Notable Citizens: Lito Gallegos

Inventor and mine foreman Lito Gallegos. Photo courtesy Tanya Fabian.

With lunch pail in hand and ready for his shift in the Columbine mine northeast of Lafayette, coal miner, inventor and Serene coal camp resident Lito Gallegos began the day by dropping his 7-year-old son from his first marriage, Gilbert, at the three-room Serene school. The two walked down the hill along John J. Roche Street, turned right on George T. Peart Street, then walked another half block north along Harry M. Jones Street to the school’s front door.

The school was about 50 yards east of the Columbine mines’ main tipple and, as the crow flies, just a few hundred feet from the half-duplex that Lito and his wife, Carmella, rented from his employer, Rocky Mountain Fuel Company. The dirt streets were named after company executives and most company rentals were small, three- or four-room miner’s cabins, about 600-square-feet on one level.

Company employment forms show that Lito Gallegos, who was the holder of several U. S. patents and lived previously in Aguilar, Colo., could read, write and speak Spanish and English and held state certification as shot firer, shot examiner, fire boss and mine foreman (recognition he received at age 19). These were exceptional credentials for a 25-year-old with 11 years of mining experience, including working as mine foreman in RM Fuel coal mines in Las Animas County. RM Fuel’s Trinidad and Aguilar-area mines included the Sopris, Tabasco, Primero, Engel and Frederick mines. Lito was hired at the Columbine in April 1926 with the job classification “company work.” This meant Lito was considered a “company man” and would have been given a salary well above the daily $5.25 in wages paid to coal loaders. His job would have included supervisory duties, and he probably would have worked year-round instead of the average 194 days per year that loaders worked.

During the 1920s, the Columbine hired miners of all levels of experience and of every nationality. Employee rolls included recent immigrants from Mexico, Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Ireland, Italy and Japan. Fifty two percent of the Columbine’s 400 to 500 workers hired during the 1920s were Latino, almost all of whom were hired as coal loaders, which was the toughest work — shoveling coal into mine cars for eight straight hours. With a few exceptions, such as Lito Gallegos, almost all of the foreign-born workers at the Columbine were hired as loaders, even miners with a decade or more of experience doing skilled labor or supervisory work.

Lito Gallegos probably supervised 37-year-old Joe Garcia, an immigrant from Mexico who’d also resided in Aguilar and who also held state certification as shot firer, shot examiner and fire boss. Joe Garcia had 16 years of experience in coal mines, including driver and timberman. The 50 or so other men that Lito supervised may have included his older brother, Jake Gallegos, and his father, Alejandro “Alex” Gallegos, both skilled miners who were hired in June 1926 and also lived in the Serene coal camp.

Lito may have supervised his brother-in-law, 31-year-old boxing phenom John Ortega, known as Johnny “Kid Mex,” who held the lightweight champion title of the Rocky Mountain region for seven years. John was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and grew up in Pueblo. He was hired at the Columbine in June 1926, and was married to Mary (Gallegos) Ortega, Lito’s sister.

Company employment forms show that about 90 percent of coal miners hired at the Columbine mine from 1920 to 1929 were fluent in at least two languages. Latino workers, including recent immigrants from Mexico, Jose Camarena, Jesus Casaras and Ben Cabral, could read and speak both English and Spanish. Eastern European immigrants, mostly from Greece, Bulgaria and Russia, spoke English and their native language. Coal loaders Lom Omaye, S.Y. Oh, Henry Okamoto and S. Ogata, immigrants from Japan, spoke Japanese and English.