Author digs deep for Coal Basin mining history | AspenTimes.com

Author digs deep for Coal Basin mining history

Kelley Cox/Post IndependentJohn Reeves relaxes in the study of his home near Glenwood Springs. It's where he wrote his new book, "The Mines of Coal Basin, 1956-1991," available now at the Book Train in Glenwood Springs.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The coal mines of Mid-Continent Resources, now a reclaimed area in nearby Coal Basin, have been closed down for more than 20 years, following 35 tumultuous years of operation.

The company produced more than 21 million tons of high-quality coking coal from deep underground mines that posed a constant risk to miners encountering pockets of methane gas. The operation provided hundreds of jobs from Marble to Glenwood Springs and infused millions of dollars into the local economy.

Mid-Continent also was the frequent source of controversy over labor unrest, polluted stream run-off and concerns about coal trucks traveling the narrow, winding course of Highway 133 from the mines at Redstone to the rail load-out at Carbondale.

The story of Mid-Continent, “The Mines of Coal Basin 1956 – 1991,” is now available in a self-published book by John A. Reeves, top man at the business from its start in 1957 until it shut down following a disastrous underground fire in 1991.

The book’s subtitles, “It Was Never Easy” and “The Untold Story,” say something about the way Reeves views the tale as he looks back over the decades.

Now nearing 87 and living near Glenwood Springs, Reeves said he had no real desire to write about his years as general manager and later president of Mid-Continent.

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“I never thought something I was doing was something anybody would be interested in,” he said, during an interview this past week at his home.

But his wife of 63 years, Jackie, and his close friend and associate Ed Mulhall, a Glenwood Springs attorney, pressed him to put the story down on paper.

“No one currently alive knows the whole story,” other than Reeves, wrote Mulhall in the book’s introduction. Capturing the story of the mines was “a compelling reason for him to write this bit of local history,” Mulhall said of Reeves’ effort.

So three years ago, relying on his memories and on a warehouse packed with records, reports, charts, maps and other materials remaining from Mid-Continent, Reeves went to work.

With the assistance of editor Nancy Fehrmann, a composition instructor at Colorado Mountain College, Reeves produced a limited press run of the 351-page softbound volume. The book is available at the Book Train, 723 Grand Ave. in Glenwood Springs, for $27.95. Store manager Carole O’Brien said on Friday that she already had sold a few copies.

“I think it’s just great that he’s written this,” O’Brien told the Post Independent.

Reeves, too, feels the book is a good effort at preserving some local history.

“I think some people will contest it,” Reeves said of the book, “but I think basically the book’s pretty accurate.”

The main object of the book is to give readers an idea of what it was like to manage and work in the mines.

But in the early pages it also provides an intriguing glimpse back at Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Redstone as they were in the late 1950s, and the primitive conditions of the road up the Crystal River from Carbondale to Redstone.

Reeves described his first trip to the mine over a “winding, rocky and extremely bumpy” road from Carbondale to Redstone, and on a dirt road into Coal Basin that in places exceeded grades of 10 percent.

It was not until the early 1960s, Reeves wrote, that the then-Colorado Highway Department designated the road from Carbondale over McClure Pass as a state highway and paved it.

“The establishment of this highway was primarily motivated by Mid-Continent,” he wrote, along with lobbying by the company’s coal hauling contractor, Morrison-Knudsen.

Even after the highway was paved, Highway 133 was traveled cautiously by residents who feared nighttime encounters with loaded coal trucks heading toward Mid-Continent’s rail load-out on County Road 100 east of Carbondale.

“I was never so happy as when they closed that thing down, and got those trucks off the road,” said former Redstone resident Clark Cretti, in a conversation with the Post Independent.

Reeves estimated that Mid-Continent employed about 350 people, and Morrison-Knudsen employed dozens more.

In the book, Reeves recalled conflict with the workforce over their attempts to affiliate with the United Mine Workers of America union. Reeves readily admits that he has no love for the UMWA, nor did the owners of Mid-Continent at its Chicago headquarters.

As a major employer and industrial concern, Mid-Continent had a considerable impact on residents and businesses in the valley and beyond.

In his introduction, Mulhall, who served as a legal advisor on Mid-Continent’s labor and safety issues, estimated that the company at its peak generated as much as $15 million per year in salaries alone.

No history of the mines would be complete, of course, without mention of two mine explosions that killed nine men on Dec. 28, 1959, and 15 men on April 15, 1981.

It was the explosions and the deaths, in part, that kept Reeves from taking up the book project sooner.

“I didn’t like the idea of writing about the accidents, the explosions,” he explained. “It was too depressing to me.”

Near the end of the book, in a chapter titled, “Retrospect,” Reeves writes sorrowfully about the miners lost in the two explosions, and about other, less deadly accidents.

“My worst experiences in coal mining were the accidents,” he wrote. “Each, even when not fatal, is tragic. It’s impossible to describe how these tragedies make on feel. I took every accident personally.”

On top of the devastating loss of life, the final years of Mid-Continent were a constant struggle for Reeves and company officials. Finding a market for the coal, dealing with increasing scrutiny from federal mine safety inspectors, making a Herculean effort to put out a raging underground fire, and finally shutting down the pumps and allowing the mine to fill with groundwater was beyond difficult.

“The way the mines ended, it wasn’t in a blaze of glory. We had the fire, and that was it,” Reeves said.

The fire forced the mine to stop operating in 1990. It was caused when maintenance work next to the million-dollar longwall continuous mining machine produced sparks that ignited methane gas escaping from an old roof-bolt hole.

Despite a concerted effort to extinguish the fire over two months, the mine was shuttered by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the company soon went into bankruptcy.

While it was running, though, the Coal Basin mines and Mid-Continent’s associated industrial activities were the economic foundation of Carbondale and the Crystal River Valley for decades.

Mid-Continent ran a mine services shop, a coal wash plant and a load-out facility just east of Carbondale on Garfield County Road 100, an iron mine far up Castle Creek above Ashcroft, and a limestone quarry in Glenwood Springs.

When Mid-Continent formally closed the whole business in 1991, much of this industrial base evaporated, with a significant effect on the valley’s economy.

Born in the coal mining town of Price, Utah, in 1925, Reeves graduated from Carbon High School in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He studied military tactics and mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado and then served in the Pacific theater at the end of World War II. After the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering from the University of Utah.

Reeves began his 60-year mining career at mines in Price, moving from job to job to satisfy his ambition or interest while he and Jackie started their family. While working for the Monsanto Chemical Co. in Idaho, industrialist Leighton S. Wood, then owner and president of Mid-Continent, recruited Reeves to re-open the Coal Basin mines.

Reeves arrived in Redstone to find a small operation, basically a start-up with only a shallow portal high up on the wall of Huntsman’s Ridge.

Over the ensuing decades, Mid-Continent expanded and modernized the mine, digging thousands of feet underground into the downward-sloping vein of ultra-high quality coking coal.

Within a few decades, a map of the underground mine works resembled a street grid of a fair-sized city. Reeves said the underground mine reached a maximum size of five miles long and one mile wide as it dug coal from two different seams.

Coal Basin’s “medium-volatile” coking coal is the best grade of coal for use in iron smelting and steel mill operations. Mid-Continent coal was, at different times, sold to smelting plants around the West.

Toward the end, though, the mine’s customers dwindled to Kaiser Steel in California and U.S. Steel in Utah, and a steel mill in South Korea. Reeves blamed the falling market for coking coal on competition from overseas steel-makers and shrinkage of the steel industry in the U.S.

In his book, Reeves offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of a coal mine, although at times it reads like an engineering textbook or a how-to manual for experienced coal miners.

Reeves is quite candid about certain controversial issues that faced Mid-Continent, such as his assertion that L.S. Wood was a bigoted man who barred the mines from hiring African Americans or Hispanics.

Reeves noted, “He had no objection if I hired Native Americans.”

Implying that he sometimes ignored Wood’s racist directive, Reeves wrote, “If Wood saw and asked about someone who had a dark complexion, I told Wood they were Native American, and that seemed to satisfy him.”

The book, divided into 14 chapters, is a close examination of the company’s fortunes, and Reeves is fairly candid whether those fortunes were rising or falling at any given time.

He is very open about the company’s numerous clashes with labor, as well as what he clearly viewed as the troublesome intervention of state inspectors and federal regulations.

And while he felt his company’s relationships with surrounding communities were generally positive, he admitted that Mid-Continent had and still has its critics.

But in the company’s defense, he said, “We were doing something that’s so foreign to most people, they really didn’t know what was going on.”

jcolson@postindependent.com