Ghost Town Wednesday – Dawson, New Mexico

Dawson Cemetery-3-500In 1869 John Barkley Dawson purchased 250,000 acres of land on the Vermejo River from Lucien Maxwell (Maxwell Land Grant).  For the next twenty years, Dawson developed the ranch land and built a ranch house.

Coal was discovered and the deposits laid under much of Dawson’s range.  The Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, an English corporation, purchased the remaining part of the original Maxwell Land Grant and then proceeded to remove squatters and lease tenants of the original grant.  All through the 1880s the company was successful in removing many occupants.  In the early 1890s, the company filed suit against Dawson.  The case processed through the court system and was eventually settled in Dawson’s favor by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The litigation costs and a persistent drought drove Dawson to sell all but 1,250 acres to the Dawson Fuel Company in 1901 (no relation).  Immediately the company and investors began developing the coal mine and building a railroad spur into Tucumcari.

The town of Dawson quickly sprung up and grew.  In 1906, the mine operations were sold to the Phelps Dodge Corporation – coal was needed for both their railroad and copper smelting operations.  The market for coal accelerated, as did the growth and development of the town of Dawson.  Immigrants from Germany, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Finland, Yugoslavia, Ireland, Mexico and Poland came to America to work the mines.  At one point the town’s population reached close to 9,000 (according to Family Search 11,000), one of the largest towns in New Mexico,

Many mining towns of any size had a company store and Dawson had one too – the Phelps Dodge Mercantile.  The store sold everything from food, furniture, clothing and jewelry to ice from its own ice plant.  The town had a community swimming pool, hotel, schools, churches, a modern hospital, opera house, bowling alley and even a golf course.  Phelps Dodge apparently spared no expense in building a model city for its employees.  The company also built a steam-powered electric plant that furnished electricity to Dawson and also to nearby Raton and Walsenburg, Colorado.

Dawson composite

(click image to enlarge)

Mining, of course, is a dangerous occupation.  In 1903 there was a fire and explosion, but 500 men were able to escape with only three deaths.  Accidents occurred, however, and soon the  cemetery began to fill up.

Two mining explosions – one on October 22, 1913 (see yesterday’s Tombstone Tuesday article) and one on February 8, 1923 – were disastrous.  In 1913, 263 men were killed, including two of the rescuers.  In 1923, another 123 were killed.  Some of those killed in the 1923 explosion were children of victims of the 1913 disaster.

Marcial Chavez – died October 22, 1913 and Patricio Chavez – died on February 8, 1923 (possibly father and son or related somehow)

Pacifico Santi and Egisto Santi – died October 22, 1913 (brothers who had arrived in America on December 5, 1909 with their other brother Silvio).  Their 25 year-old brother Angelo arrived in America on September 20, 2013.  He also died on October 22, 2013.

Despite these tragedies, mining operations continued until production finally decreased and demand declined.  In 1950, Phelps Dodge closed the mine and sold the town.  Most of the town was demolished, although some houses were moved to other locations.  The town was largely forgotten until in 1991 two brothers (Dale and Lloyd Christian) were exploring the area with metal detectors and discovered the abandoned and dilapidated cemetery.  In 1992, through their efforts, the cemetery was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

dawson last coalThe site is now part of a working ranch, but the cemetery is still accessible to the public.  Every other year on Labor Day former residents and their families return for a picnic.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.



  1. Interesting bit of history. Look forward to future posts.

    • Thanks .. I’m having a blast doing the articles every day… trying to make them interesting.


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