Reprints: 1913 – A brief History of the Northern Coal Field in Boulder and Weld Counties, Colorado

SINCE the inauguration of the present strike in the coal mines of Northern Colorado, now in progress three years?, we have heard and read, from time to time, the harangues of professional agitators (and others) portraying the tyranny of the rich coal barons who have waxed fat at the crib of corporate greed in the north, and so persistent has such bitter criticism and false representation been herald abroad, that seemingly, the general public has accepted the same to be more-or-less true. But, to nurse the belief that coal operators in the Northern Coal District have made money, is far from the true facts, as the following brief review of thirty years history of the lignite coal industry and the numerous business failures of those engaged therein, will show.

In 1880 lignite coal for local and winter markets was mined in Boulder County at Marshall, Langford and Louisville; and in Weld County at Erie and in its vicinity. The more prominent producing mines in the early eighties were the Welch Mines at Louisville; Fox and Patterson Mine at Marshall, and the Boulder Valley, Northrup and Mitchell Collieries at Erie.


The Welch Mine at Louisville and the Northrup and Boulder Valley Mines at Erie were owned and operated by the Union Coal Co. in the interests of Jay Gould of the Union Pacific Railroad Co, which, in the aggregate, mined 132,043 tons of coal during 1884.

Mr. D. O. Clark of the Union Pacific Coal Company, was General Superintendent of the Union Coal Co. There existed a chronic state of strikes in the Northern District during 1883-4, and the mines of the Union Coal Co. were idle thereby, more than half of the time, and during a strike of rather a protracted period, Mr. Clark notified the striking miners that if they did not resume work on a certain date, he had positive instruction from Mr. Jay Gould that the Union Coal Co. was to abandon operations and dismantle their mines and withdraw from the field.

The strike committee, however, assured the miners that Mr. D. O. Clark’s statement was all a “bluff,” and the strike was prolonged beyond the date set by Mr. Clark. True to his promise, the Boulder Valley and Northrup Mines, capable of being large producers, were abandoned and dismantled, and the lease which the Company had on the Welch Mine at Louisville, was sold to the Marshall Consolidated Coal Co.

The operations of the Union Coal Co. were so unfavorable, owing to the strike conditions, that they were never again induced to enter the field, notwithstanding they were urgently petitioned by the miners and businessmen of Erie to do so. Thus, the little town of Erie suffered such from the abandonment of those substantial properties, and the Company lost, in their operations and equipment, a great deal of money.

The Marshall Consolidated Coal Co., under the General Superintendency of Mr. Robert Rubidge, with capital (it is said) from the late David H., Moffitt, operated the mines at Marshall and Louisville, and mined, during the year of 1886, 120,830 tons. The Company, however, failed to meet with success and lost money. Later, the Company was re-organized under the management of Austin G. Gorham, but the new management were not any more successful, and after a time, operations were abandoned, resulting in a loss of the capital invested.


During the years of 1883-4-5-6, a number of coal mines were opened throughout the Northern District, principally by individual operators and companies with limited capital, which was not only invariably lost, but often with it, years of hard toil were sacrificed by the miners without due compensations.

The Fox and Patterson Mine was one of the earl producers, situated at Langford, Boulder County, and was favorably located on a nine-foot seam of coal which was worked intermittently with more-or-less success, for many years, by Mike Fox, as resident manager and backed by the Hon. Thomas M. Patterson of Denver.

Whenever prices of coal became low and competition keen, or, when labor strikes pressed too hard, “artful Mike” (for he was a skillful man) would close down the mine, and to use his own words: “until the mists shall clear away.” He favored husbanding the coal in its “bed” until the price was fair and he could work in peace, for, even in those early days, Boulder and Weld Counties were notorious for their periodical strikes in the coal mines.

The Fox Mine still produces some coal, but Mike passed away, a year or so ago, and left a small estate of a few thousand dollars, after thirty-five years’ experience as a coal mine operator “of the North.”

It is needless to say that the affluence now enjoyed by Senator Patterson did not emanate from his investments in the coal business.


The Star Mine, situated at Canfield, Boulder County, was opened by Mike Brennan and brothers, and was operated by them (under difficulties) upwards of ten years, and becoming unprofitable, operations were abandoned some years ago.

Within the past three years, Mr. Brennan leased the property to Mr. Frank Bulkley of Denver, who sunk a new shaft on it; but, owing to the present strike conditions and other difficulties met with, his experience, like that of his predecessors, has resulted in a loss of money.

The Jackson Mine, also situated at Canfield (consisting of a shaft opening) was opened by the Jackson Coal Co. under the management of Mr. D. S. Woods, late of Denver.

This company had their own coal yards in the City and for some years were quite a factor in the lignite coal business. But, the difficulties attending the mining of the coal and the low selling price, caused operations to become unprofitable and they abandoned their property many years ago.


The Wise Mine, also located in Canfield, was opened by the Wise Brothers in 1886 and was operated by them unfavorably for a time, and afterwards leased to J. J. Thomas and William McNeil and others, who equipped the mine with modern coal cutting machines, but, after three years experience, during which time they had two strikes with miners in introducing machine mining, they were compelled to cease operations during the latter strike when Judge Platt Rogers, who was accepted as an arbitrator (being ill-advised by Unionism) awarded 60 cents per ton for loading coal after the machine, and such a price being prohibitive, the company sold their mining machine and abandoned operations.


The “Old” Mitchell Mine, in the vicinity of Erie, Weld County, was opened by Joseph Mitchell of Erie and his father, who died in Denver some years ago. The elder Mr. Mitchell, an experienced coal miner and also an astute business man, readily saw more money in opening up coal mines and selling them than to own and operate the same under the keen competition which then existed, as well as the chronic strike periods that have ever cursed the Northern Coal Field. So he sold this mine in the very early eighties to the Denver, Utah and Pacific Railway Co., who owned and operated a narrow gauge railway from Denver to the Erie Mines and to the red sand stone quarries at Lyons, Colorado. But, notwithstanding that the company owned and operated its own mine, railway and coal yards at its depot on Nineteenth Street, it failed to succeed in the coal business, principally owing to the frequent labor strikes and destruction thereby of property. Hence, after the loss of considerable money, the company sold their railway to the Burlington System and their mine and coal lands at Erie to the Colorado Fuel & Iron C o. This Company, under the management of Mr. J. C. Osgood and the late Mr. J. A, Kebler, experienced coal operators, became so annoyed with the canker and malignant condition of labor, that they dismantled the mine of its equipment, filled up the shaft and withdrew from the field, many years ago. But they still own a large area of coal land there.

That there has been, in the aggregate, a vast amount of money lost in the Northern Coal Field, is a well established fact, but such financial loss to individuals and coal companies is not all, for in the numerous partly worked out but abandoned properties, there are also millions of tons of coal forever lost to the State.


The Garfield Mine, Boulder County, but situated in what is known as the Erie District, was opened by William Padfield and James Pallot, and was operated by them for many years, but without any material success. In fact, Mr. Pallot left the District some years ago a bankrupt, and notwithstanding that Mr. Padfield, in recent years, became interested in what is known as the “Blue Ribbon” and Senator Mines in the Lafayette District, the stern fact remains that at the time of his death (two years ago), after 30 years as a coal operator, he left but little to his family.


The Cleveland Mine, Boulder County, in the vicinity of the Erie Mining District, was opened by Thomas Fall, now residing in Lafayette, Colorado. Mr. Fall and his associates spent the best years of their lives in a hard struggle with not only the Cleveland Mine, but also in the Excelsior property at Lafayette, but they failed to become recognized coal barons.


The Stewart Mine, Boulder County, also situated in the vicinity of the Erie District, was opened by Messrs Goodridge and Marfell. They had their own coal yards in Denver, but, like the great majority of their fellow operators, they were unsuccessful and abandoned their mine.


The McGregor Mine, Boulder County, in the vicinity of the Erie District, was opened by the late Charles M. McNeil, but who was later joined by Messrs. William Frances, Thomas Reese and Charles E. Phister, as partners. After years of hard work and loss of money by all concerned, the McGregor Mine (like many others only partly worked out) was abandoned.


There are other monuments of failure that could be recorded, but we shall pass on to periods of more recent history in the coal mining business of the North.

The Simpson Mine, situated at Lafayette, was sunk during 1887-8 by Simpson and Sons. The coal seam was reached at a depth of 246 feet, was 14 feet in thickness with ideal physical conditions for economic mining, and has since proved to be the largest producer of coal in Northern Colorado. Mr. Charles Spencer, a banker from Boulder, purchased an interest in the Simpson Coal Company and the Spencer shaft was sunk on the same property, which gave the Company two producing mines, operated under the management of the late John H. Simpson.


The Cannon Mine, also located in the Lafayette District, was sunk to the same coal seam as the Simpson-Spencer Mine. To be brief, active competition resulted in the cutting of the price of coal, in the markets, to an unreasonably low figure, and mines with thinner coal seams and less favorable physical mining conditions, failed to compete with Lafayette Mines. And further, the hardship of a low selling price, augmented by labor difficulties, caused even the Lafayette Mines to fail to be operated at a reasonable profit.

About this period, 1891, the late James Cannon Jr., as President and John H. Simpson as General Superintendent, organized the United Coal Company, into which were consolidated the Cannon, Simpson, Spencer, Excelsior, Caledonian, Star, Cleveland and Acme Mines, and later, other mines were taken in the Company.

The consolidation of these interests enabled Mr. James Cannon Jr., to borrow money, and for a time, the company branched out and acquired property. But, about three years after the consolidation, the company began to fail in meeting its obligations, and a few months later also failed to pay the wages of the workmen, and was forced into the Courts by the bondholders.

Mr. H. C. Brooks, Sr., who was financially interested in the company, was appointed receiver. His receivership, however, was not successful and the company became more deeply involved. Mr. Brooks was retired and another receiver appointed, namely, Col. Ed. F. Bishop.

The Court granted a new issue of Receiver’s Certificates, and another attempt was made to bring the United Coal Company out of the financial difficulties; but time only proved Col. Bishop’s receivership to be no more successful than that of his predecessor. The mines had been sold for taxes; royalties were overdue and unpaid; insurance policies on the several equipment of the mines had lapsed, and for the second time, pay-day, for a month’s wages of the employees, was passed, unpaid.

In June, 1896, Col. Bishop was retired, and the Court appointed Mr. John McNeil as receiver for the Company. Prior to his appointment, and at intervals for sometime thereafter, a series of labor strikes occurred throughout the Northern Field, and in Nov., 1896, the shaft house, boiler and engine buildings at the Simpson Mine were destroyed by fire, which was thought to be of incendiary origin.

Under Mr. McNeil’s receivership, much of the Company’s indebtedness was paid and the properties were successfully redeemed, and in 1899, he resigned as receiver.

The Company was then reorganized under the title of the Northern Coal and Coke Co., which included the Simpson-Spenser, Gladstone, Mitchell, Hecla, Rex Nos. 1 and 2, Gorham, Industrial, Pluto, Enterprise, Wilson, Acme, Imperial and Excelsior Mines.

James Cannon, Jr., was made President of the Company, and again large sums of money were borrowed and improvements made on the several properties, and with the strong financial backing of The Colorado National Bank, it was hoped, for a time, that the Northern Coal and Coke Co., would meet with success.

But, labor troubles and frequent interruptions in the working of the collieries added greatly to the cost of mining, and after a year or so of periodical “bickerings” and still additional cost of mining, also internal troubles among the operators themselves, the mining of coal again became unprofitable and so great was the strain upon Mr. James Cannon, the President of the Company, through such business strife and financial loss, that his mind gave way to the pressure, and he lost all, and died penniless in an asylum.

Mr. John H. Simpson, former owner of the Simpson-Spenser Mines (the most desirable collieries from an economic standpoint of mining, ever opened in Northern Colorado), not only lost his own substantial interests in the United Coal Company, but having a power of attorney, he was a party to the mortgaging of securities belonging to his aged father, amounting to $40,000.00 (the earnings of a lifetime), the knowledge of which, later, hastened the good old man to his grave.

Mr. John H. Simpson himself, passed away, penniless, a few years later, a victim of mental alienation caused by excessive worry.


The disgruntled condition existing amongst the miners, and affairs generally, throughout the Northern Coal Field, disturbed the peace of mind of a certain amiable citizen of Denver, and he being deeply interested, financially, in the Northern Coal and Coke Co., seriously considered the advisability of the coal mine owners of Northern Colorado accepting the recognition of Unionism, and to this end, the inherent wish of this worthy man (now passed to eternal rest) for peace, if possible, at all times — and through his influence probably more than any other man — the organization of the United Mine Workers of America received a working agreement with the operators of the North.

The scale of wages and working conditions contained in this agreement were better, by far, than that in many states, and were equal, at least, to the very best enjoyed by any coal mining community in the world.

But, even under these admirable conditions, the miners, wearied of well-doing, and acting upon the ill-advice of local and eastern leaders, made further, and unreasonable demands upon the mine operators, which were promptly refused, and the miners came out on strike nearly three and a half years ago; and, notwithstanding that a normal tonnage of coal is being produced from the field, principally by non-union miners, the strike has not been declared off.

The internal canker, combative spirit and socialistic views which have been imbued into the minds of a number of the miners, became alarming, and the skillful trickery of half-told speeches by parasitical agitators and small politicians, plied to the credulous as gospel truths, also a lack of the enforcement of the law, discouraged the officers of the Northern Coal and Coke Co. to such an extent, that they sold out their holdings October, 1911, to the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company. Thus, history repeats itself, and another strong company, financially, has been driven from the coal fields of Northern Colorado, after suffering a loss of money in its mining operations.


During 1911, the American Fuel Co., consolidated into their concern, the Capitol, Fox, Willoughby, Centennial, Matchless and Evans Mines, and took options on a large acreage of coal lands.

The company signed up an agreement with the United Mine Workers of America and employed only Union men. The officials of the Union, it is said, advanced to the American Fuel Co., sums of money, from time to time, but after a year’s operation, the Company went into the hands of a receiver, and is now bankrupt. Some of their properties have been abandoned and others have gone back to the original owners.

It is a well known fact that the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, The National Fuel Company and others concerns now operating coal mines in the Northern Coal Fields, have been persecuted in a merciless manner. Murders have been committed, and lawlessness is still rampant.

It is true, the general public have suffered much, from time to time, in paying a high price for lignite coal, but the true cause has been through labor difficulties, caused by ill-advised Unionism and small politicians, but surely not by the creating of rich coal barons.

How much longer must ill-advised Unionism and political machinations continue to be recognized as more powerful than the law?

Document dated Dec. 1, 1913, from personal files of Nathaniel Cheney Brooks (1873-1962), son of coal executive Henry C. Brooks (1836-1918). N.C. Brooks was a Sales Agent for the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company and H. C. Brooks was a shareholder and chief executive for the United Coal Company. From the Doug Conarroe collection.

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