Nestled along Reilly Creek about eight miles west of Trinidad in Las Animas County, the Cokedale Historic District represents an excellent example of an early twentieth-century coal camp in the Raton Basin coalfield. In 1906 the American Smelting and Refining Company started construction in the area with the goal of providing adequate living conditions for the company’s coal miners and their families. Mining operations ceased in 1947, but today Cokedale remains the most intact of Colorado’s company-run coal camps.
Coal mining and coking (baking coal to produce coke used in steel production) formed a major part of Colorado’s economy at the turn of the century. In 1893 Colorado was the sixth-largest coal-producing state in the country. The Trinidad district was a hotspot for coal production, and several competing companies had mines in the area.
One of these was the American Smelting and Refining Company (AS&R), which purchased the Reilly Creek plot. AS&R recognized that Trinidad coal would be ideal fuel for its smelters in El Paso and Mexico because the coal had low ash, sulphur, and phosphorus content, and high coking qualities.
While the AS&R mine at Reilly Creek was being developed, workers and miners lived in a tent colony nearby. By the autumn of 1906, construction on the town had begun, with designs drawn up by Denver architect James Murdoch. Buildings consisted of cinderblocks made of coke, cement, and quarried sandstone. Unpainted, heavy pebble dash stucco covered all the masonry structures. The houses had pyramidal roofs that extended out to cover a front porch. By the summer of 1907, the town of Cokedale was complete, and by 1909 it had more than 1,500 residents.
In many mining camps around the state, living conditions were dismal. Cokedale stood out, however, since the goal of the camp managers was to create a healthy and desirable living environment. In fact, Cokedale became a model mining camp. Daniel Guggenheim, whose family owned AS&R, testified that workers should get sufficient wages and have access to some comforts and luxuries. Cokedale’s camp included many families, and multiple generations of the same often family worked together in the mine.
Many camp inhabitants affirmed the mine owners’ belief that Cokedale was unique. The company maintained the houses and buildings, which encouraged pride among the inhabitants. Each house had electricity provided by the company and rent was kept at $2.00 per month, per room for forty years. AS&R provided schooling for children as well as recreational activities for families. The buildings and maintenance were frequently used as models for similar company towns throughout the United States.
Thanks to the company’s commitment to worker welfare, few miners from Cokedale participated in the coalfield strike of 1913-14. While more than 20,000 miners left other camps in the Trinidad district, Cokedale remained open. Cokedale also survived the many boom-and-bust cycles that afflicted mining camps across Colorado. Many similar coal mines ceased operations in Las Animas County after World War I, but Cokedale continued to thrive until 1947.
The mines at Cokedale closed in 1947 because of decreased demand, and AS&R sold off the camp’s assets. Existing residents bought many of the houses and commercial structures, while most mining structures were dismantled. By 1948 the town was incorporated, with residents governing themselves for the first time in forty years.
Since then, many of Cokedale’s houses have been remodeled or expanded, but they still reflect their original design. The camp’s coke ovens are also still visible, though they are significantly weathered. Today, people still call Cokedale home, though the population has dropped to around 200. The Cokedale Historical District, composed of 117 buildings and sites, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. In 2015 Cokedale received three separate State Historical Fund grants totaling over $130,000 for restoration.