Discovering Steamboat: Bustling coal-mining community now a ghost town
Steamboat Springs — Most journalists are curious by nature, and I’ve been told by friends and family that curiosity is one of my most dominant character traits. So after driving from Steamboat Springs to Craig and back at least a half-dozen times in the past six months, I could avoid it no longer, and on Wednesday, I felt compelled to stop at a “Point of Interest” sign located along U.S. Highway 40 between Hayden and Milner.
When I parked my car and walked to the sign explaining the significance of the site, I scanned the mountainside to the south and the banks on both sides of the Yampa River below and saw nothing but a snow-covered Northwest Colorado landscape. There were no structures in sight, and I initially found it hard to imagine that this now bare stretch of land once was home to a bustling coal mining town with hundreds of residents.
Back in the early to mid-1900s, the area south of the railroad tracks between mile markers 114 and 115 was known as Mount Harris — a town that sprung up after brothers George and Byron Harris opened the first coal mine at the mouth of Bear River Canyon — hence the name Mount Harris.
According to “The Historical Guide to Routt County,” the city was founded in 1914 as a tent colony by the Harrises and eventually gained a national reputation as a model company town, serving as the hub for coals mines operated by the Victor American Fuel Co., the Pinnacle-Kemmer Co and Colorado-Utah Mining Co.
By 1920, the town grew to be the largest in the county with a population of 1,295. Marked by wide, tree-lined streets, Mount Harris boasted two doctor’s offices, a theater, a four-room schoolhouse, two hotels, a bunk house and a large two-story building that housed a drugstore, general store, post office, barbershop, company office and hardware store.
The town’s most famous feature was its two-level filling station. Pumps on the top level faced the highway to the north and served travelers along that route. The lower level of the structure opened to the south and had its own set of pumps, patronized by Mount Harris residents.
Using U.S. 40 as a dividing point, the Mount Harris mine lay to the south, and Victor American Fuel Co.’s Wadge mine was located to the north. Mount Harris was known as the area’s safest mine, with only seven lives lost during the mine’s 44 years of operation. But Wadge would become known as the area’s deadliest.
In January 1942, an explosion ripped through the Wadge mine, killing 34 miners who were trapped about 5,500 feet inside the tunnel. Of those who were killed, 22 were from Wadge, six from Craig, three from Hayden and three from Steamboat Springs. Only four miners escaped the explosion alive.
The Wadge mine shut down in 1952, followed by the Mount Harris mine in 1958. The town was liquidated and many of the homes and buildings sold at auction and moved to other locations around the county. One resident at the time reported that structures were dismantled and removed in one day’s time.
Now, the only remnants left of Mount Harris are six concrete foundations and a few crumbling sidewalks, which are said to be visible in the cluster of trees on the south side of the railroad tracks once the snow has melted for the season.
The mining community of Mount Harris is listed among Colorado’s ghost towns, and standing by the side of the highway, looking south, it is easy for one’s imagination to take flight. My mind conjured up images of a Western town with families shopping at the company store before gathering for a Saturday night concert at Mount Harris’ two-story outdoor bandstand. I also could envision hardworking miners meeting together after a long day underground, placing bets at the local pool hall and enjoying a cold beverage.
Routt County’s history continues to fascinate me, and my “Point of Interest” stop definitely was worth the detour.
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Time seemed to stop for Matthew Engle for a few seconds after he heard crunching metal last week while he was in downtown Steamboat Springs.