Ghost towns litter the back roads in New Mexico. Miners settled most of these abandoned communities, extracting a variety of precious minerals and ores from the mountains and canyons throughout New Mexico, including gold, silver, copper, turquoise, coal, and uranium. In many cases, the towns faded as the mines ran dry or the commodities markets crashed. Vibrant communities faded into the landscape, with little more than crumbling foundations remaining, like Elizabethtown. In other cases, the ghost towns were reoccupied and refurbished, becoming artist havens, like Madrid, or interesting day trips, like Chloride.
Mining is a dangerous occupation. None of New Mexico’s former mining meccas illustrates this more poignantly than Dawson. At this point, there is no one left in Dawson, other than ghosts. The Phelps Dodge corporation evicted the living decades ago when they sold the entire town and the mines in 1950.
Located in Colfax county, Dawson was the site of two major mining accidents in the early 1900s. Though there are vestiges of the region’s mining past littered across the landscape, the most notable landmark remaining in Dawson is the graveyard, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Long rows of white, iron crosses mark the graves of miners who met a grisly end extracting coal from the earth’s crust.
Located in Colfax county, New Mexico, Dawson is about 17 miles northeast of Cimarron. The area was settled in 1867 by John B. Dawson (1830-1918), a rancher who purchased the land from Lucien B. Maxwell for $3,700. The ranch was strewn with thick layers of coal on the surface, with more deposits extending deep underground. In 1901, Dawson sold the coal-rich ranch to the Dawson Fuel Company for $400,000, a fortune at the time. The Dawson Fuel Company established a town to facilitate coal mining in the area, building a 137-mile stretch of railroad track to connect the isolated mining camp to Tucumcari.
The mines were exceptionally productive and profitable. Within 4 years, there were almost 2,000 people living in Dawson. Phelps Dodge Corporation bought the mines and the Dawson Railway in 1906, adding the tracks to the company’s El Paso and Southwestern Railroad system, the EP & SW. Later, the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased both the tracks and the long-term contracts for Dawson’s coal production. Though the Southern Pacific line used steam locomotives, mostly fueled by oil, the operating division in Tucumcari utilized coal fueled steam engines. It was the only fleet of coal fueled locomotives on Southern Pacific’s roster.
The population of Dawson soared to 9,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in New Mexico, much larger than neighboring Cimarron or Raton.
To attract workers to the remote mining camp, Phelps Dodge built homes for the miners. They invested in appealing, family friendly amenities, like a hospital, department store, movie theater, swimming pool, bowling alley, golf course, and good schools. It was a wise investment. They maintained a consistent, stable workforce despite the remote location and inherent dangers associated with mining. The town became a diverse community of Mexican, Italian and Greek immigrants, as well as migrants from all over the U.S. who came to work in the mines.
In total, there were ten mines in the immediate vicinity of Dawson, numbered and named 1-10. An electric-powered, narrow-gauge railroad connected several of the mines to Dawson. 6,600 feet of track ran through Rail Canyon, connecting mines 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 to the processing and loading facilities in town. Mines 5 and 7 relied on the same line. They ferried cars filled with coal through underground tunnels into neighboring mines. Mines 8, 9 and 10 were located southwest of Dawson. They relied on a separate electric-powered railroad system and the tracks led to a separate coal tipple, which cleaned and sorted the coal.
There were also coking ovens on site, which transformed coal into coke. Phelps Dodge used coke for metal processing at other facilities. Additionally, the coking ovens produced carbon monoxide gas. They captured the gas to create steam. The process generated the electricity needed to operate mine machinery, producing enough power to support both the mines and the communities around the mines.
Ultimately, Dawson’s tale was marred by multiple tragedies. Two major mining disasters devastated the community, one in 1913 and another in 1923.
The first catastrophe occurred in Mine No. 2. On October 22, 1913. There was a massive explosion in the mine, shooting flames 100-feet into the air. People felt the blast two miles away. Though relief teams rushed to the scene, with volunteers coming in from Kansas and Wyoming, most of the 286 miners who entered the mine that morning died. Additionally, two first responders died during the rescue effort. In total, there were 23 survivors. 14 miners from an unaffected section emerged safely and a rescue crew extracted nine miners found unconscious near the bottom of the airshaft. One of them, George Mavroidis, witnessed 16 men die before he blacked out. A subsequent investigation determined that a dynamite charge ignited coal dust.
Of the 263 fatalities, 37 were Americans, 129 were from Italy, 52 were from Greece, and 30 were from Mexico. 17 of the Italians were from the same family; immigrants from Fiumalbo, a small town in northern Italy. Angelo Santi was the youngest of the family to die. He was 16 and had been in the U.S. for just over a month.
Despite the tragic loss of life, coal mining in Dawson continued. The remaining mines were productive and new miners moved to the community. Then, on February 8, 1923, there was was an explosion in Mine No. 1. A mine car derailed, knocking down timbers. The electric trolley cable spewed sparks, once again igniting coal dust. In total, 123 miners died that day, many of them descended from the men who died in 1913.
Transition to Ghost Town
Though several of the mines closed due to declining demand and diminished production, coal mining continued in Dawson for another 27 years. However, when the 25-year contract with the Southern Pacific Railroad lapsed in 1950, Phelps Dodge decided to shut down the remaining mines and sell everything, including mining equipment and the entire town of Dawson. The only exception to the full-town fire sale was the Catholic Church. Phelps Dodge turned the church over to the diocese before selling the town to the National Iron and Metal Company of Phoenix, Arizona.
Phelps Dodge gave long-time residents 30 days to vacate, then sold, salvaged, and razed the community. They leveled the department store, opera house, hospital, and other structures. They sold some of the houses, which were relocated to other communities and removed the Southern Pacific rails to Tucumcari, though the Santa Fe Railroad later rebuilt the track to facilitate mining in York Canyon.
Dolores Huerta | Notable Local
Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez in the late 1960s, was born in Dawson on April 10, 1930. Her father, Juan Fernández, served as a labor organizer and a state lawmaker in 1938. Her grandfather and uncle died in the Dawson mines. She was 3 when her parents divorced. Her mother started a new life with Dolores and her two brothers in Stockton, California. Her father stayed in New Mexico, largely absent from his children’s lives.
Alicia Chávez built her own business, opening a successful restaurant and a 70-room hotel. She was known for her kindness and generosity, welcoming low-wage workers and farm worker’s families at affordable prices, occasionally providing free housing. Dolores was inspired by her mother to advocate for farm workers, becoming a lifelong champion for the working class and disenfranchised.
Take NM-64 north from Cimarron. The turnoff to Dawson is A38 , about 12 miles east of Cimarron. It is a dirt road. About 5 miles in, A38 crosses the railroad tracks a second time. Look for a dirt road on the right or the historical marker about the cemetery. Visit the cemetery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or look for what little remains of Dawson by continuing north on A38. A38 turns into Barus Road, then splits into Lauretta Road and Rail Canyon Road.