Colorado’s northern coal field fueled local economy for 120 years

Article originally published in The Broomfield Enterprise (8/16/2009).

Looking out across the rolling plains of the front range region, you’d never guess what lies beneath: hundreds of now-empty caverns and passageways that once held millions of tons of coal.

What’s known as the “Northern Coal Field” comprises nearly 200 now-abandoned coal mines located between Marshall and Firestone. Between 1856 and 1975, these mines produced over 100 million tons of coal and played a critical role in the area’s economy.

According to Carolyn Conarroe’s lively and informative book, “Coal Mining in Colorado’s Northern Field,” the earliest settlers found chunks of coal along a creek they eventually named Coal Creek. Soon, farmers plowing their fields noticed chunks of the black stuff coming up in the dirt. But the lion’s share of the coal lay in coalbeds deep beneath the surface – in seven distinct layers. The bottom two layers were too deep to mine, and the top layer was not compressed enough, but the remaining coalbeds, some as thick as 14 feet, were mined extensively.

One of the earliest was the Briggs Mine, which opened in 1866 near a stage stop –possibly on the Cherokee Trail. The Acme Mine in Louisville operated from 1890 until 1928, producing 1.7 million tons of coal. The Welch Mine was opened in 1877 by Louis Nawatny, founder of Louisville. C.L. Baum, president of the Baum Mine, founded the town of Dacono, which he named after his wife, Daisy, and her two pals, Cora and Nora.

Opening up a coal mine was not easy. The operators first dug a shaft that might be one-, two-, or three-hundred feet deep. They then fortified the walls and built a motorized lift for removing the coal. Down below, they built a series of “haulageways” where coal carts ran back and forth on tracks. Alongside those, they created air passageways for ventilation. They used explosives to open up great “rooms” from which they dug chunks of coal. The coal was then hauled from the rooms to the haulageways using mule-pulled carts. The mules often spent their entire lives down in the mine.

Miners worked in pairs, hacking out chunks of coal the size of Thanksgiving turkeys. Sometimes they worked standing up; other times they labored in a prone position. Operators eventually developed air-powered “punching machines” that punched giant chunks of coal out of the walls. You can see one of these on display in downtown Louisville.

One clever miner at the Baum Mine invented a “cutting machine” in the 1940s, which they dubbed the “Continuous Miner.” This machine hacked the coal out of the wall, put it on a conveyer belt, and dropped it into the coal carts in the haulageway. Manufactured by a Denver company, the Continuous Miner brought eager mining engineers from all over the world to see how it worked.

After a tumultuous history lasting nearly 120 years, the Northern Field was played out and the last coal mine, Erie’s Eagle Mine, ceased operation in 1975.

The copyright of the article “Colorado’s northern coal field fueled local economy for 120 years” is owned by Carol Turner. Permission to republish this article in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Article may be quoted if properly cited.

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4 thoughts on “Colorado’s northern coal field fueled local economy for 120 years

  1. My Grandfather and Father both worked at the Eagle coal mine. Edward Dirkes Sr and Edward Dirkes Jr. It was a rough life they had and I am sure they were under paid for the work they did.

    • Todd — Life in the coal mine was exceedingly difficult. They also had to pay for a lot of their own supplies. It wasn’t an easy life, by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of the men suffered from health issues as well.

  2. ………… grandfather worked at the Baum mine in Dacono. I found a large picture of a work crew taken in front of the mine in 1922. It was in some of his posessions and I had it framed and it hangs in my house. Would be interested in more info about the crew and mine if anyone is familiar with this mine in that time frame.

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