Colorado Fuel and Iron: Culture and Industry in Southern Colorado

Pueblo, Colorado

Part 1: Early History
From: "Spoils of War: Development and Dispossession in the American Southwest" by Chris Schreck, April 20, 2020. 

The story of Pueblo as we know it today begins with Charles Beaubien and Gervacio Nolan, two French-Canadian fur-trappers and traders who travelled to New Mexico in the 1820s in search of land and profitable business opportunities. Both men applied for and received Mexican citizenship in 1829 to become eligible to receive land grants, and both men married local Hispano women and raised families near Taos. Nolan received a land grant on the northern edge of Mexican territory along the Arkansas River from the Mexican government on December 1, 1843. This 500,000 acre tract included an area west of Fountain Creek along the Arkansas River, which became the site of the modern-day city of Pueblo, Colorado. At the time Pueblo was nothing more than a small adobe trading post at the edge of unorganized United States territory. There was little agricultural production in the region due to the presence of potentially dangerous native tribes that hunted along the two rivers, so economic activity was confined to the trading post and the near-by Santa Fe Trail. The trading post was abandoned, however, following the Fort Pueblo Massacre on December 25, 1854 in which a force of 50-100 Indian raiders under the leadership of Chief Tierra Blanco (White Earth) led an attack that killed fourteen Mexicans and one Canadian at the fort.

Activity did not return to the region until Nolan’s heirs sold his estate fifteen years later to a woman named Annie Blake for $10,000. Mrs. Blake sold two-thirds of the land for that same price; one-third to prominent Texas businessman Charles Goodnight and another third to Arkansas Valley pioneer Peter Dotson soon after she purchased it. Goodnight established Rock Canyon Ranch on the his portion of the grant in the 1869, and helped organize the Stock Growers Bank of Pueblo soon after that. The establishment of a bank provided a sense of financial security for ranchers and farmers, spurring emigration to the region. Peter Dotson, Goodnight’s business partner, opened a hotel in the center of what became downtown Pueblo, constructed a number of houses in the area, and took the job of postmaster of the city. The Thatcher brothers, John, Mahlon, and Henry, came to Pueblo around the same time. The Thatcher’s owned and operated several Pueblo businesses including a bank and a grocery store, they all ran for political office, and by the 1890s John and Mahlon were well known Pueblo socialites. Henry, before his death in 1884, served as Colorado’s first Supreme Court Justice. As important as these men were to the development of the Nolan Grant, however, significant investment in the region would not, and could not, be realized without the railroads. 

William Jackson Palmer purchased the Nolan Grant from Annie Blake, Peter Dotson, and Charles Goodnight for $130,000 in cash with plans to incorporate the town of South Pueblo. After securing this land and a bond for $100,000 from the existing city of Pueblo, Palmer and his associates proceeded to complete the D&RG line to the Arkansas River. As part of the company’s agreement to secure these funds from Pueblo company officials agreed build a depot on the north side of the river within one mile of the Pueblo County court house. Upon completion, however, Puebloans were outraged to find that the depot was actually constructed on the south side of the river on a company-owned rival townsite called South Pueblo. Though the D&RG was later forced to return the initial funds to the city of Pueblo after an ugly court battle, this is a prime example of the tactics Palmer and other developers in the post-Civil War American West used, often successfully, to inflate the price of their lands and manipulate local governments, a process that was repeated numerous times throughout the Southwest. 

The first branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad ran from Denver to Colorado Springs and was completed on October 27, 1871, with construction to the Arkansas River at Pueblo wrapping in June of the following year. The D&RG however, like all railroads, required fuel to run its engines and iron to produce its rails. Railroads, of course, require rails, rails require steel, and steel requires natural resources, specifically iron, fuel, fluxing agents, and water. This region, believed to be desolate and devoid of mineral wealth, provided all of these things, and in 1881 a steel mill was born. Pueblo was chosen as the location for the mill because of its centrality to these natural resources and its proximity to water, the most valuable resource of all. In an effort to reduce costs and take another step towards complete vertical integration Palmer and his associates incorporated yet another company, the Colorado Coal and Iron Company (CC&I), to build the mill and produce rails for the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. On September 5, 1881 the company’s first blast furnace, “Betsy,” was “blown in” in a formal ceremony that was attended by company officers and Pueblo community leaders. By the end of Spring 1882 the site included a casting house for making pig iron, two five-ton Bessemer vessels for completing the steel production process, a storage house, cranes, crushers, ladles, and a rolling mill to produce rails from raw steel. By the end of the decade the mill was also producing barbed wire, bars, beams, nails, spikes, and plates for a wide variety of purposes and consumers.

The significance of the steel mill to the development of the region cannot be overstated. After CC&I merged with its largest competitor and changed its name to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) in 1892, thousands of men and women came from around the world to work at the plant, and thousands more came to support them. Grocery stores, restaurants, laundry services, recreational facilities, schools, churches, taverns, and more sprung up across Pueblo. The company actively recruited Eastern European, Italian, Welsh, and Irish laborers to work at the mill, drawing immigrants to southern Colorado both to pursue employment and to escape war, poverty, and famine in their home countries. Many of these immigrants brought their families with them, spawning future generations of blue-collar workers who were born and raised in burgeoning city. By the end of the nineteenth century the steel mill was the pinnacle of industrial development in the Southwest, and the catalyst for immense social and cultural changes that occurred in the following decades. 

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