Albuquerque Journal photo and caption: Iron crosses dot the Dawson Cemetery in Colfax County, the site of a once bustling coal mining region. The Dawson mines produced millions of tons of coal in the first half of the 20th century, but also took the lives of many miners. On Oct. 22, 1913, 263 miners were killed in an explosion. On Feb. 8, 1923, another Dawson mine explosion killed 123 miners. (Journal File)
Who remembers, today?
In our recent history, a disaster in one small town or one company that killed 263 people would stand out. But the Dawson, New Mexico, coal mine explosion of October 22, 1913, is mostly forgotten today.
100 years later, all ten of the town’s mines are closed, victim to increasing use of petroleum as fuel in the U.S. The town itself is a ghost town, though once its schools produced scholars from children of immigrants, and state champions on the athletic fields. A strike by miners in Colorado may have contributed to the explosion, as corporate executives tried to goose coal production in Dawson to cover shortfalls from mines closed by the strikes. Unions then grew to major influence in American life, including increasing safety in coal mining. But unions, today, hold waning influence generally.
Many or most of those who died didn’t speak English. Instead, they spoke the languages of their native lands, Italy, Greece, Germany, and other European nations. Despite its location in New Mexico, there were few Native Americans, or residents or immigrants of Hispanic origins.
Today’s anniversary should be a departure point for rich discussion of many threads in American history, the rise of industrialization, the changing industries of the cowboy frontier towns, the changing ownership of lands from Native Americans to big corporations, the changing nature of work and union influence, the dramatically different views of government and government regulation, the role of immigration and immigrants.
In your state’s standards, Common Core State Standards or not, can a teacher intrigue students with real history in any of those ways?
The Albuquerque Journal remembered the disaster in an article in Sunday’s edition:
The second-deadliest coal mining disaster in U.S. history occurred 100 years ago this week in a northern New Mexico town that no longer exists, save for the small cemetery bearing the remains of many of the 263 miners killed in a massive explosion on the afternoon of Oct. 22, 1913.
Though the town of Dawson and the Stag Canyon No. 2 coal mine are mere footnotes in history to most people, the men who died there a century ago – mostly Italian and Greek immigrants lured to the coal fields by decent-paying jobs and all the amenities a company town like Dawson could offer – are far from forgotten.
In ceremonies today at the Raton Museum, the miners killed in what has become known as the Dawson Mining Disaster will be remembered by descendents, historians and New Mexico’s Italian and Greek communities.
“I think it’s important to honor these men, and all immigrants who helped build America,” said Nicki Panagopoulos, a member of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Albuquerque.
A second disaster a decade later killed another 123 miners.
Who remembers? How should we study these events in our history classes? Do we study such events at all?
Main Street of Dawson, New Mexico. Taken in 1916. Though once an active community of 9,000 residents supporting ten coal mines, it is now a ghost town, shut down by Phelps Dodge Corporation in 1950, and bulldozed. Wikipedia image