Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Mexico Ghosts: Dawson

Today Dawson, New Mexico is a ghost town. Dawson is located in the northern part of the state just seventeen miles northeast of Cimarron. It was once a bustling mining town with nine thousand residents. 

Unlike most mining towns in the west Dawson’s tragedies didn’t result from shootouts or Indian raids; instead, Dawson was the site for two of the worst coal mining accidents in American history. 
Opera House

In 1906, the Phelps Dodge Corporation bought the Dawson mines. This company was determined to make Dawson a modern city. 

In its heyday, the town was a booming community that included a company Mercantile Department Store, a modern hospital, a theater, a swimming pool, bowling ally, baseball park, pool hall, golf course, lodge hall, and even an opera house. 

There were churches, two elementary schools, and a large high school whose teams won state championships. The company also built a steam-powered electric plant; that not only served Dawson but several nearby towns in New Mexico and Colorado.

Immigrant miners from Italy, China, Poland, Germany, Britain, Finland, Sweden, and Mexico all came to work in Dawson’s mines. 

Coal mining was a dangerous business—in the best of conditions, miners worked in squalid, hot, dark holes permeated with black dust. Even if the miners could escape the constant dangers of cave-ins and explosions, their life expectancy was sharply reduced by “black lung” and other effects of the sooty mine air. 

Accidents happened regularly, and the town’s cemetery began to fill slowly.

Phelps Dodge’s Stag Canyon Mine No. 2 was praised for being “the highest achievement in modern equipment and safety appliances that exists in the world.” 

On October 20, 1913, the New Mexico Inspector of Mines reported that Stag Canyon Mine No. 2 was totally free of traces of gas, and in splendid general condition. Two days later Dawson suffered its worst catastrophe on Wednesday, October 22, 1913.

Two hundred eighty-four miners reported to work at Stag Canyon No. 2 on the 22nd. Minutes after three p.m. the mine was rocked by a massive explosion that sent a shaft of fire one hundred feet out of the tunnel's mouth shaking homes in Dawson two miles away. 

Only 23 of the 286 men working in the mine were found alive. In addition, falling boulders in the shaft killed two of the rescuers. 

It was later determined that the explosion was caused by a dynamite charge set off while the mine was in general operation, igniting coal dust. This was in direct violation of mining safety laws.

Over the next two weeks, all of the recovered miners were buried in the town’s cemetery. Each grave was marked with a simple iron cross. This mining disaster was the second worst of the century.

Dawson’s luck turned slowly for the worse. Safety measures were heavily increased, and in 1918 the mine reached its peak production of over four million tons of coal. 

But on February 8, 1923, just ten years after the first disaster another one struck Stag Canyon Mine No. 1. A mine train jumped the track, it slammed into the supporting timbers at the mouth of the tunnel; this ignited coal dust in the mine. There were one hundred twenty-three men in the mine at the time.

Many women who had lost their husbands in the first disaster waited anxiously for their sons to appear from the dense cloud of dust and smoke. 

Only two miners, who had been in a separate section of the mine, walked out the next morning, all the rest had perished. 

The cemetery was extended, and more metal crosses were placed. Most of these grave markers list no name—for the bodies were difficult to identify.

Dawson thrived as a mining town for the next thirty years. But as the railroads converted to diesel-electric locomotives, and homes converted to natural gas for heating, it was clear that coal was the fuel of the past. 

There was a brief resurgence of mining during World War ll, but on April 30, 1950, the Dawson mine was shut down, Phelps Dodge sold the whole town, buildings and all to a salvage company in Phoenix.

All that is left of Dawson today is a few privately owned buildings and the cemetery which is on the National Register of Historic Places. So many where buried in this cemetery it was extended up the hill. White iron crosses are the only memory of the town’s tragic past. 

Soon after the first disaster, scary stories started to spread through Dawson. People heard wails and moans coming from the cemetery at night. 

Others passing the cemetery gates after sunset reported seeing strange human-like figures walking through the darkness. These forms vanished the moment anyone tried to approach.

There are several written reports that the citizenry of Dawson felt their cemetery was haunted. Today the iron gate to the burial ground still stands with metal letters spelling “DAWSON.” 

Many witnesses reported feeling strange cold spots near specific graves on otherwise hot days. These cold spots and other strange stories of male voices whispering words of warning and danger were also reported. 

At night the cemetery is more active. People today, still hear full-throated moans and see human-shaped patches of fog drifting through the area. These forms dissipate into the night air, leaving no trace. The men that lost their lives so abruptly, over a hundred years ago, are restless.

My group paid our respects at this cemetery when we returned to northern New Mexico to do a follow-up investigation at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico.

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