For countless numbers of travelers Walsenburg, Colorado, will always be ‘the place we stopped for gas.’ To most, that’s what it is. People leave with no more knowledge about the town then they had before they arrived. But when coal was king---and make no mistake, it was king---Walsenburg had prominence in the royal court.
Walsenburg and the region were once landing spots for southern Colorado’s burgeoning immigrant population. If your only language was Spanish, Italian, Greek or one brought here from Eastern Europe, you could find work in the mines and there were plenty. You just had to be willing to work long hours for low pay in epically dangerous conditions. Death visited the mines early, late and often.
The low point in the region’s mining history occurred April 20, 1914, just south of Walsenburg. Striking miners had set up a camp that included their families. They wanted more money and safer working conditions. What they didn’t count on was a foe that didn’t care, wouldn’t budge and saw them as dispensable. He was the country’s most powerful oil, steel and coal baron, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. And he needed to move product at any cost.
Colorado National Guardsmen moved in to settle the strike. But things went horribly wrong. They set the miner’s tents on fire while simultaneously machine gunning across the landscape. In minutes, 21 women and children lay dead having suffocated and burned inside their tents or been fatally shot.
The Ludlow Massacre was the deadliest incident of the Southern Colorado Coal Strike. What followed were ten bloody days of miners---union members---engaging against anti-union establishments in absolute labor terror. As many as 200 deaths were attributed to the violence. The price was high and stands as a blot on the state’s history. But the clash ultimately resulted in better working conditions and higher pay. The site of the massacre is marked by a granite memorial that sits twenty miles south of Walsenburg.
Today Walsenburg is like so many small towns whose economic engines have stalled. Coal remains in abundance but as the country moves to clean energy demand for coal has waned. Still, there are a lot of things about the town, said John Van Keuren, that make it a good place to live. “It’s a close-knit community,” he said. Van Keuren’s Vice President of the Huerfano County Historical Society.
Van Keuren left town years ago to build custom homes in some of Colorado’s toniest mountain zip codes. He came back a few years ago because “I could afford to pay cash for a house here.” He says it without a hint of regret.
“Walsenburg is a melting pot,” he said. It has been since its early days. But as melting pots go, this one is shrinking fast. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. Census showed a nearly 25 percent population decline. The town’s headcount today is just over 3,000. But for those willing to make the drive, he said, there’s almost certainly something they’ll find to their liking.
It’s a place with amazing natural amenities that Van Keuren thinks too few people even know about. He talks about his home town with the kind of authority of someone who’s recited its treasures a thousand times. In no particular order he touts Lathrop State Park as a ‘must see’ when visiting Walsenburg. It’s Colorado’s first state park and “is just west of town.” Also, only minutes from town are Martin Lake and Horseshoe Lake for fishing and recreation. And from almost anywhere in Walsenburg, there’s a spectacular view of The Spanish Peaks, once designated as ‘one of Colorado’s Seven Wonders,’ by The Denver Post. The Cuchara River, he said, is also a big draw.
Van Keuren spends most of his days running the museum. It’s a $5 admission but “probably should be more.” There’s also a mining museum which carries a $2 entrance fee.
Van Keuren’s home town enthusiasm is evident. He wishes people knew more about Walsenburg and Huerfano County than they do. For starters, he’d like them to know that Huerfano Butte, the orphan mound that sits east of I-25 and eight miles north of the town, is not a long-ago volcano. “It’s actually a volcanic plug,” he said. “Thirty-five million years ago, there was a lot of volcanic action around here.” That ‘action’ is what is responsible for the coal that once sparked the town’s economy. He wishes something else would spark it up again today.