Dawson Italian Tragedy
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There never was a town like this before, and there never will be again!

In 1901 the Dawson coal mine opened and a railroad was constructed from Dawson to Tucumcari and the town was born. Then in 1906, the Phelps Dodge company bought the mine and increased development. Dawson went on to have its own newspaper, the Dawson News, a theater, hotel, modern homes, hospital, baseball park, golf course, bowling alley and more. Dawson's high school, basketball and football teams went on to win many awards. Then disaster struck, not once, but twice. On October 22, 1913 at 3:10 P.M., an explosion in the mine killed 263 minors plus two rescuers. Then on February 8, 1923 at 2 P.M., another explosion killed 120 men. Surprisingly though, the town didn't die, but rather went on until the mine was closed down in 1950. When the mine closed, Phelps Dodge sold the whole town, buildings and all, to be carried off to other locations. Today, the cemetery is the main thing to see at Dawson.

In 1906 the Phelps Dodge Corporation bought the Dawson mines and, sparing no expense, determined to make Dawson a model city and the ideal company town. The company built spacious homes for its miners, supplied with water from the company's water system.  They built a four-story brick building which housed the Phelps Dodge Mercantile Department Store which sold virtually anything the townsfolk might need -- food, clothing, shoes, hardware, furniture, drugs, jewelry, baked goods and ice from its own plant. A modern hospital was built which maintained a staff of five doctors and was complete with a laboratory, surgery and x-ray equipment. For their leisure time, the miners enjoyed the use of the company built movie theater, swimming pool, bowling alley, baseball park, pool hall, golf course, lodge hall, and even an opera house. Phelps Dodge also supported two churches, one Catholic and one Protestant. Children attended either the Central Elementary School in downtown Dawson or the Douglas Elementary School on Capitan Hill. A large high school building was built that eventually employed 40 teachers and their athletic teams won many state championships. The company also built a steam-powered electric plant, which powered not only Dawson, but also the nearby towns of Walsenburg, Colorado, and Raton. Providing good-paying jobs for the residents, the extra features of the company town helped keep the employment stable and under the new
Management Dawson's population grew quickly to 3,500.
dawson tragedy -Image Copyright by dawson.vps.it All rights reserved
Image Copyright by dawson.vps.it All rights reserved
The residents were well aware that mining was a dangerous business -- the best of coal mines being squalid, hot, dark holes permeated with black dust. Even if the miners escaped the constant dangers of cave-ins and explosions,their life expectancy was sharply reduced by "black lung" and other affects of the sooty mine air. From time to time a miner would fall into a pit or die in the collapse of a seam, and the company built cemetery slowly began to fill. Dawson became a mecca for miners from all over the world with immigrants arriving from Italy, China, Poland, Germany, Greece, Britain, Finland, Sweden, and Mexico. The miners worked together to dig the coal that fueled an area equal to 1/6 of the United States and Dawson grew into a company town of about 9,000.

Phelps Dodge strove to make the mines as safe as possible. They did such a good job with Stag Canyon Mine No.2 that it attracted the eyes of coal-mining experts who, in 1913, described it as "the highest achievement in modern equipment and safety appliances that exists in the world." The New Mexico Inspector of Mines completed two days of inspection of the Dawson pits on October 20, 1913 and reported that Stag Canyon Mine No.2 was totally "free from traces of gas, and in splendid general condition." Yet, Dawson was doomed to suffer a series of tragedies that shadowed its history to the end. During this period of abundance and prosperity Dawson suffered its worst catastrophe on Wednesday, October 22, 1913,only two days after the mine's inspection. The morning dawned bright and clear and 284 miners reported to work at Stag Canyon Mine No.2. Work went on as usual until a little after three p.m. when the mine was rocked by a huge explosion that sent a tongue of fire 100 feet out of the tunnel mouth shaking the homes in Dawson two miles away.

Relief and disaster crews were rushed from neighboring towns. Phelps Dodge sent a trainload of doctors, nurses and medical supplies up from El Paso, Texas and striking miners in Colorado ceased picketing and offered to form rescue teams. Working around the clock, rows of bodies were brought to the surface. The distraught wives and family members clogged and impeded the operations around the mouth of the mine. Only 23 of the 286 men working in the mine were found alive.  Two of the rescuers were themselves killed by falling boulders in the shaft. Mass funerals were conducted for the victims and row upon row of graves dug, making it necessary to extend the cemetery far up the hill. The cemetery was marked by white iron crosses and the burials continued for weeks. It was the second worst mine disaster of the century. Investigators determined that the explosion had been caused by an overcharged blast in a dusty pillar section of the mine. Dynamite, not a permitted explosive, was being used. The Bureau of Mines allowed certain types of explosives, but blasting was to be conducted only when all miners were evacuated and water sprays were to be used to settle the coal dust. These rules had obviously been ignored. Safety measures were heavily increased after the disastrous explosion and subsequent accidents were comparatively minor with few fatalities. The mining continued and in 1918, the Dawson mines reached their peak production of over four million tons of coal.

But tragedy hit Dawson again on February 8, 1923, at about 2:20 PM, in Stag Canyon Mine No.1. When a mine train jumped its track, it hit the supporting timbers of the tunnel mouth, and ignited coal dust in the mine. There were 123 men in the mine at the time. Many women who lost husbands in the earlier disaster waited anxiously for their sons to appear out of the smoke. Early the next morning two miners who had been in an isolated section of the mine walked out. They were the only survivors. The cemetery was extended once again and more white crosses took their place in the cemetery.

After the clean up, Dawson continued to thrive for almost three decades, with sons following their fathers into the mines. But gradually railroads began to convert to diesel-electric locomotives, while natural gas and heating oil replaced coal as the fuel to heat homes. There was a brief resurgence of mining during World War II, but after that, it was clear coal was a fuel of the past. On April 30, 1950 the mine was shut down. The announcement meant the death of the company town. Phelps Dodge sold the whole town, buildings and all, to a salvage company in Phoenix. The giant coal washer was shipped piece by piece to Kentucky and several houses were moved out and relocated. The company safe ended up in the Phelps Dodge headquarters in Bisbee, Arizona, where it is still displayed at the mining museum. Over the next dozens of years, ranchers operating Phelps Dodge's Diamond D" ranch occupied the few dwellings remaining.

Over 350 white iron crosses in the Dawson Cemetery mark the graves of those who perished in the mining disasters. The cemetery, a deeply moving site, is now the only part of Dawson still open to the visitor. These silent sentinels, some with individual names and some unmarked, are poignant reminders of the tragic deaths of the victims, and, more importantly, their lives.
For a while, Dawson had been truly forgotten by New Mexico until two brothers went on a metal detecting expedition in 1991. Dale and Lloyd Christian were shocked when they saw the uncared for and abandoned cemetery. When Dale Christian returned home to Albuquerque he petitioned the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Division to place the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.
The New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs was unaware that the cemetery even existed and asked Christian to provide measurements of the site. Not only did he provide the measurements, but he also provided pictures and an accounting of the number of graves and pictures. The Office of Cultural Affairs was amazed and although very few cemeteries are placed on the National Register, the Dawson Cemetery was added on April 9,1992.


Dawson Tragedy

Ministero degli Affari Esteri - Roma / Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Rome
Università degli Studi di Firenze - University of Florence
Facoltà di Scienze Politiche - Facoltà di Scienze della Formazione / Dept. of Political Science - Dept. of Education

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