Miners and Back in the Day Medicine

From Las Vegas New Mexico, I arrived up in Raton, passing by Philmont – the national boy scout training camp with its history of scouting. I couldn’t visit – the bridge was being repaired. I nevertheless began to observe what would be several days of spectacular wildlife and birds literally posing for me. I saw a hawk and several prairie dogs as I ran my dogs.


The Sangre de Cristo mountains had what was probably the last cap of snow on them for the season. There had been a light dusting the day of my departure from Los Alamos (the 3rd day of spring). It had been largely confined to the mountains. Taos still apparently has a 48″ base, and skiing is still open for the next couple of weekends in some of the local resorts.

Snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Arriving in Raton, I stopped for coffee at the visitor center, and then went to visit the museum.
Raton is located in the mountain pass fork of the Santa Fe trail – that which was considered more mountainous and difficult (passing through Colorado), and yet safer because it avoided the Comanche indian raids. There was an exhibit on the trail, as well as artifacts that are found from the trail.

They had a very interesting exhibit on old medicine back in the day when medical bills were around $1.25 a visit, complete with a dental chair and crown fittings.



The Medical Bills

And also, an old advertisement for the Santa Fe railroad, to listen to Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders. The fare is listed as 1 and 1/2 cents / mile!


But what was most fascinating for me was the story of the coal miners. The area had been developed for coal mining with 9 different coal mining towns set up about 1 year after the railroad had arrived (knowing there was coal there). The coal was very high quality coal, and sent up to a plant in Montana for processing. Coal for the area was imported from Colorado. Each of the 9 local towns had several different mines, and there were a few different companies in the area. Companies sent agents to Ellis island to recruit immigrants fresh off the boat to come, put them on the railroad, and send them to work in the coal mines. People came from several different backgrounds: (Irish, Spanish, Slav, Italian, Greek, Russian, Japanese) and they all lived and worked together in these small mining towns – typically working 3 day shifts of 8-9 hours each picking and shovelling coal into carts.


A record Day- each spike represents a cart full of coal. One cart was about 3 pickup truck beds worth of coal.

The towns were run by the company, so after groceries from the company store and other services were deducted, a miner might take home $1.75 at the end of the week for his whole family. They worked hard, and with any complaint, were blacklisted from ALL of the coal companies. Imagining the difficulty of the work, one might think that the miner would need a 5000 calorie diet to work. However, they carried their little lunch pails with them, with bread and cheese, and with water in the bottom section of the pail (the company was not obliged to supply water in those days so if you forgot water, you went without).

The man who hosted my visit had worked in the mines for 18 years before they closed after a strike. His father had worked in them for 49 years – and died of black lung. The workers were given 30 days to evacuate the town after the mine closed, and a demolition truck was brought in to level the entire town.

It is interesting to reflect on what the cost of turning on that lightbulb was in human labor and suffering. Coal has largely (but not entirely) been replaced in New Mexico with other greener fuels. There is an environmental cost to coal mining both in terms of air pollution, and on the mountain landscape – one only has to visit West Virginia to see this. And yet, coal can be scrubbed of a lot of its sulfur-containing pollutants producing a much cleaner fuel. It is a resource to be managed respectfully, and with respect for those who broke their backs and sometimes gave their lives to feed our energy hunger. I am sometimes angry with some in the environmental movement at their lack of sensitivity to poverty. It is easy to pass judgement, make laws that eliminate jobs, when all of your basic needs are met and you are sitting in an armchair. As someone who cares deeply for the environment, I can still respect the fact that someone who is willing to work this job very often does this difficult job with pride, and is otherwise too busy and tired at the end of the day trying to just barely squeak by, for arguments about trees.

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