Dawson, the ‘ghost’ town with a strong heartbeat.
John Barkley Dawson settled in the Vermejo River valley and started a ranch there in 1869. In 1901 he sold the ranch to the Dawson Fuel Company who began mining the coal and shipping it by rail. In 1906 the mines were purchased by the Phelps Dodge Corporation. And in 1950 the last operating mine closed, the homes were knocked down, and Dawson became one of the most famous ‘ghost’ towns in New Mexico.
Between 1901 and 1950 the town population varied between 2,000 and 9,000 people. There were stores, schools, churches, recreation facilities, and hundreds of homes. The neighborhoods and mines are scattered for two miles up Rail Canyon and the Vermejo River, with the downtown area being at the junction of the two canyons.
Dawson is most known and remembered for separate horrific events, two of the worst mine disasters in the history of the United States. Two-hundred and sixty-three miners died in the 1913 accident, and 123 died in 1923. The graves of the miners are marked with iron crosses in the Dawson Cemetery.
Although the residents of Dawson scattered throughout the country when the town closed, many to work in other coal mines in the region, the living residents and their ancestors continue to remember and celebrate Dawson. Hundreds of people attend the reunion that meets for a picnic at the town site every-other year. The cemetery is maintained regularly. And there are websites, songs, books, and documentary films about Dawson.
Dawson, the town and the mines, is private property with strict No Trespassing; public access is allowed only during the reunion. The cemetery is open to the public at any time.
Below are photos of Dawson taken during recent reunions, and in the past when access wasn’t so restricted.
Cleaned and freshly mowed for the reunion.
It seems there are fewer and fewer standing buildings with each visit, some deliberately demolished with evidence of mechanical land-leveling and grading. And those buildings remaining are deteriorating back to nature on their own.
A cluster of Dawson buildings as seen from the Vermejo River.
The rows of cottonwood trees that once outlined streets and yards were likely planted in ca. 1900. The sidewalks can be no more recent than 1950.
Once the headquarters of a cattle operation and orchards, the Dawson Ranch is across the river from the townsite.
Hand-stacked sandstone walls create terracing adjacent to the original roadway. The Dawson house stood on top of the terraced hill.
This building is historic but related to the mining era, not the pre-1900 ranch.
These ruins are obviously much too new to be the Dawson ranch house. According to a knowledgeable historian, a newer structure was built on the foundation of the original house.
The origin of this cabin is unknown, at least to me.
This railroad is not the original; it was built later to service the York Canyon Mine located several miles up the canyon. The York Canyon Mine itself closed sometime around 2002.
Dawson Mines #8, #9, and #10 are located away from the town, up Dawson Canyon.
This cinderblock building guards the entrance to Dawson Canyon.
The coal was removed from Dawson Mine #8, #9, and #10 by rail on this grade. Production in these three mines lasted from approximately 1920 until 1930.
This may be the location of Dawson #10.
This is the original entrance to Dawson #8. The exact location of Dawson #9 is between #8 and #10 but not obvious while walking the grade.
Concrete foundation near Dawson #8.
The rail from the three mines in Dawson Canyon came down the hill, over the creek on this trestle, and then dead-ended at a cliff.
Actually, the rail didn’t dead-end at the cliff. There was once a tunnel that went through the next mountain to the main coal processing areas in the Vermejo River valley.
Hundreds of visitors, Dawson residents, and their families visit and share stories during the picnic. Some hang banners with their family names, display artifacts, and share historic documents.