet it was still considered, by the standards of the time, a “safe” mine.
Little was written about the 18 who died that Aug. 18, beyond their names. Two of them, James T. England and Alfred Oxford, were grandfather and grandson, and died “locked in each other’s arms.” The others were John Fassero, Charles Monson, Tony Barello, William Christopher, Frank Divacchio, Joe Mogulski, Jim Bly, John Micari, Frank Pijk, Andrewo Guialno, J.R. Franks, Jose Garcia, Miguel Marquez, Mike Johnson, John Soltis and Juan Baltiera. One surmises from the surnames that the men were of many nationalities. Most coal mines of the time were like miniature United Nations. Having a grandfather and grandson also tells us the miners represented a wide variety of ages.
We know a little about two of the victims. J.R. Franks was J. Riz Franks, whose wife Helen (nee Kmetz) had a daughter Jan. 26, 1918 in the Lamme Hospital in La Veta. This baby grew up to be Lenore Stigall, La Veta Town Clerk in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. What we know about Tony Barello was that he was an Italian living in the Oakdale boardinghouse run by Delphina Baione. When he died, Mrs. Baione set aside the single trunk where he kept all his belongings. She intended to hold it for the surviving relatives she knew would eventually come to claim his things. As of 1983, the trunk was still being held by Mrs. Baione’s son Pete, still neatly packed and waiting. One wonders if Barello’s family back in the old country ever knew of his fate.
Some of the deceased were buried in the La Veta Cemetery, mostly in unmarked graves. A couple were buried in Walsenburg’s old St. Mary Cemetery. Others were buried in the Oakview Cemetery, which held two or three dozen graves until the markers disappeared through time, neglect and weather. The bodies of still others were shipped back to their families.
The Oakdale mine began slowing its production about 1928. By 1930 the post office and store were closed. In 1932 the railroad was abandoned and production ceased completely. The company sold off the houses and at least three were moved to La Veta and environs. In 1933 the rest of the structures, except one house that had been sold but not moved, and the superintendent’s fine house on the hill, were razed.