The coal mines of Montezuma Valley, from Mesa Verde to Mitchell Springs

Thursday, July 5, 2018 4:30 PM
Sue, Ann and Johnny Wilson photo taken in 1952. The children were given buckets of water to wash the truck of Glenn Wilson. Wilson mined a tunnel that runs parallel to U.S. Highway 160 and stops at current-day Montezuma County Fairgrounds.
A 1939 photo of the road to the mines on the mesa. In the 1930s, the mine was worked by Andy Wilhite, and Verl and Jack Hamilton. The mine produced coal for many years but was closed in the 1940s.
Glenn Wilson’s carbide lamp, which could be attached to a hat.
A carbide lamp attached to a baseball cap.

Growing up in Cortez, we always had heat in the house. There was the cook stove – the Warm Morning – maybe the pot belly stove for heat, but I never asked where the coal came from. When a load of coal was delivered, they opened that side window to the basement, and the coal went there. Where were the mines?

Coal Mine on the Mesa at Mesa Verde Jack Hamilton interview

Traveling south of Cortez and to the Trading Post owned by Frank Pyle, with Freed Kelly behind the counter, was the location of this mine.

In the 1930s, the mine was worked by Andy Wilhite, and Verl and Jack Hamilton. The mine produced coal for many years but was closed by my father, Verl Hamilton, in the 1940s. The mine was on the mesa, and the Hamilton family lived in a small house near the mine.

A tram car moved the coal down to the bottom. The tram car was run by a 1- to 1½-inch cable that went to the bottom, where the coal was placed in the truck. The coal was then delivered by the Hamiltons.

There was no road up to the mine, and the tram was used for transportation. In the tunnel, the equipment used was a powered cyclosaw-type piece of equipment as Verl would not use dynamite. One end was anchored to the wall, and the other part (dead-man end) would swing into the seam of coal and bring coal down to the bottom. When the mine was closed, I cut up the cable that was used with a hack saw into 16-foot pieces that ultimately went into building the Cortez Diesel Sales on Broadway.

The Hopper Coal Mines at Mitchell Springs Cortez history

In 1892, J. B. Brown opened the mines. In the following years, owners were Cortez Coal in 1925; Cortez Light Power in 1927; Highland Utilities in 1928; Cortez Coal in 1929; A. F. Hopper in 1932; Cortez Coal in 1934; and A. F. Hopper in 1935.

The mines were in operation from 1892 to 1938. It was estimated that 16,789 tons of coal were removed from the north cliff face of McElmo Canyon. It was rumored that the shafts would go completely under the town of Cortez.

Billy Hopper and other friends reportedly were in the coal mines and would come out one of the entrances near the Hopper house on Seventh Street. Mrs. Hopper had forbade the boys from entering the mines because of the danger. However, many times the boys forgot to get rid of the coal dust before they came out of the mine. The Cortez Fire Department answered several calls to the mines to look for “someone lost.” Fireman Hurschel Coppinger knew his way in the mines as he had been a friend of Billy Hopper’s. This was a favorite place for the kids living in the area to play. In 1978, the shafts were closed by property owner Fred Blackmer.

Wilson Coal Mine, east of Cortez Ann Wilson-Brown

The coal mine east of Cortez was referred to by locals as the Glenn Wilson coal mine and was originally dug as a shaft that went straight down to reach the seam of coal. The shaft was 5 feet across.

Wilson rigged up a pulley system that could lower him and his pick and shovel in a large ore bucket. Once he filled the bucket, he could pull himself and the bucket of coal back up. He decided he could access the seam of coal from the side of the hill rather than the pulley system and could mine more coal with the horizontal tunnel.

The coal seam was approximately 10 feet deep. Wilson traded coal for 2-by-12s to make himself coal cars, and as he dug into the side of the hill, he laid track to run the cars on. He cut cedar posts to shore up the ceiling of the tunnel.

Each car was 6 feet long, 3 feet wide at the top and 2 feet wide at the bottom. Cars were 30 inches high. Each car held 500 to 600 pounds, so were heavy to push back out of the mine. He purchased a little donkey that we named Jack. Jack caught on quickly that he could pull the car out of the mine, and as soon as his ears touched the supporting beam at the front of the tunnel, he would step aside, and the coal could be tipped into the chute.

The chute was 8 feet wide at the top and narrowed to 4 feet before the end, with side rails about 24 inches high and 50 feet long. A grate was embedded in the chute, so the smaller lumps of nut-size coal would go down another chute. In the second chute was another grate that allowed the “nut” coal to go on down and the slack coal fell in to the remaining chute.

Lump coal was in demand by most customers. It sold for $8 a ton, nut coal sold for $5 a ton, and slack coal was $1 per ton. Pickups or trucks could back up to whichever chute contained the coal of choice and open the gate.

The coal mine closed after 30-plus years and the tunnel portals were blasted shut. The tunnels are at least a mile long into the hill, and the seam runs parallel to U.S. Highway 160. Consequently, the tunnel stopped at the current Montezuma County Fairgrounds.

The coal tested to be exceptionally hot, with a high BTU and was considered soft coal. When Empire Electric extended the lines east of Cortez, Wilson installed electric lights down the tunnel and put in a fan for ventilation. He and the miners had used carbide lamps that clipped to the front of their hats before. The lamps were 4 inches high, in two parts. Carbide was put in the bottom, and water in the top. The vapor from the water dripping on the carbide could be ignited. A small disk on the front helped reflect the light.

Wilson’s first coal truck was a 1936 Ford that he traded his 1929 Roadster for. It was a flatbed, and he added side rails and built up a bed that could haul 2 tons of coal. When he delivered coal, he had to shovel it off the truck, sometimes into a side window in someone’s basement.

In 1952, he bought a 1948 F5 bright-red Ford truck. He cut the frame of the truck to lengthen it and then built a big box on the dump bed. Now he could haul 5 tons of coal. Wilson Coal became Montezuma Mines, and the new truck had a sign on the door with Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the phone number 42-J2. He bid for contracts and sold coal to the Ute Agency in Towaoc and many businesses in Cortez, including the Bozman Garage and Owl Café.

This was our only means of transportation. If we went to a football or basketball game, we had to use the truck. We had a system: Dad would drive, Mom would slide in the middle, the youngest child (John) would stand between Dad and Mom. The next-youngest (Sue) sat on Mom’s lap or sometimes stood between Mom and Kelly, then the oldest son (Kelly) would slide in the passenger side and next-oldest (Ann) would sit on his lap.

We exited the truck in the same order.

The truck was used for 4-H Club camping trips to haul all the tents and bedrolls of the club. We would have a group of 50 to 60 people all spend a weekend in the mountains, usually right after the first cutting of hay. The truck was even our transportation to the Arroyo Drive-in Theater. Dad would take the back row so as not to block others, and then we would exit the cab and watch from the bed of the truck.

Photos courtesy of the Verl Hamilton and Glenn Wilson families. Historian June Head, of the Montezuma County Historical Society, may be contacted at 970-565-3880.