John Barkley Dawson opened mines in the Raton coalfield of northeastern New Mexico Territory, perhaps as early as 1899 but definitely by 1902; he sold the mines and town site to the Phelps Dodge Mining Company in 1906.
In 1910, 70 percent of the miners in the company town of some 9,000 were European immigrants, 18 percent were Spanish speaking and only 12 percent were English speaking.
The large Phelps Dodge Mercantile Co., which offered everything from groceries and tobacco to furniture and ice, was the company store. Some miners might have owed their souls to the company store, but Grover Lumbard, who lived in Dawson from 1928 to 1940, said that his family used to go shopping 40 miles away in Raton, where the prices were lower.
A tremendous explosion in Dawson’s Stag Cañon Mine No. 2 on October 22, 1913, killed 263 men (23 men working in the mine at the time survived)—the second worst mine disaster in the United States. On February 8, 1923, an explosion in Dawson’s Mine No. 1 killed 120 men; two miners walked out alive.
In 1918 Dawson reached its peak production, with more than 4 million tons of coal produced. In the 1920s there were 1,200 students in four schools.
Among the “Don’ts” for coal miners published in the Dawson News in 1923 were “Don’t abuse a mule with a strap. Push on the car and help him; he is helping you,” and “Don’t pass a rock hanging from the roof without notifying the mine boss immediately. Practice ‘safety first’ always.”
The nation’s shift from coal to natural gas and oil led to Dawson’s inevitable doom. On April 30, 1950, Phelps Dodge shut down the mines. All the buildings were soon either torn down or relocated, and the mining equipment was removed and sold.
The Dawson Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 9, 1992. Among the gravestones are more than 350 white iron crosses that mark the graves of those who perished in the mines. The site is part of a working ranch (Colfax Land and Cattle Company) and gated. The cemetery, though, is open to the public.
Every two years on the Sunday before Labor Day, the gate is opened so that former Dawson residents and their descendants can have a reunion on the site. The September 3, 2006, reunion drew more than 2,200 people.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.