At 3:10 p.m. Oct. 22, 1913, a Wednesday, people in the coal-mining town of Dawson, 14 miles northeast of Cimarron, heard a sharp crack, like a high-powered rifle, followed by a prolonged muffled roar, and then they felt the earth vibrate and saw flames shoot 100 feet out of the entrance of the Stag Cañon Mine No. 2.
Fifteen dazed coal miners soon staggered from the entrance. Another 10 or so were found injured, but alive, near the entrance. But more than 200 remained unaccounted for.
Two members of “helmet crews,” or rescue teams, who entered the mine soon after the explosion were killed by debris falling from the mine’s ceilings. Those who emerged told grisly stories about what they had found inside.
“One man, unidentified, was found leaning against a wall with both hands elevated to his face, as though he was striving to ward off a sudden and unexpected blow,” reported the Albuquerque Morning Democrat. “Another was found standing erect with his pick still in his hand, just as he had struck his last flow into the coal.”
A Raton Range reporter who arrived the next day found the town of Dawson in shock.
“As you look from face to face upon the silent groups about the street, the homes, the mines, you see written but one word — incomprehension,” he wrote. “More than a day has passed, and yet the people on whom the dreadful blow has fallen do not understand. They cannot as a body grasp the horror, its fullness, and are quiet, stunned. Only now and then is heard the keen wail of a stricken woman as the body at the pit mouth is identified.”
At first, no one knew exactly how many miners were lost. But on Oct. 24, two days after the explosion, The New Mexican estimated that the loss of life would reach 263 — what became the official tally — making it the second largest mining disaster in U.S. history.
Most were recent immigrants — 129 from Italy, 52 from Greece, 30 from Mexico and the rest from Austria, France, England, Russia and other countries, along with 37 English-speaking Americans, both whites and blacks. Among those killed was the mine’s superintendent, William McDermott, a native of Ireland, and a man who had accompanied him into the mine that day, identified as a “wealthy New Yorker.”
“It was the impossible that happened — just another case of the unloaded gun which discharged,” the chief of the rescue detail told newspapermen at the scene. “What caused the explosion is a mystery which never may be solved, at least not for weeks to come.”
But 12 days after the disaster, on Nov. 3, 1913, State Mining Inspector Rees H. Beddow announced the explosion had been caused by coal dust.
Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the Dawson coal mine disaster. There is little left in the town but weed-strewn foundations and a dusty cemetery. The people who lived through those heart-wrenching days have passed on. But the memories remain among their children and in the residents who remained in the town until it closed in 1950. It also serves as a reminder of the dangers coal miners faced in the early 20th century.
On March 10, 1906, 1,099 coal miners died in another coal-dust explosion in Courrières, France — the worst single mining disaster in world history at that time.
On Dec. 6, 1907, the United States’ all-time worst mining disaster occurred when 362 coal miners died in another coal-dust explosion in Monongah, W.Va.
Some say the 1913 Dawson disaster had been caused by speeding up work in New Mexico mines, where labor remained unorganized, while Colorado miners were on strike.
On April 20, 1914, a clash between strikers and the Colorado National Guard at Ludlow, north of Trinidad, Colo., resulted the deaths of up to 25 people, including two women and 11 children who were asphyxiated when the tent above the underground chamber in which they took shelter caught on fire. Hostilities continued through 1914, resulting in a total of nearly 200 deaths and indelibly etching the “Ludlow Massacre” in mining-labor lore.
On Feb. 8, 1923, another tragedy struck Dawson. A mine train on Stag Cañon Mine No. 1 jumped its track, slammed into the supporting timbers near the mine’s mouth and ignited coal dust. This time, 123 miners were killed, some of them the sons of men who had died there in 1913.
Dawson’s rise and fall
Dawson got started in 1867, when rancher and businessman J.B. Dawson purchased the property from Lucien Maxwell, who at one time owned a 1.7 million-acre land grant covering much of northeastern New Mexico. Dawson began small-scale mining, then sold the property to the Dawson Fuel Co., which by 1901 had 50 miners working there.
In 1906, Phelps Dodge Corp. bought the property, expanded mining and built the town of Dawson. It had a company-owned department store that accepted script from miners, an opera house that showed motion pictures on weekends and provided spaces for fraternal organizations to meet, a railroad terminal, houses, schools and churches.
Soon, Dawson had several thousand people — making it one of New Mexico’s biggest cities, larger than even neighboring Cimarron or Raton.
Jack Holland, 87, who was born in Dawson in 1926, remembers the town as highly segregated, with the Italians, Greeks, Mexicans and other ethnic groups living in their own enclaves. He said the mining foremen, like his father, had houses on the hills overlooking the town. “The colored people lived way up at the end of town by the garbage dump,” he said.
Holland remembers Dawson High School had a champion football team, pretty girls and single women teachers who lived together in a dormitory.
No one alive remembers the 1913 disaster, but Holland said his father often talked about being on the rescue crew for the 1923 disaster. “There was a hand or finger on one of the miners, and they pulled off the hand or it was blown off, and it had a ring on it,” he said. “My father took the ring off and put it in his pocket. I think when he died, he still had it.”
Holland’s family left Dawson for Salt Lake City in 1942, when his father was appointed the federal government’s mining inspector for the Western district. Holland still lives in Utah, but up until a few years ago, he returned every other Labor Day — in even-numbered years — for a picnic with other Dawson alumni near the little cemetery.
Edward “Lalo” Zavala, 82, who was born in Dawson in 1931 and now lives in Raton, also attends the biennial picnics.
“As long as they were working, everybody was happy there,” he said. “We had everything there. The schools were some of the best we ever had. The Phelps Dodge Corp. had the big store. It had everything, and they would give the miners script so they could buy material from payday to payday, and then when payday came around, they collected what they owed them and sometimes the miners were left with nothing.”
Zavala vividly recalls the year 1950. His father died of cancer in February of that year, he graduated from high school in May and the mines closed down in May. Phelps Dodge gave Dawson’s residents until the end of June to leave, then razed most of the buildings and fenced off the area, except for the graveyard. Today, most of the land is leased for cattle.
“We had no choice. Everybody had to get out,” Zavala said. “When they gave them a date to get out, everybody just went to where they could. A lot of people there had never been out of that town.”
Zavala said his family was lucky. The miners union, which had been organized in the 1940s, paid his mother $1,000 as his father’s death benefit, and with that money, the family bought a house in Raton.
Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Footage of the aftermath of the Dawson, N.M., mine disaster of Oct. 22, 1913. This film is from the Prelinger Archives.