October 22, 1913: Dawson mine disaster killed 263 in New Mexico

October 22, 2013

Albuqurque 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)

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?

More:

English: Main Street of Dawson, New Mexico. Ta...

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


Little Hoovers should ask: Are we in a Second Great Depression?

February 23, 2011

Stalking America and haunting the shadows of every capitol building in America today are people who would profess, if asked, that they fashion themselves in the mold of Herbert Hoover.  Little Hoovers, we might call them.  Unlike Hoover, and unlike the friendly “Little Hoover” phrase we might apply to them, the welfare of America is not their concern.  We might worry about that.

President Harry Truman in 1947 appointed former President Herbert Hoover to head a commission on how to reform the federal government.  I do not know of a high school history text that even mentions this effort today.

Herbert Hoover on the cover of Time Magazine, 1925

Herbert Hoover on the cover of Time Magazine, 1925

Hoover’s commission made 273 recommendations that were taken to heart, then taken to Congress.  Many were enacted into law.

Several states followed the example, as in Utah and famously in California. These groups were often called “Little Hoover” commissions.  In no case that I have found did any of these commissions ever recommend stripping union collective bargaining agreements out of any situation.

But again, this history is mostly lost.  Hoover is remembered today for his failure to stop the Great Depression, for his seeming unwillingness to do what was necessary in great enough effort to relieve the nation’s serious hurts.  That’s too bad, really.

Herbert Hoover was not opposed to government action to fix the depression on most counts.  In his correspondence with Franklin Roosevelt, especially after Roosevelt replaced him in the presidency, Hoover often complained that Roosevelt’s actions were in the right vein, but too much.

We should remember this.

Are we in a Great Depression?  Economically, technically, our nation is in “recovery.”

Realistically, our nation is teetering on the brink of great financial disaster.  Sadly, most people ignore the lessons of history, and consequently, actions of many governmental units today seem driven to push the nation over the brink.  Home prices have not recovered.  Millions are out of work — millions of highly-trained workers cannot find jobs with pay adequate to support a family.

We appear not to have learned these lessons that should not have been forgotten:

  • Stimulus from the government creates demand, which fuels manufacturing recovery, and more jobs.  Tax cuts, such as Hoover’s 1932 tax cut for the wealthy, drive us deeper into recession.
  • Labor unions form vital components of a healthy manufacturing segment; they stand up for worker health and safety, for fair pay and work conditions that spur productivity.  When we ignore or fight unions, we damage economic productivity.  When we work with unions, we make progress.
  • Cracking the whip may get a temporary reaction from workers that looks good.  In the long run, if not immediately, such actions damage productivity and creativity.
  • Unions do not make the big financial decisions that cripple industry.  Unions don’t decide the products to be produced.  Unions cannot gamble a company’s future on ill-advised acquisitions or switches in corporate focus, usually.  Union demands for restrooms improve the sanitation and health of our food supplies.  Union demands for limited work hours lead to productive workers, better safety, and better products.
  • In almost every case where foreign corporations compete successfully with U.S. companies on high-tech and high-skill jobs, and take away U.S. jobs, the government of that foreign nation provides health care for all citizens, so that health care costs are not a cost of business.  In the case of most industrial nations, foreign pension laws are much stiffer than U.S. laws, stiffer in protecting generous benefits for pensioners.
  • All workers benefit when unions gain, traditionally.  It wasn’t Andrew Carnegie who invented the two-week vacation.
  • Workers can do more for consumers when they are treated well and listened to by company management.

I’m depressed at the nasty actions in so many places, in so many ways, designed to thwart progress to good ends, and instead drive our nation into mediocrity.  I find it difficult to post when there is so much disaster looming in so many places.

When political movements from the right go after one group with hammer and tongs, we might do well to remember the old, wise words.  With a full-on awareness of Godwin’s Law, we might do well to remember the words attributed to Martin Niemöller,  and the moral of that story:

“Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.”

What has Scott Walker done for anyone who makes less than $500,000 a year, anyway?  So you should ask:  What has Scott Walker ever done for you, or your family?  If the bargaining rights of any union are removed, anywhere in the U.S., who will speak up for your vacation, pension, health care benefits, and job safety?  OSHA?  Are you sure?

Update: It’s not paranoia when they are coming after you with more ill-will than you can imagine — see this Mother Jones update. It appears some people didn’t learn anything from the Tucson shootings.


More:

Cover of Gordon Lloyd's Two Faces of Liberalism:  How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debates Shape the 21st Century

A book you should buy: Gordon Lloyd's Two Faces of Liberalism: How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debates Shape the 21st Century


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