Museum of Northwest Colorado: Coal’s history in the Yampa Valley
Black coal in a white apron
The official surveyor for the United States government after the Civil War, F.V. Hayden, completed his survey of the Rocky Mountain region in the early 1870s, which identified Northwest Colorado as home to one of the largest coal reserves in the United States. Though possibly no one else made note of his observations, astute financiers of that era certainly did. Hayden’s findings set in motion the beginnings of a dream for a railroad into the remote region, with the idea of bringing out the black gold to the Front Range markets and beyond.
One of the earliest stories of coal mining in the Yampa Valley focuses on settler James Wadge and his wife, Sarah Jane Lilliecrap. They had settled in 1887 near what would later be the coal mining town of Mt. Harris. Coming from a genteel family in England to the wilds of Northwest Colorado must have indeed been a challenge for the well-bred Sarah Jane. Raising a family of five children on the banks of the Yampa River, Sarah — so the story goes — carried out the first load of coal from the family’s small mine in the folds of her apron. That mine site later became known as the Wadge Mine, which was part of a complex of several mines surrounding the town of Mt. Harris.
Almost immediately upon their arrival to Northwest Colorado, homesteaders found coal to be an invaluable and easily accessible resource in combating the typically hostile winter months of the area. Small wagon mines, as the individually owned family-operated mines were called, sprang up all over the Yampa Valley and augmented the meager income of many early settlers. In between trying to eke out an existence in their challenging new homeland, the pioneers found time to carve out small coal mines on their land from which they could wrest a little coal to sell to the local townspeople and businesses.
The dream of a rail line into the area, long held and backed by visionaries like Denver banker David Moffat, finally became a reality in 1909, when the first passenger train chugged into Steamboat Springs. By 1913 the rails reached all the way to Craig, opening up the valley to its first “mass transit” system. To many the coming of the railroad brought the reality of increased ability to travel between Denver and the Yampa Valley, but to some it signaled a tremendous potential to develop the agricultural and mining assets of the region.
Following quickly upon the heels of the railroad’s arrival, the Harris brothers moved into the valley from Iowa, intent on being among the first to develop a new coal market. By 1914, the small town of Mt. Harris could boast its first homes as well as its first coal production. It wasn’t long before numerous mining operations were removing significant tonnages from Yampa Valley coal mines for transport via the Moffat Road, as the rail line was known. When World War I hit, those mines produced amazing quantities of coal to support the war effort, providing an economic boon to the region.
Through the 1920s and into the years of the Great Depression, the coal mines remained a constant economic force and provided steady, if somewhat seasonal, employment for residents of the Yampa Valley. When World War II hit, the mines again performed in a stellar fashion, supplying high quality coal to fuel the efforts to protect Europe, as well as the country’s own borders.
Historically, the coal industry has dovetailed well with the local agricultural industry, providing an additional source of steady employment for many families involved in agribusiness. Today three major mining companies in the Yampa Valley employ over 1,000 people and are among the largest employers for the valley. The coal mining industry began in Northwest Colorado as a revenue source for area homesteaders as they mined their small wagon mines. That fact has not changed over the last century as the industry continues to be a source of income for many of the valley families. Even as the country struggles to find new sources of reliable, renewable energy, the fact remains that for over 100 years, coal has been a dependable source of energy and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.