It wasn’t long after arriving in a new country more than a hundred years ago that immigrants learned of work and steady wages in southern Colorado. A new steel mill was just ramping up in a place known only as “the West,” and a town called Pueblo. And southern Colorado needed the manpower these immigrants could provide to dig this precious fuel out of the earth. Coal was in abundance and if you were willing to work, you could make a new life.
“Coal mining,” said Las Animas County Planner Bob Lucero, “was big.” The Trinidad native also believes that this black gold, which fueled much of the state’s and region’s growth in the late 19th century and much of the 20th century, “is looking to start up again.” That may be wishful on his part as methane and clean energy---wind and solar---take on larger and larger roles. Lucero said there are more than 3,000 active wells in Las Animas County. Huge wind turbines also dot the landscape near the town. But coal will always have a place in the Colorado story.
Not unlike mining in Europe where death, permanent injury and long-term health problems were the price of admission, Colorado’s coal mining industry also came with built in costs. Cave-ins and chronic health problems were just part of the deal. Saying goodbye to a coal miner in the morning was often a permanent farewell; the last words ever spoken to a husband, father or brother. The not unexpected health issues, including black lung disease from breathing in noxious air, would come later for untold numbers of miners. Still, the mines were steady work.
No resource, however, is more important than water and no river is more important in southern Colorado than the Arkansas. It cuts a swath through this part of the state that makes possible much of the agricultural bounty the region is known for. It also provides world-class rafting for thousands of visitors each year in Buena Vista, Salida and points east. Not to be ignored, said Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris Arend, is the “gold medal trout fishing.”
Spring and summer also provide more than ample recreational choices in Pueblo and points south into the San Luis Valley. “Visitors can fish or boat along the shores of Lake Pueblo,” said Arend. Or, they can visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park and “slide down the dunes.” Or just hike the region breathing in the pristine air and unmatched beauty.
Visitors heading south can make a day of it---or more---in Trinidad where the water, foothills and mountains are single options or, for the hearty, multi-day buffets. “We have Monument Lake,” said Lucero. And there’s more. “Bear Lake and Blue Lake are also used extensively,” he said. Trails abound for hikers along with campsites. “You’ll have to buy permits for Monument Lake and at Trinidad Lake you’ll need a state park pass.” But, warns Lucero, “If you come once, you’ll be back.”
For sheer beauty, southern Colorado’s San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains are as lovely as anything in a mountain-rich state. They break the monotony of the high desert in varying shades of blue, depending on the time of day. Depending on the time of year, bird watching or watching bird watchers is also worth the trip.
Southern Colorado’s rich history and natural resources are, “Colorado’s best kept secrets,” said Lucero. It’s a potpourri of good, bad and ugly. The latter is represented by the site of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, a labor conflict whose anniversary is marked each April 20th. The National Guard, using machine guns, opened fire on strikers and family members at the tacit behest of John D. Rockefeller.
Once again, the industry---coal---which brought life to the region also brought death. Twenty-one people, including women and children, died in a fusillade of bullets. The site sits just off County Road 44 near Trinidad. A granite monument memorializes the event. A memorial is held there each June.
The natural beauty and resources of southern Colorado are within two to three hours of Denver. “You can get out of the big city and you won’t be crowded,” said Lucero. And you can stay as long as you want.