Day 194 – Highway of Legends, June 9, 2011
Sugarite Canyon State Park is an interesting place as it
encompasses the abandoned mining town of Sugarite which was established in
1912. Sugarite was one of seven towns in
the Raton area built by the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain and Pacific
Railroad. People from twenty different
nations came to live in this coal camp.
The camp included housing, a ball field, a school, a clubhouse, the
company store, and a doctor’s office; not to mention the mines, related
buildings, and a railroad.
Sports were the focus of coal communities, and many of the
miners at Sugarite were talented baseball players. Professional teams courted several men. Soccer was the game of choice in the
winter. The Sugarite team often played
Dawson and later shared tea.
Schooling was a boon to immigrants from other countries
where only the wealthy were educated.
Students up to eighth grade attended the two-story school house until it
burned down in 1939. Teachers and
students rescued books and a piano and attended classes the next day in three
The company built a clubhouse in each town which provided a
social center and boosted morale. An ice
cream parlor, a beer parlor, a cigar room, and pool tables could all be found
at the clubhouse. In addition, the
clubhouse hosted several activities such as a sewing club, housekeeping
demonstrations, and dances.
The company coal towns paid their miners in scrip which was
only good at the company store; thereby keeping their “money” in town. Groceries, doctor’s bills, rent, work
materials, and explosives were all deducted from a miner’s paycheck, leaving a
meager balance. Despite these hardships,
no one went hungry. The butcher gave
away free liver and tongue and the families kept gardens and chickens and
shared their food. Those of different
nationalities traded recipes. Italian
families even ordered grapes from California and produced wine which was kept
in the store’s cool basement and consumed throughout the year.
The town doctor was paid by the company and got a bigger
house. The doctor treated most of his
patients in a dentist chair and the remedy of choice to cure illnesses was
alcohol. Seriously injured miners were
transported to the hospital in Gardiner.
With no sick leave, miners generally returned before they were fully
healed, and if any miners died, it was considered the miner’s fault.
Women of the camp baked bread for fifteen cents a loaf and
earned money cleaning house and doing laundry.
The bread was baked in an outdoor wood fire oven. Once the wood burned down to coals, the bread
was placed on the bricks that retained the fire’s heat and baked the bread.
The most productive mine at Sugarite, was mine #2. In 1916, the mines produced about 650 tons of
coal per day. Eleven miles of tunnels
extend horizontally into the mountain behind the entrance of mine #2 which is
blocked off by an iron gate, though the entrance tunnel has also
collapsed. The coal was mined by the
room and pillar method, whereby rooms cut into the coal seam were secured up
using vertical and horizontal timbers.
Miners were not paid for completing this dead work which would sometimes
be rushed through resulting in tragic consequences.
In order to mine the coal, during the day miners had to hand
drill holes into the coal face. At
night, workers called shot fires would locate each hole, pack each one with
explosives, and blast away the coalface.
If the powder was damp, the shots would “hang fire” or smolder, a
dangerous situation that had to be resolved quickly. As a safety precaution, the explosives were
stored in a building far from the entrance of the mine.
Another safety precaution included checking for methane gas
prior to each shift. Fire bosses used a
special safety lamp to ensure workers would not succumb to the odorless
gas. In addition to the check, an above
ground structure housing a giant fan was used to ventilate the tunnels and the
tunnels were watered down to control flammable coal dust.
After wandering around the park and mine camp, I turned
toward Trinidad. I’ve driven nearly
35,000 miles and it turns out I was only about an hour ahead of my
sister-in-law who was driving from Dallas to Denver over two days. I stopped in Trinidad, the beginning of my
next scenic drive and had lunch with Marti and my nieces and nephew, Elizabeth,
Molly, and Jack. What fun!
The Highway of Legends led me west to Cokedale National
Historic District, another mining town, much more intact than Sugarite. The Gottlieb Mercantile Company, which was
not built as a “company store”, as the miners were paid in cash, not script, is
now the City Hall.
We continued to Stonewall clearly named for the looming wall
of sandstone that rose above the river and pasturelands, before we finally
reached Monument Lake where we camped for the night. I found a spot at the north end of the lake
around 5 pm. While sitting on the step
of VANilla by the sliding side door taking advantage of one bar on my cell
phone, Petey jumped up remarkably quickly given he can hardly walk, raised
the fur on his neck, and growled while staring off in the distance. I jumped to grab him, looked toward the
forest and saw nothing. While his
reaction seemed like it was wildlife induced, given I couldn’t spot any
visitors, I presumed he must have seen a dog in the passing car. Regardless, after finishing up my
conversation, we hopped in the comforts of VANilla to blog for the evening.
Both of VANilla’s side windows were open, the right that slides
backward and the left that rotates out and upward with a hand crank. My Fig Newtons were resting on the stove
beneath the left side screen. The cover
of the stove was raised up blocking my view to window.
As I was downloading my pictures in the back of VANilla, I
heard a guttural grunt coming from the mid area of the van. I thought to myself, was that Petey? It didn’t sound like his usual high pitch
whines from his dreams. I looked toward
him when I heard another grunt and felt VANilla jiggle gently, though less than
it jiggles in a windstorm. Petey wasn’t squirming
or grumbling in a dream so I knew it wasn’t him. Plus it sounded like it was coming from
VANilla’s left side window, about three feet from Petey’s head. I got up and slowly turned down the stove
cover to see a bear!
It immediately lumbered away, so I leapt to the back,
grabbed my camera, jumped to the front seat, rolled down the window and shot an
absolutely terrible picture of the mama bear rumbling down the road with two,
tiny baby cubs following behind. It was
simply amazing to see how much distance they covered in what seemed like ten
seconds. While they appear like they are
laboring, they were fifty yards from VANilla in a flash…and so quiet! I didn’t hear them until they grunted for
food and Petey was just snoring away…some guard dog he is!
My heart pounding and my mind racing, I sat in VANilla for a
few minutes waiting and thinking. Darn,
I wanted a picture. I wondered, are
there any slow people nearby? As long as
I’m with someone slower than me, I could snap a photo. I sat a while longer and the more I thought
about it, I rationalized that the bears ran off with hardly a movement on my
part, so I slipped out of VANilla, tip-toed to the road and poked my head out
around the bushes to see down the hill.
The bears were visiting my neighbors. I found two more people, mostly because they
were fishing, and I didn’t want them to be startled by the bears, and the three
of us, shooting photos of the mama and her cubs, hid behind trees on the
hillside a safe distance away with VANilla in sight. Oh how I wished I got their photo near VANilla
instead of them eating my neighbors trash; though it was funny to see them
startled by the trash bag flapping with each gust of wind. I briefly considered scaring them away from
my neighbor’s camp, but given mamas tend to be protective of their cubs, I
decided that was my neighbor’s problem, not mine. It was SO exciting, scary, and cool! I’m certain I won’t be sleeping with my
windows open tonight. ETB