Where Fires Still Burn 3

New Castle’s Burning Mountain Festival and Memorials Recall Coal Mining History

In September, New Castle celebrated its annual Burning Mountain Festival with music, a pancake breakfast, and a 5K run. The festival, which has been running for 44 years, was named for underground coal mines that still flame inside nearby hillsides.

Burning Mountain itself—covered in sagebrush except for a scalded patch the size of a football field—has been smoldering since at least 1899 when the Consolidated Mine caught fire. Another underground fire ignited in 1910 at the South Canyon Mine continues to burn to this day. As recently as 2009, locals saw smoke and fumes venting through two holes in the earth and discovered still another underground coal fire near Silt.

In 2002, fire from the Consolidated Mine, which had been sealed, broke out and set surface vegetation alight and grew into a major conflagration. It jumped across I-70 near Glenwood Springs, disabling the interstate. It shut down the railroad, consumed 29 homes and 12,000-plus acres, and caused thousands of people from West Glenwood and Four Mile Canyon to evacuate.

Local Settlement Was Powered by King Coal

Between 2004 and 2016, Colorado’s coal production dropped 50 percent. As technological changes have withered the coal industry, it has become easy to forget the role coal played in the founding of local towns.

Today, near the forlorn town of Somerset on Highway 133, around 200 miners still work the West Elk Mine, which recently recovered from bankruptcy. The Bowie #2 mine also still operates in the vicinity. But miners in these two pits number fewer than students at the nearby Solar Energy International training facility in Paonia. (Each year, SEI hosts 500 students and teaches 3,000 more online.)

Some decades ago, six mines operated around Somerset in the North Fork Valley. A century ago, coal mines dotted this entire region.

John Osgood, the owner of the Colorado Fuel Company, founded Redstone to mine coal. To fuel the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, the Redstone Coal Baron (as Osgood became known) built a huge operation just south of Glenwood Springs at Cardiff, lighting the coal-coking ovens there in 1888. The iconic beehive coke ovens that mark the entrance to Redstone were also built by Osgood.

Carbondale, founded as a potato-growing town, gradually transitioned to mining, and many Carbondale residents worked in the Mid-Continent coal mines west of Redstone. Until the late 1980s, Carbondale’s economy depended largely on coal operations in the Crystal River Valley.

Nowhere was coal more important, though, than in New Castle. Although the area’s first resident to settle along the Colorado River came to farm in 1883, by 1888, when New Castle was incorporated, the area was hopping with coal miners. Many were immigrants from Italy and the United Kingdom. They dug deep into the dense coal deposits along the Grand Hogback ridge that crosses the Colorado River near New Castle. The coal they mined fueled the railroads that delivered the harvests and kept Aspen’s silver mines running.

The results of local mining, as noted by memorials scattered around the Colorado and Roaring Fork Valleys, were sometimes explosive.

In late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vicissitudes of coal mining included not only the dangers of cave-ins, fires, and explosions but also long-term health hazards such as crushing, maiming, and developing black lung. Colorado miners fighting their bosses for fair pay were killed in major labor uprisings, such as the Ludlow Massacre of 1918, which led to roughly two dozen deaths. All considered, from 1884-1912, Colorado miners died at nearly double the rate of the national average, according to the University of Denver’s Coal Field War Project. Although Redstone’s John Osgood was known for “welfare capitalism”—providing decent housing, schools, and reasonable pay—most mine owners were, in the words of the Denver Public Library’s Western History Resources website, “rarely held accountable for the atrocious conditions of their mines.”

That was certainly true in the case of New Castle’s Vulcan Mine.

Mine Explosions Around New Castle

On February 18, 1896, New Castle “was shaken as if by an earthquake,” according to a contemporary news report in the Colorado Springs Gazette. The explosion marked one of Colorado’s most deadly mining disasters, causing the deaths of 49 miners. About half of them were Italian immigrants, and among the dead were the mine’s foreman, its assistant foreman, its fire boss, and two teenage boys.

The cause of the Vulcan’s 1896 explosion remains a mystery to this day. A 1913 report, written by State Inspector of Coal Mines James Dalrymple, remains in the archives of the Colorado State Publications Library and can be viewed online. Dalrymple wrote that he thought the cause was not gas. “I believe the explosion originated in the west side of the mine, and was caused by [open] flame and dust,” with dust possibly coming from “a fall of the roof or a rush of coal from one of the rooms.” He wrote, “I believe the mine was fully equipped to take care of any reasonable condition that might arise, but part of the equipment was not used as often as necessary to obtain the best results.”

The explosion was an indictment not only of the mine’s poor safety procedures, but also the State of Colorado’s inspection process. State Inspector of Coal Mines David Griffiths had visited the Vulcan just 10 days before the explosion. He pronounced it in fine condition. His report, which is also in the Colorado State Publications Library, states, “I did not visit all the working faces, but was satisfied from what I had seen that the local management was doing everything for the safety of life and property.”

The explosion caused so much debris that the miners’ bodies could not be recovered until four weeks later. The mine was closed, then opened again under new management. But that wasn’t the final tragedy.

A memorial, erected in a park along New Castle’s Main Street, stands framed with pink roses and red-leafed Canada chokecherry. It commemorates the victims of Vulcan’s three mine explosions: in 1896, in 1913, and again in 1918. The third and final explosion caused three deaths and ultimately led to the mine’s closing.

But smoke from the Grand Hogback coal seam where the Vulcan mine operated still smolders beneath Burning Mountain today.

Echoes of Other Local Coal Explosions

Like the Colorado River Valley, the Roaring Fork and Crystal River valleys too hold memories of coal mine explosions.

In September 1897, a coal dust explosion in the Sunshine coal mine, owned by John Osgood and located about 16 miles southeast of Glenwood Springs, killed 11 miners.

On April 15, 1981, the Dutch Creek No. 1 mine, located in Coal Basin about eight miles west of Redstone exploded after sparks ignited underground methane gas. That tragedy, memorialized by a marker in Carbondale’s Miners Park, took 15 lives: six miners from Glenwood Springs, four from Carbondale, and one each from Marble, El Jebel, Silt, Rifle, and New Castle.

Though miners’ deaths have decreased substantially since the early days, coal mining remains the second most dangerous job in America. As Merle Haggard sang, “it’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, the danger is double, the pleasures are few…”