WALSENBURG (AP) – About 500 coal miners died in Huerfano County in the early to middle part of the 20th century.
Often called “The City Built on Coal,” this small town is home to the Walsenburg Mining Museum, a gallery that honors southern Colorado miners with exhibits, books and stories.
Even the building the museum is housed in, a 118-year-old jail, has a colorful history. The Huerfano County Historical Society runs the facility.
“The geography here affected the history. We have a number of passes over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and that figured into early history and present history,” said Carolyn Newman, president of the society and a local history buff.
A monument with the names of hundreds of southern Colorado miners sits in front of the old jail just behind the Huerfano County Courthouse.
A bronze miner carrying a pail with a pick over his shoulder stands on top of the monument.
“We have 31 nationalities that created such a diversity here. People came from all over to work in the mines,” Newman said.
“They had recruiters at Ellis Island to get enough miners here.”
Known locally as “The History Detective” from a column she writes in the local newspaper, Newman, 82, said she loves teaching and learning about the past and how things in the county have come to be.
“It’s putting the clues together and seeing how these events affected people. Why are the people today the way they are because of the history?”
After the 100-year anniversary of the infamous Ludlow Massacre of April 20, 1914, the museum is featuring exhibits pertaining to the coal strike that ended with the eruption of gunfire and death. Men who were arrested at Ludlow were brought to the jail where the museum is now and when it filled up, they were housed in the courthouse next door. A picture in the museum shows men sitting in the windows of the historic courthouse.
Rails from nearby coal mines were used to secure walls in the jail.
“One man escaped through that hole there,” Newman said, pointing to a small hole on the ceiling of the lower level of the museum near its jail cells.
The museum features exhibits about Huerfano County mining camps as well as memorabilia from such notable characters of the time as Bob Ford – famous for killing Jesse James – and Mary “Mother” Jones. Jones who was arrested and put in the courthouse.
Newman, who resembles the famous tough labor leader, gives presentations about her dressed in her likeness.
“I find it a way to make it more interesting,” Newman said.
Newman, who was a teacher from 1957 to 1990 with teaching stints in England and Walsenburg, said she enjoys acting history.
“She was 4 inches taller than me and heavier and I don’t swear as well as she did,” Newman said with a laugh.
The museum has a simulated mine with mannequin miners digging for coal. The artifacts include mining equipment and even a few tools that doctors used to treat some of the miners.
There also is a mining tent set up to showcase how the striking miners lived.
A large map of the mines in Huerfano County is hung on a wall.
“Most of the artifacts have been donated. We get our photographs wherever we can find them,” Newman said.
The museum is open from May 1 to Sept. 30.