"Coal Town, the Life and Times of Dawson, New Mexico"
My wife and I discovered Dawson on a vacation to northern New Mexico. A picture on a historical marker showed a once relatively large town that had had many houses and facilities. We were both struck by there being a cemetery with no surviving town. Later, when, during a web search, I came across Toby Smith's book about Dawson. I ordered it.
With a relatively obscure subject, this is a book not likely to be widely read, and that is a shame. Because the book that Toby Smith has written is a remarkable one. Through extensive interviewing, he has reconstructed the vanished homes and buildings of Dawson, re-populated them with departed generations of citizens, and breathed life back into what was once a dynamic coal mining community.
There are photos in the book that depict, among other things, the bodies of miners in caskets after a 1923 mining explosion, the proud 1937 football team that shared the state championship, and a 1941 photo of a smiling GI on furlough with his brother and sisters. Apart from the pictures, Mr. Smith tells stories about and gives impressions of many of the townsfolk. What Edgar Lee Masters did for the people in the fictional Spoon River cemetery, Smith has done for the former inhabitants of Dawson.
Our vacation walk through the Dawson cemetery revealed that many of the coalminers were from other countries. One section contains graves of over two hundred men, mostly Italians, who were killed in a disastrous mine explosion in 1913. Other nationalities represented in Dawson were Yugoslavs, Japanese, Finns, French, Swedes, and Mexicans.
The Phelps Dodge Company that owned the mines and the entire town, in many regards, engaged in enlightened management. For example, it had an anti-discrimination policy for employees of all nationalities and races, including blacks. After the 1913 tragedy, Smith writes that the company "did not look at the tragedy in terms of lost earnings." To its credit, each widow was given $1000, each miner's child $200, and the family of each bachelor $500, large amounts for that time. On the other hand, the company remained a staunch holdout for years in recognizing the miners' union.
In 1950, with coal demand having steadily declined from the heyday of the coal-burning, steam engine, Phelps Dodge closed Dawson's last mine. As it owned all the buildings and houses, the town was simply shut down. Everyone left, and the buildings and equipment were sold off. Dawson, unlike other defunct mining towns, though, for over fifty years has refused to die. A visitor to the cemetery can see that it is still kept up, and every other year, former residents gather on the town site to have a picnic and to reminisce.
There is something about the universal human struggle in this story of Dawson, and Toby Smith has written a fine book about it.