Routt County historians working to track former Mt. Harris homes and the stories they fostered
Mt. Harris, a gone away mining town west of Steamboat Springs, was once the largest population center in Routt County
Tink Arroyo remembers in 1939 when his dad got on a bus to Denver to register for the draft ahead of World War II. When officials found out Arroyo’s dad and the other men were coal miners from the Mt. Harris mining town, they were sent back to the Yampa Valley.
“They told them, ‘Your job is more important than going into the draft,’” Arroyo recalled. “All of our dads wanted to go to the war, but they had to stay here and work in the coal mine. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that.”
On Sunday, Arroyo returned to where he was born in the former Mt. Harris mining town for the first time since it folded in 1958. He walked down a gravel road along the Yampa River to the spot where the house he grew up in once stood.
“It is kind of exciting but yet sad. Lonely but yet jubilant,” Arroyo said about his return to the site. “I get to see the people and the environment, the location. The memories in my mind just come alive.”
Now living in Thorton, Arroyo was one of many former residents of the mining town that gathered Sunday for the 118th Annual Routt County Pioneer Picnic, this year put on by the Hayden Heritage Center.
The annual event also kicked off a larger project to tell the story of the town over time, tracking how it grew, the people who lived there and, eventually, how it disappeared.
The center has recognized the mines that helped build Routt County before skiing was around, but this year, they were able to host the event on the sight of the town. Near mile marker 114 on U.S. Highway 40, a roadside marker announces the mines former presence in the valley, and just down a gravel road is where a robust town — at the time, the most populous in Routt County — once stood.
Mt. Harris was one of four mining towns that stretched along U.S. 40 just west of Milner. From 1914 to 1958, as many as 2,000 people lived in the company run town, slightly less than the current population of Hayden.
The town had white houses in long rows, barns for milk cows along the Yampa, a general store, pool hall, barbershop, post office and even a bandstand. By 1916, there was also a four-room school.
Miners came from across the world, with immigrants from Mexico, Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe and England working in the three nearby mines. The camp was segregated, with Black residents living on the western edge.
When the mine closed in 1958, the town quickly broke down with it, with machinery and even houses being auctioned off. Some of those houses are still scattered across the valley today, with many in Hayden, Craig and in Old Town Steamboat.
“You probably wouldn’t even recognize them because some people remodeled them,” said Laurel Watson, director of the Hayden Heritage Center.
Historic Routt County, in collaboration with the center, the University of Colorado Denver and the current owners, is now working to document the growth, life and eventual end of the mining town.
Emily Katzman, executive director of Historic Routt County, said the project is really two efforts of information gathering. Watson is working to talk with former residents or decedents of miners to record their memories of the mine.
“The museum will do an oral history where we record a lot of these stories, and then there is connecting the people who own houses,” Watson said.
Pete Morales, 90, used to work in the Mt. Harris mine and the Victor American mine, which was the site of a deadly methane explosion in 1942, killing 34 miners. He comes back frequently but still scanned panoramic pictures of the area with vigor as he tried to locate his former home.
“It was near where the postmaster lived,” Morales said as his finger grew black with ink from the picture as he searched.
The other part of the project is tracking where the 63 houses that were auctioned off when the town folded in 1958 are now. Katzman said she isn’t sure how many are still around, but the project hopes to find out.
Greg Rawlings filled out a form for the project about a house he owns in Old Town Steamboat. Since he has owned the house, it was also rumored it was a former Mt. Harris home. On Sunday, Rawlings and his daughter studied a panoramic photo of the area at the time to see if any of the small houses looked familiar.
“It is one of those things; it may or it may not be,” Rawlings said. “It may be just the lore of it.”
There are also likely houses from one of the other three mining towns in the area called McGregor, Coal View and Bear River.
The goal for the project would be to show a map of how the town changed over time, Katzman said. It would start at 1914 and show how the town expanded and then later shrank before disappearing entirely. The final map would show where some of the houses are today.
The hope is that they could tie some of the oral histories Watson is working to collect with any of the homes they are able to track.
Katzman said projects such as this are important because they still have the opportunity to record this history while many people who lived it are still able to share their stories, and many of these houses are still sprinkled within neighborhoods.
“At the end of the day, coal was a big part of the development and economic culture of our community,” Katzman said. “I think it is really important to document that.”
For people who own a Mt. Harris house now, reach out to Emily Katzman at Historic Routt County via email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-875-1305.
For people who want to share their memories of Mt. Harris, contact Laurel Watson at the Hayden Heritage Center email@example.com or 970-276-4380.
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