History Lost: Louisville’s historic Hecla Casino razed by Balfour Senior Living

The Hecla Casino pictured about 1911 at the Hecla Mine, located at what is now the northeast side of Louisville, Colorado. Courtesy Lafayette Public Library.

In the last few months, Balfour Senior Living of Louisville, Colorado, demolished and hauled the historic Hecla Casino to the landfill.

At the April 18, 2016, Louisville Historic Preservation Commission public hearing for the demolition permit for the building formerly located at 1800 Plaza Drive, Balfour Senior Living representative Hunter McLeod stated that the Hecla Casino “was not found to be an historic structure.”

The meeting’s minutes disappointingly don’t reflect anyone asking the question “On what planet is that statement true?”

• An important physical reminder of the vibrant history of Louisville, Colorado

A pitched, 12-hour gun battle between labor factions occurred on April 26 and 27, 1914, at the Hecla coal mine, formerly located at the northeast corner of S. Boulder Road and Courtesy Road. This was not a Main Street shootout like you see in a Hollywood Western. This was a knockout, dragout gun battle similar to what real soldiers experience in real wars — with its associated noise, chaos and death. Over 25,000 rounds of gunfire were exchanged.

The striking miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America who walked off their coal mining jobs in April 1910, used a ditch north of the mine and leading to Hecla Lake as cover from the mine’s machine gun. Yes, a real machine gun which was situated at the top of the mine’s 80-foot-tall tipple. Union strikers entrenched in the ditch, and at locations south and west of the mine, unleashed a hail of bullets. The mine’s guards and some of the strikebreakers housed at the mine returned fire. One strikebreaker was killed and multiple gunshot injuries were sustained by the mine’s residents and by the attacking UMWA members.

Prior to the April 27 incident, random machine gun fire from the mine’s tipple was directed into Louisville, and striking miners returned the “favor” by trying to shoot out the mine’s spotlights. In Lafayette, the union local even had a designated “spotlight shooter outer.”

Dubbed the “Colorado Coalfield Wars,” there were other violent face offs between striking UMWA union members and the militias and guards hired to protect the strikebreakers, including at the Simpson and Vulcan Mines in Lafayette. And Ludlow of course.

The Louisville Historical Museum’s April 2016 summary of the casino’s compelling and significant contribution to labor history in Colorado provides excellent context. Louisville was at the forefront of sweeping changes in the treatment and acceptance of organized labor. The city formerly had within its borders a standing, century-old physical symbol of and tribute to the historic struggle for fair wages and safe working conditions.

What could be a greater source of civic pride?

With the Dec. 2017 demolition of the Hecla Casino, other overwhelming historical elements were lost:

• One of the last certifiable Hecla Mine structures, and one of the few moved mine structures whose provenance could be definitively tracked to a Louisville coal mine

After researching in 2017 the disposition of mine structures owned by the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, retained in the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company (RM Fuel) records at the Denver Public Library, I’ve tracked structures sold in the 1920s through 1940s from the Hecla, Industrial, Monarch and Vulcan mines. State and corporate records show that Northern Coal and Coke Co. owned the Hecla in 1910, the year the casino was built. At the time, Northern Coal owned the Lehigh, Mitchell, Simpson, Vulcan, Rex No. 1 and No. 2, Hecla, Acme, Industrial and Gorham mines. RM Fuel owned a majority of the coal mines in Boulder County after acquiring Northern Coal and Coke Co. in 1911.

There are photographs showing Type E miner’s cottages being moved to Louisville from the Hecla Mine, and two Type E residential structures — one on Main Street and one on Lincoln Street — survive today. RM Fuel records show that several houses from the Vulcan Mine in Lafayette were sold to Louisville property owners, as were houses from the Industrial Mine in Superior (moved by Oliver Clynke).

Non-residential structures sold and moved from the coal camps included garages, outbuildings and powder houses. We don’t know if those exist today. At least five Northern Coal and Coke Co. coal camps in operation in 1910 had a casino and all of the casinos except the Hecla Casino were torn down prior to 1943 when RM Fuel declared bankruptcy. The tipples are gone, the bath houses are gone, the boiler houses are gone, the blacksmith shops are gone and the barns are gone. Now, too, the casinos.

In Lafayette, the main office buildings of the Simpson Mine and the Capitol Mine were moved to town and survive today. Other than that, the Hecla Casino was one of only a handful of remaining non-residential coal mine structures in all of Northern Colorado and, perhaps, all of Colorado.

A building belonging to Balfour Senior Living under construction in early 2018 at the site of the former Hecla Casino. The foreground is near the position at Hecla Lake where union coal miners sought cover from machine gun fire coming from the Hecla Mine compound.
Former location of the Hecla Casino, located on Hecla Drive northeast of King Soopers, from 2016 Google satellite image.

• One of the last physical reminders of Louisville’s ethnic diversification

At the onset of the 1910-1914 strike, called the “Long Strike,” the 1910 U.S. Federal Census showed 1,200 Louisville residents, about 50 percent of them being of Italian descent. Familiar Italian family names included the Fabrizios, Portas, Dionigis, Damianas, LaSalles, Jacoes and Jacovettas. The balance of Louisville’s residents indentified as Midwesterners with either North American or English roots. Bulgarian or Hungarian-Slovakian families included the Juricks and Harneys.

As early as 1909 and in anticipation of a labor strike, Northern Coal and Coke Co. began recruiting Eastern European immigrants to work in Boulder County mines. Brought in as “scabs,” the immigrants’ transportation was paid up front by the company, so imported workers had no choice but to dig coal in a hostile locale once they arrived.

In 1989, longtime Marshall resident Joann Sampson explained to historian Ann Dyni in an oral history interview the reason the coal companies recruited miners according to ethnicity.

“There were different ethnic parts of town, not only in Marshall but also in Louisville and Lafayette. It was deliberate on the part of the coal companies to set things up this way. When one group went out on strike, say the English, then they would bring in scab labor from a different group, say the Italian or Greeks, so their was a language barrier and the miners couldn’t get together and talk about how bad the conditions were,” said Sampson.

By the 1920 U.S. Federal Census, the coal companies’ importation and integration of non-Italian immigrants is reflected in Louisville’s population. Of the town’s 1,800 residents, a diverse collection of families emerges. In addition to longtime native Italian residents, we see French immigrants — Dewey and Warembourg; Spanish — Garcia and Policargio; Austrian — Boudak and Mudrock; Slovakian — Zurick and Motechka; Polish — Deborski; Lithuanian — Matulianik and Russian — Barday. During this period, a substantial number of immigrant coal miners also arrived to Louisville from Ireland, Wales and England.

A similar explosion in ethnic diversity between the years 1910 and 1920 occurred in Lafayette as well.

The aforementioned April 27, 1914 gun battle is detailed in Boulder County Sheriff S.T. Buster’s 1914 deposition. Sheriff Buster chronicled the 1914 Hecla compound gun battle as not only enemies divided by labor differences, but also divided by ethnic lines. The gunmen outside the compound were “union men,” of largely Italian descent and led by Italian immigrant Joe Potestio. The workers inside the compound, and their families huddled in the coal camp cottages and basement of the boarding house, were largely of Eastern European descent. The one fatality in the battle was Pete Stanoff, a Bulgarian that Sheriff Buster found mortally wounded inside the “Bulgarian quarters.” Several others inside the Hecla Mine boarding house, known then as the Hecla Heights Hotel, were injured, and a woman residing in a miner’s cottage was grazed by a bullet.

Gunshot injuries sustained by UMWA members outside of the Hecla compound included Italian immigrants Baptist Buffo and Tommy Rovino.

After the battle, Sheriff Buster found a machine gun and 19 rifles and shotguns scattered throughout the Hecla compound. The mine would have had only about 6 to 10 hired guards, so we can safely assume that some of strikebreakers used the weapons to defend their families.

Potestio and UMWA Louisville local president John O’Connor were later indicted by a grand jury and charged with murder in the first degree related to the death of Stanoff. Also indicted for accessory to murder were Region 15 UMWA leaders John Lawson and Ed Doyle, who were accused of complicity by allegedly encouraging the attack on the Hecla compound.

• Important in Lafayette history, too

Laid out in 1910 by Northern Coal and Coke Co. as “Townsite of Hecla Heights,” the fortressed enclosure around the mine indicated a clear intent by the mine’s operators to incorporate their hillside enclave as a separate community from Louisville. Residential structures were built in a typical city grid, with rights-of-way and typical 50-foot-wide lots. In Lafayette, Northern Coal took the same approach to partitioning the Simpson Mine from the Old Town area. The “Town of Simpson” was also enclosed with a barbed wire fence, and over 60 miner’s cottages were constructed in less than 9 months. In addition to a machine gun on the tipple, the Simpson compound got its own casino as well.

According to the 1890-1891 Colorado Coal Mine Inspector’s report, the Hecla Mine was a “new mine” in 1890 and was labeled “Heclar.” Boulder County Clerk and Recorder records show that Citizens Coal and Coke Co. leased the coal rights for the Hecla Mine starting in 1892. By 1895 there were two Hecla mines with two 150-foot-deep coal shafts about 200-feet apart, operating as Hecla #1 and Hecla #2. Citizens Coal operated Hecla #1 and Rex Coal Co. operated Hecla #2. In 1899, the remaining combined mine, the Hecla, was sold to Northern Coal and Coke Co.

Workings of the Hecla mine showing Hecla #1 and Hecla #2 coal shafts and associated air shafts. Courtesy Western History Collection, Denver Public Library.

In general, Louisville coal was higher quality than Lafayette coal. The tradeoff was that most Louisville coal seams were 5- to 6-feet thick while most Lafayette coal seams were 12- to 14-feet thick. Because the miners had to bend over to remove coal at the Hecla, they were paid more than miners working the Lafayette mines. As a result, hundreds of Lafayette residents opted for higher wages and worked at (and walked every day to) the Hecla prior to the equalization of wages in about 1900. Thomas Miller, Lafayette’s first mayor and son of town founder Mary E. Miller, worked as a stationary engineer at the Hecla and later owned and managed his own mine, the Strathmore Mine in Lafayette. Thomas Miller was killed at the Strathmore Mine in 1902.

Mary E. Miller’s grandson, Frank Miller, recalled in 1986 the strike searchlights at the Hecla Mine “escorting” him at night.

“During the 1910 strike, when I was in high school, of course I had a horse and buggy, and I got to go a lot of places… but here especially they had big search lights on all the mine tipples. There was one on the Simpson Mine down here at the head of the street, there was one on the Vulcan Mine over here, there was one on the Standard Mine down east of town, there was one on the Hecla Mine over by Louisville. They must have been mighty powerful, because when I used to walk across the field from here (the west side of Lafayette) over to the ranch where we lived (in south Lafayette), they would shine these lights on me and I would walk practically in daylight all the way across; they would escort me there,” said Miller.

“But when you were out with your girl in the horse and buggy… they put these big search lights on you and you knew they had a big telescope looking at you… because they would shine right into your buggy and bring you home. That was the life that we lived for about four or five years here. We were under military protection, we had these search lights at the various mine camps, and it was just an uncomfortable way to feel. I can feel how these people in the race riots feel — they know that they’re being observed. We didn’t break any laws — and not many people in this part of the country broke many laws at the time — but they kept us so close that there wasn’t anything much that we could do.”

• Still, architecturally speaking, a fairly interesting and unique structure and probably Louisville’s first and oldest Craftsman-style structure

The industrial nature of coal extraction meant that most of the utilitarian coal mine structures were plain, shed-like and sided with simple planks or board and batten. Draftsmen employed by the coal company primarily drafted complex machines and machine parts, and simple floor plans and elevation drawings for boiler houses, barns and wash rooms. Their workload offered tedium and very little room for creativity. Occasionally, a draftsman was charged with creating residential plans for a mine superintendent or engineer.

From 1903 to 1910, Northern Coal and Coke Co. mining engineer and draftsman D.A. Wheatley created plans for several managers’ residences at the Simpson Mine in Lafayette. His designs reflected Victorian elements, with hipped roofs and gabled front porches with scalloped shingle siding. Ornamentation such as stain glass windows and turned porch posts were specified, but because of the expense, those elements were often ignored by the notoriously frugal coal operators.

Due to the partitioning of the coal camps into standalone communities in 1910, Chief Mining and Construction Engineer Robert Ansel Pierce (1880-1948) was tasked with producing a dozen Northern Coal and Coke Co. company home and boarding house designs in a few short months. Pierce is credited with designing the coal company’s house Types E,F,H,J,K and N. The town of Serene, built in the 1920s and surrounding the Columbine Mine near Erie, was composed of primarily Type H houses, as was Simpson Mine coal camp housing. Most of the relocated coal camp homes that remain today in Louisville, Lafayette Erie and Superior are Type E and Type H.

Pierce’s design tastes favored the Craftsman-style structure with deep eaves with exposed rafters, dormers and large covered front porches. An extension of the Arts and Crafts movement and pioneered by California architects Greene and Greene, the Craftsman ethos centered on a grounding in nature and natural forms. Built between 1905 and 1930, Craftsman houses often exhibit ornamentation and attention paid to the foundational elements — prominent porches with square and tapered porch posts extending to ground level. Roof elements included decorative triangular knee braces under gable eaves and earthy stucco patterns embedded in gable fronts.

Blueprint drawings of the south elevation of the Hecla Casino show Craftsman-style architectural features, including what were specified as 30-over-one double hung windows. The building was designed Oct. 10, 1910 by Robert A. Pierce. Courtesy Western History Collection, Denver Public Library.

The Craftsman-style Hecla Casino, particularly its triangular knee braces, would have been the visual highlight of Hecla Heights and — at the time — much different than architectural styles in Louisville proper. The nearby, three-story Hecla Heights Hotel was a larger building, but was a box-like structure with multiple hipped roofs and little ornamentation. The single-family Type E houses at Hecla Heights were unadorned, peaked hipped roof structures as well.

After about 1911, Fort Collins native and Colorado Agricultural College (CSU) graduate Robert A. Pierce went on to practice privately as an architect, and designed and built the historic Pierce-Haley House, a National Register of Historic Places structure at 857 Grant Street in Denver. Pierce also designed and supervised the construction in 1916 of the Vulcan Iron Works building. Vulcan was established in Denver in 1894 and manufactured ore mining carts from its location at 1430 W. Colfax. The building no longer stands. In 1917, Pierce was mentioned in the Fort Collins Weekly Courier as “architect and superintendent of the new opera house block.” Pierce supervised the renovation of the Fort Collins Opera House, which stands today. Pierce later returned to his mining engineer roots and worked at several coal mines in southern Colorado and southern New Mexico.

A Craftsman-style Type N coal miner’s cottage designed in 1910 by Robert A. Pierce, who went on to be an important Denver architect. Courtesy Western History Collection, Denver Public Library.
A Type E coal miner’s cottage designed in 1910 by Robert A. Pierce. There are two Hecla Type E houses in Louisville. Courtesy Western History Collection, Denver Public Library.

In Louisville’s early history, the Hecla Casino symbolized a seismic shift in integrating women and children into the industrial coal camp environment. Prior to 1910, the typical workday at the mine was comprised of union men arriving from the nearby town and going about their work, above and below ground. When the end-of-shift whistle blared, the miners headed back to town.

In anticipation of a lengthy labor strike, Northern Coal and Coke Co. started in 1910 to partition its mines from the nearby communities. Concentration camp-like gates and 6-foot barbed wire fences enclosed the company’s Hecla, Gorham, Simpson, Vulcan, Mitchell and Industrial Mines. With that, the coal company had to figure out how to host the families of strikebreakers, including women and children, inside the fortressed compounds. Houses and playgrounds were constructed, and casinos were built as entertainment venues for strikebreaking coal miners to keep them from co-mingling with Louisville residents.

Northern Coal and Coke Co. blueprints of the Hecla Casino show a 13 x 20-foot “Ladies Room” with a separate exterior entrance adjacent to, but out of view of the main entry. Former Hecla Casino owner Cliff Foster told the Louisville Times in 1991 that the upstairs area of the house was painted solid red. He believed the casino was probably used as a bordello. The presence of a Ladies Room so close to the main stairway and with its own exterior entry/exit reinforces Cliff’s notion.

(The concept of a Ladies Room or Rest Room designed as a sitting room for women reached its peak in 1915 retail stores, train stations, banks, theaters and libraries. Given the perception as the weaker sex, Victorian-era women were thought to need special accommodations when they went into public spaces. Turn-of-the-century public building architects (men) wanted to ensure that women had ample places to rest in a domestic-like environment. The Rest Rooms were typically furnished with tables, chairs, recliners and stocked with books and magazines and never had an entry/exit leading directly to the outside. Northern Coal and Coke Co. blueprints of the Hecla Casino show a 13 x 20-foot “Ladies Room” with a separate exterior entrance adjacent to, but out of view of the main entry. Since the coal mining camps didn’t have indoor plumbing, this wasn’t the typical Ladies Room — a bathroom — that we define today. An unlikely interpretation is that the Hecla Ladies Room was a waiting room, where wives of coal miners were isolated while their husbands drank at the casino bar, played pool or gambled. Given the exterior entrance, a more plausible use of the space was for “ladies of the night” to meet their customers before heading upstairs.)

1910 Hecla Casino blueprints show a floor plan with a “Ladies Room” at left, with its own exterior door/entry. Courtesy Western History Collection, Denver Public Library.

While it’s true that the Hecla Casino lost some of its location integrity when it was moved by the Fosters in 1991 (there’s no such thing as losing “architectural integrity of location” as stated in city staff’s demolition review memo), the Hecla Casino always retained its important and overwhelming historical significance in Louisville’s social history, highlighted by the fact that Italians were excluded from entering it from 1910 to 1914. That seems odd in a city with such a rich Italian heritage, but during the strike Louisville’s Italians were described by RM Fuel as “the Italian picketers.” The coal company purposely avoided hiring Italian immigrants as strikebreakers, even in Lafayette, because the company suspected they were or would become spies for the union. And the structure was associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of Colorado’s history, making it eligible for the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties. (Several structures on the state register are moved structures.)

I’ve inspected over 200 historic structures in Boulder County in the last 30 years, and have never seen 25-over-one double hung windows, which were a prominent feature of the Hecla Casino. Blueprints for the casino show a 30-over-one configuration, but 25-over-one windows were constructed.

Decorative elements such as multi-pane windows derived from Prairie-style architecture were not common on the hundreds of structures built by the coal companies. (Frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find windows similar to the Hecla Casino anywhere in Colorado.) Company homes built for mine managers and mine engineers sometimes had multi-pane stain glass, but the casino’s multi-pane architectural feature alone merited further study and preservation.

Ignoring all of the structure’s architectural attributes that changed over time, there is not another remaining structure in Louisville that has retained similar historical, social and cultural significance. Not one.

The south face of the Hecla Casino, with the enclosed porch, shown in 2014 with its unique 25 over one windows.

• What’s gone is gone. But what’s next?

The company that tore down the Hecla Casino didn’t lift a finger to do intensive research about the property. Such research might have revealed too much and derailed money-making plans. And, like most developers, Mr. McLeod’s primary duty is not the preservation of historic elements of the community in which he does business. It’s to Balfour’s owners, Boston-based AEW Capital Management, L.P.

Because of this, Lafayette has third-party landmarking, without the owner’s consent, as part of its historic preservation toolbox. Since Lafayette’s historic preservation ordinance was enacted in 1998, there have been two instances of third-party landmarking. Neither third-party landmarking was successful, but one structure — the historic Lafayette Feed and Grain elevator — was saved from bulldozers. The landmarking applications led to exhaustive research — by the applicants and by the developers — and the resulting community-wide debate over the merits of preserving historic structures was robust and thorough. It irritated the land speculators to no end, but everyone in town was involved in the public process, not just a citizen board interacting with a disinterested corporate applicant.

At the very least, some type of RFP or public notification process should be activated by the City of Louisville when historic structures are threatened. There are municipalities out there that will accommodate the preservation of important buildings such as the Hecla Casino, and there are people outside of Louisville who have the know-how, financial resources and desire to save them — they just need the information.

In the future, once Louisville has exhausted all options and acquiesced to the demolition of a structure of overwhelming significance, the owner needs to allow a professional archeologist to investigate the structure before and during the demolition. Important clues to the building’s past could help clear up the historical record and settle conjecture. (Purely from an environmental perspective, the structure should have been deconstructed piece-by-piece and building materials salvaged.) Things to look for in the demolition process would have included:

• Looking for signs of bullet holes under the vinyl siding. Historic photos show that the Hecla Hotel (the boarding house) was riddled with bullet holes during the April 1914 gun battle. Since the casino was next door, it was important to know if the casino sustained any damage as well. (My sister, Cynthia Conarroe Campbell, interviewed Cliff Foster in 1991, and Cliff said that he’d not found evidence of bullet holes. But other clues may exist — replaced siding or filler putty — once the interior wall plaster is removed.)

• Investigating flooring and wall paint and coatings in the room formerly designated as the “Ladies Room.” Traces of decorative wallpaper may have provided clues as to the original use of the room. Same for the upstairs area, long rumored to be a brothel.

• Preserving several of the 25-over-one windows. How and where they were made (in Louisville or mass-produced elsewhere and brought in by train?) would help future historic preservation boards formulate design standards. And one museum I know of would probably have allowed one of the windows to be hung as a display.

• As the building was deconstructed, looking for signs of important historical objects such as ledgers, flags, poker chips, posters and dinnerware. Objects of community-wide interest are commonly found in walls and attics and under floorboards, even during minor renovations of historic structures.

• A silly interpretive sign

The saddest part of the disgraceful, selfish destruction of the Hecla Casino is the vacuous token of erecting an interpretive sign near where the historic structure once stood, which can only be described as a corporate mea culpa. There’s no benevolence whatsoever in the proposed Hecla Mine commemorative area given the demolition of the last structure at the Hecla Mine site.

I’ve lost track of the number of times a developer in Boulder County has done the same — the erasing of an historically significant structure or feature (that they said wasn’t important enough to save), followed by a demarcation of the site with a nifty brass plaque stating that “here once stood something that was important in history.”

To register your displeasure at the needless destruction of the Hecla Casino, feel free to email Louisville Mayor Bob Muckle directly at BobM@LouisvilleCO.gov

March 1 update: Although Louisville functionaries could argue that they tried to save the Hecla Casino, the truth is that they simply acquiesced to a developer that didn’t want to do a ding-dang thing.

The City of Louisville had plenty of leverage to save the Hecla Casino, but didn’t use it. Because the Balfour developer asked for a height exemption to build his 55-foot-tall project, an exemption that will help him rake in at least $16 million in extra revenue over the next 30 years, the city could have at least force the developer to pitch in monetarily to move the thing. Apparently the don’t-make-waves relationship between the city and the developer was cozier than we thought.

Sources: Ron Buffo’s excellent retelling of the Hecla gun battle in the Winter, 2014 The Louisville Historian; Carolyn Conarroe’s 2001 book “Coal Mining in Northern Colorado’s Northern Field;” Rocky Mountain Fuel Company records at the Western History Collection, Denver Public Library, fifth floor; “Where are the ladies’ rest rooms? The evolution of women-only resting rooms amid social changes of the early twentieth century,” by Kristin Britanik, 2012, research paper for coursework at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; American Architect and Architecture, Volume 111, 1917; Iron Trade Review, Volume 59, 1916; 1910 and 1920 U.S. Federal Census; “Field Guide to American Houses,” by Virginia Savage McAlester, 2015.