When the announcement was made in May, 1961 that Colorado Fuel and Iron Corp. (CF&I) was completely abandoning the Frederick coal mine it wasn’t unexpected since operations there had been suspended six months earlier, but the finality of it was a blow to the 400 miners who’d hoped that the mine might reopen.
There had been rumors circulating for almost two years that the company was going to abandon the mine but most oldtimers said it would never happen. In operation since 1907, the mine had been a steady producer through five decades, having some of the widest and deepest veins in the mineralrich mountains near Valdez, CO about 14 miles west of Trinidad.
The company’s other big operation, the Allen mine, was located further west of Valdez and was a newer coal mine that employed approximately the same number of men as the Frederick. Production levels were good there as well.
The current production levels had not been the only consideration in deciding which mine to close down. While CF&I officials recognized that the 6’ wide coal seams for which the Frederick mine had always been known were no longer available and thus the years of peak production were past, there were other concerns, too. Safety was one, timber supports in the vast network of underground mine shafts being old and thought to be unstable. Also, production costs were higher at the Frederick than at the Allen mine.
In the announcement on May 8, 1961, CF&I the spokesmen said, “The decision was a difficult one for the company to make but current conditions left no viable alternative. “Many of the Frederick mine employees, veterans in the coal mining industry, are now eligible for pension, retirements of one kind or another. We are hopeful also that other of the Frederick workers will be shifted to the Allen.”
With the Allen mine only having been open for 10 years, officials believed the abandonment of the much older Frederick operation made sense. “This will stabilize and secure our operational program in Las Animas County. It was a tough choice, but it will firm up the Allen mine’s production and assure the Trinidad area of a sound operation.”
It signaled the end on an era, a time when old methods of mining coal from the earth had gradually given way to modernization. During the lifetime of the Frederick mine there had also been major changes in labor operations – years of unrest and struggle as miners sought better wages and working conditions, and eventually succeeded in unionization.
Through it all the mine at Valdez had proved to be not only one of the company’s best producers (with a total output of more than 20 million tons) but its longest operating property as well.
The coal mine opened in 1907. From the beginning there were high hopes for production because engineering studies of the area had shown great promise. The predictions weren’t wrong. The mine shafts would eventually spread to cover eight square mines, with the deepest point extending more than five miles from the main portal.
Records from the first decades at the mine indicate that coal seams from 5-6 feet in thickness were being mined by the 1920s. Daily production averaged between 1500-2000 tons, and there were 500 workers on the payroll.
Miners were paid on a tonnage basis. They worked inside the mine in the various active shafts to extract the coal.
It had been blasted loose with Cardox, a product and system developed in 1914 that utilized liquid carbon dioxide, heat, and a tightly controlled explosion. Metal shell containers were charged with liquid carbon dioxide at 900 pounds per square inch pressure. An electric heating element triggered release of the liquid, which was
instantly turned into a large volume of gas. That, in turn, acted like an explosion and shattered the coal, but without danger of igniting the coal dust. At the Frederick mine, up to 240 shells of Cardox were used per day.
A huge exhaust fan was used to pull coal dust from the mine. Other measures used to prevent the build-up of dust included rock dusting with a fine limestone spray that greatly reduced the possibility of coal dust explosions.
Once the coal had been blasted and loosened, miners moved into the area to work, separating and picking chunks and pieces and loading the coal onto 2-ton capacity cars on a rail track. The cars were pulled by mules to the main track, where a 30-car train was assembled and pulled by a trampowered pulley to the surface.
During the 1930s CF&I began to invest large amounts of money in upgrades to their mining properties in southern Colorado.
At the Frederick there had been a gradual elimination of mules and by 1940 they were gone completely.
Instead there was a system in place utilizing wheeled steel pit cars that each held a 3-ton load, with couplings designed with the latest safety features.
Another upgrade was the laying of more rail tracks, providing double tracking along much of the main haulage road in the mine so that outcoming loaded trips and ingoing trips would not overlap.
The late 1930s were the peak years for the Frederick mine, although those working there likely did not realize it. Certainly there would continue to be a need for coal during the 1940s, especially during the war years, but CF&I had a hard time meeting the increased production demands because so much of the local work force was enlisted in the military, so the mine operated on a greatly- reduced schedule.
After World War II, there were gradual changes in the world and a slow but steady decline of the once dominant
coal mining industry in Las Animas County. While many people still refused to believe the day would come that the Frederick Mine would be closed, it did – on December 13, 1960.