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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOPRIS
There is an old-timers story that the first coal mine, and the first claim to a piece of Colorado soil that would ultimately become the spirited mining community of Sopris, was established when one Don Francisco Gallegos, a full blooded Navajo Indian, dug a cave to protect himself and his band of sheep during a blinding winter snowstorm. In the freshly dug cave he not only found protection from the elements for himself and his sheep, he also discovered coal. And back in those days that was a most important discovery, for coal was then king.
The tale of Don Francisco Gallegos, as told to his son Benny, is a fascinating one. The Gallegos version was told to Benny, who then passed it on to Ray Herst, one time editor of the Trinidad Chronicle News. Herst wrote and published the story in the Chronicle in 1970.
"When I was a boy my father told me that at one time in New Mexico, there was a rancher, a Spaniard, who had taken a lot of land and sheep from the Indians. He went to Spain, married, and he brought his new wife back to the ranch. But she couldn't have any children, and this man, Gallegos, wanted an heir.
"One day after a battle between the Indian tribes in the area, several of the Gallegos shepherds went to the scene of the conflict to collect arrows and other weapons that remained. Under a ledge they found an Indian baby, a survivor of one of the numerous inter-tribal skirmishes that were a part of the American western history scene, who was promptly taken to the Gallegos ranch. Mrs. Gallegos,without children and unable to bear her own, took him in immediately. The couple nurtured the infant as their own, vowing never to tell him he was of Native American extraction.
Very early on, young Don Francisco was put to work herding a flock of sheep. It was typical for a sheepherder to care for as many as 2,000 sheep at one time. While watching his flock, Don Francisco would wander into a nearby Indian village to play with the children. He was unaware that he himself was a full-blooded Navajo and would allow the Indians to take some of the sheep, returning home at times with as many as 30 or 40 missing. The elder Gallegos would beat young Don Francisco for giving away some of the flock, exhorting him to stay away from the Indian village. The youngster adamantly refused, and after repeated offenses, Mr.Gallegos finally gave up.
He called my father into his study and told him how he was found. He said, 'I gave you my name and I wanted you to be my heir. Those were your people but you didn't know it. But blood will tell. I'm cutting you off.'
Don Francisco was given a flock of 2,000 sheep and promptly asked to leave the Gallegos home. He was told that he could do with his sheep as he pleased, including giving them to the Indians. Instead, he began moving his flock north. He sojourned over Raton Pass in the dead of winter sometime during the early 1860's. He was losing his sheep in alarming numbers during a severe blizzard, but he struggled bravely on until he reached the area that was to become present day Sopris, and there he sought shelter for himself and what was left of his diminished flock.
"My father dug a cave for himself and his sheep. And when he did, he discovered coal." ...possibly that was the first coal mine discovered in Colorado.
Well, word got around that an Indian had discovered coal and one of those smart Englishmen came to have a look.
The smart Englishman turned out to be one E.B. Sopris for whom the town would ultimately be named. Or so the story goes.
"He told my father that 'if you make me half-owner, I'll bring the rails, the mules and the carts to get the coal out and I'll cut a road to take the coal to EI Moro. 'My father marked the cross which made him half owner and that was the start of the coal mine and the town.
Benny asserts that his father filed the first claim for 360 acres in what was to become the bustling little mining camp of Sopris.
Other sources give credit to one General E.B. Sopris who, in the late nineteenth century, ventured into the territory of southern Colorado. The General was a commander of a group of Colorado militiamen who were fighting Indians. He was a pioneer of southern Colorado and was believed to have had deed to much of the area's coal lands.
Morris F. Taylor, in his book, Trinidad, Colorado Territory, writes of a gentleman named E.B. Sopris who ran uncontested as an Independent and was elected to the office of County Surveyor for Las Animas in the territory of Colorado. Taylor also notes an Eldbridge B. Sopris who was the proprietor of the popular Exchange Billiard Saloon near Main Street. Possibly, Eldbridge B. and E.B. may have been one and the same, the owner of the Exchange Billiard Saloon, and a surveyor, the latter of whom may have prepared a plat of the town. And so the name of Sopris may have derived.
One can only speculate ...
With the development of the small enclave between the Purgatoire River and the foothills to the immediate south, a place where those hills were prodigiously laden with that most precious 'Black Gold,' came the booming coal industry that was essential to a burgeoning America at the turn of the century. The town grew quickly. In 1910, with the mine in full production and now owned and operated by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, and, with the coke ovens also bursting at the seams, the population grew to one thousand seven hundred. In its earliest years, many of the town's inhabitants were immigrants from Italy, families of the hardy men who came to seek their fortune in the newly constructed mine. Throughout its history, however, the population of Sopris also consisted of people descended from numerous other countries: Spain, Mexico, Germany, Poland, Slovania, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, England, Austria, Africa, the Netherlands, Romania, Wales, England, and, most likely, other cultures to this day yet unknown.
Just a decade past the turn of the century, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, in addition to managing the mine, operated approximately three hundred coke ovens with a capacity for processing five hundred tons of coke per day. The town boasted two general stores and several other businesses, Catholic and Methodist churches, and a public school system. A street railway service linked the community to Starkville. The United States Post Office was supervised by one Mr. Thomas Pattison. In 1920, just one decade later, it is estimated that the population increased to over two thousand, with four hundred of its men digging fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred tons of bituminous coal daily for use in the steel mills in Pueblo.
It was King Coal that would become the very heart and soul of Sopris, for almost every individual who lived there would somehow be affected. Everyone, it seemed, was linked to that great coal mine in those foothills overlooking the town.And that highly sought black gold dug from a gaping, belching hole in the southern Colorado earth would remain king for some time to come.
By the early 1880's, Sopris, approximately five miles west of Trinidad along the Sangre de Cristo mountain range that parallels the Purgatoire River just left of Highway 12, was firmly established. The budding little coal camp was surrounded by several smaller communities; Jerryville and Piedmont to the east, St. Thomas to the north east, Longs Canyon to the west, and Sopris Plaza (or La Vegas) to the north.Two large mines, Sopris No. 1 and No.2, produced an excellent grade of soft bituminous coal that provided much needed jobs for the community. The mines were owned and operated by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company of which John D. Rockefeller Jr. had a major interest. Numerous smaller privately owned coal mines dotted the surrounding canyons. The streets were dirt and sometimes graveled, and the homes were small, heated only by coal stoves. Outdoor convenience facilities took care of other important matters.
Eventually, the major streets of the town were paved. The mines continued to provide an economic base until the early 1940's when they were closed, and the town withered to a population of about five hundred. The final end would come when Congress and the United Sates Army Corps of Engineers concluded that a fifty-five million dollar dam should be constructed across the Purgatoire River to protect Trinidad and the lower valley from the periodic floods that ravaged the area.
But for over half a century, coal was king in Sopris. In October 1885, Harry Carter, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania, was brought to the small community by the old Colorado Coal and Iron Company, which preceded the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, to engineer the opening of the new mine.
The first mine was opened in 1886, and the first shipment of coal was made the following year. Mr. Jack Daldosso played a prominent role in the history of Trinidad coal mining. He worked with the first prospector gang when the mine was established in 1886 and continued his work with the mine for the next fifty-five years,working his way from a trapper to the Superintendent. Literally, under the guidance of Daldosso, millions of tons of coal were extracted from the mines over the years. At the peak of its operation, it is estimated that as many as four-hundred to six-hundred fifty hard working coal miners toiled long days deep in the belly of the Sopris earth.The coke ovens were constructed in 1888 and remained in operation until just prior to the Second World War.
And with the loss of the demand for coal came the closing of the mines. The last Sopris mine was shut down in 1940. Numerous men died in the mines or were severely crippled by accidents, most often cave-ins. Many others contracted "blacklung" from the constant breathing of the heavy coal dust. The miners received as little as three dollars per day for digging as much as sixteen tons of coal with a pick and shovel, and many times they did not see the light of day until Sunday. Death and illness were common in the coal camps. Tragedy struck in 1922 when an explosion in the Sopris mine took seventeen lives.
In 1925 the Colorado Fuel & Interstate Gas Company closed operations of all the company owned mines. Minimal mining continued in Sopris on a lease operation negotiated by Jack Daldosso. But for all practical purposes, the coal mining industry in Sopris was withering away.
The miners, now without a means of providing for their families, had to seek employment in the surrounding communities; Starkville, Morley, the Frederick Mine in Valdez, and the Allen Mine just east elf Stonewall, later to change ownership and renamed the Eagle Mine, provided employment for a number of the laid-off Sopris miners. It was not enough.
Times were tough, but those who remained were also tough. The five hundred or so hardy citizens who remained scratched and clawed their way to survival. Miners, when they could find employment, were commuting to operations outside the community. Lincoln School and the Sopris Panthers, with support of St.Thomas Elementary School just west of the st. Joseph Catholic Church in old St.Thomas, became the hub of the community.
And the paucity of jobs in the coal mines, to say the least, presented a problem for the entire community. Families were seemingly always strapped for money. There were numerous layoffs because of company overproduction or because of the large number of intermittent strikes that plagued the community. The mines would operate just long enough for the workers to pay their debts, then shutdown. People virtually lived on a shoestring, from month to month, surviving on the gratuitous credit of local businessmen like Sam Brunelli, who owned a grocery store and managed a United States Post Office in St. Thomas, Louis "Binda" Cunico with his grocery store and gasoline outlet in Jerryville, and Adolph Sebben with yet another small grocery business in Sopris. Somehow the community survived. People had little, but they made do with what little they had.
One area native at the August 2, 1980 Sopris reunion noted, "I guess you would say we were very poor, but we didn't know it.
"In 1967 the United States Army Corps of Engineers arrived to begin a two hundred foot high concrete dam tower that stands like an eminent watch turret near the dam of Trinidad Lake where Sopris once thrived. At that time, the population of Sopris had dwindled to a mere three- hundred. Today the area of the old coal mining camp is covered by a vast lake of over fifty-five thousand acre feet of water."I always think of Sopris as one big happy family," reminisced my oid time school chum, Joe Terry. "When people needed help there was always somebody there. In time of sorrow or celebration, people were always there no matter what the situation.No doubt about it, it was just one big happy family.
"It was once said that, "You can take the people out of Sopris, but you can't take Sopris out of the people." The citizens of old Sopris town, so it seems, will never forget.
A Sopris reunion is planned for the 4th of July, 2,000. A mass is scheduled at 10:00 a.m. on July 2 at the Trinidad Lake "South Side" where Sopris was once located. Fr. Jim Koenigsfeld with other priests from Trinidad will celebrate the liturgy. Each family will be asked to bring their picnic lunches and drinks, chairs,and umbrellas. Most of the day will be spent socializing. Additional information detailing the activities of the reunion and/or reservations for the mass should call one of the following: Yvonne Reorda 719/596-5039; LoRetta Archuleta 303/745-8261; Mary Jane Incitti 719/846-3561; Sharon Butero 719/846-6594.
"Everybody in old Sopris was just like one big family," mused former Sopris native Mary Jane Incitti, who mirrored the sentiments of Terry, "and those of us who remain continue to share the joys of that same family. We're now in a different place physically, but our hearts and souls will always be with the people of Sopris. And for that reason we choose to come together again."
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