by Guy Blasi
WALSENBURG- The building has been gutted and vandalized. Its east wall is half gone. Much of its valuable scrap metal has been scavenged. The old Walsenburg Power Plant just west of the city limits stands officially as one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places. It was built extremely well to stand the test of time. Few people remain today who can testify to the life and times of years gone by as it can. Its current out-of-town owners are seeking funding to somehow reuse the building in a fitting tribute to times when coal was king here over a century ago. There was a time when Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) was using coal supplied by Huerfano and Las Animas coal camps to make steel at its mill in Pueblo. CF&I owned the land and created a unique company-owned town standing just west of the Walsenburg City Limits called, Walsen Camp.
The power plant was built in 1898. The coal brought from the nearby Walsen and Robinson Mines fired the power plant’s boilers and provided light and the power to pump out water for approximately 400 men working deep inside the mine’s 50 miles of underground tunnels and shafts. “There was a previous power plant before the one now standing, but it was inadequate and a second one was built by the Trinidad Power Company to primarily provide light and pump out ground water,” said Carolyn Newman, docent of the Walsenburg Mining Museum. And soon, the power plant was providing electricity to the towns of Walsenburg and La Veta as well as Walsen camp. “Records show that approximately 80 miners died in the two mines,” Newman said. “Miners came here from Europe, Mexico and as far as Japan.”
Walsen Camp no longer exists, but at its height in the 1920’s, approximately 1,200 people lived there in 200 company homes. The hard-working miners were looking for their own small slice of the highly-touted American dream. The small frame and stucco homes sat on crawl spaces made of concrete. There were two models of this home, and it was repeated throughout all of CF&I’s coal mining camps. If you look closely around Walsenburg, you can still find some of these homes. Several were sold and moved into Walsenburg after the mines closed. These small homes were all simple frame construction. Outhouses were often shared by several families.
Many of the miners and their families were recent immigrants who came here seeking a better life than the one they had in their home countries. Not long after the start of the 20th century, CF&I built a school and a nearby YMCA to help provide a sense of community for the miners and their families.
In the 1930’s, the mine shafts began to flood with large quantities of ground water. “At one point, for every ton of coal that came out, ten tons of water had to be pumped out,” Newman said. Soon after, the mines were closed. CF&I let the residents have the option to buy and subsequently move their homes to wherever they chose to move them. CF&I required the final ten residents to move out in 1965 and what was left was then razed.
In 1955 the power plant was sold to the City of Walsenburg. Under the capable direction of Harry Biggi, the power plant kept going until it could go no further. In 1972, needed repairs and deferred maintenance were deemed by City Council to be too expensive. The lights at the power plant were turned off and power was brought in though rural electrical cooperative associations. San Isabel Electric now provides electricity to all of Huerfano County.
The Walsenburg Mining Museum is a treasure trove of great information about the numerous mining camps that existed here. The museum’s exhibits and resources help us to retain a vision of what was tough, tedious and dangerous work. In addition to the exhibits, photos, and news copy, numerous books on our mining and local history are for sale at the museum.
The future of the power plant is unclear. Its fate rests with its owner and grant writers who perhaps one day will restore it to its former glory. The county’s proposed walk along the Cucharas River will retrace the steps of the residents of Walsen Camp. Except for the power plant, little remains of the company town, the company store, and the company school which provided many new to America with the hope of a prosperous future.