The mysterious coal mine of San Juan County
“Would you like to see the only coal mine in San Juan County?” Ferd Johnson asked us one beautiful Sunday morning.
“Sure.” We didn’t hesitate because Ferd has a great memory, wide-ranging experiences, and extensive knowledge about San Juan County. So, anytime he wanted to show us something, we were more than willing to go.
“It’s only about four or five miles south of town on the edge of Recapture,” he told us. “It won’t take long to get there.”
Despite the mine’s close proximity, it took some time to arrange our schedules, but finally the appointed day rolled around.
Ferd slid into the Jeep’s front seat and directed Ted toward Brown’s Canyon Road. Four or five miles later, he told my hubby to turn right onto a narrow track through the junipers.
After we bumped along the trail for about 100 yards, Ted stopped, and we climbed out. Kenidee followed close behind as we walked over a heap of black grit to the mine itself.
Someone had thrown a blue tarp, now shredded, over the junipers, and a tan couch sagged where a makeshift living room had once been.
“The seam of coal runs from the dam down the canyon to Mustang, but this is as big as it gets,” Ferd said. “The coal was poor quality and left a lot of ash, but they mined it for short time, probably stopping in the ’30s.”
He leaned against a huge sandstone rock. “The early settlers had to haul a lot of wood, so this probably helped. After they stopped mining it, Anthon Black hauled good quality coal from Price and Hesperus.”
“The mine’s roof looks unstable,” Ted said, standing beside him. My hubby had been a uranium miner when young, so I trusted his opinion.
The roof did look crumbly, and claustrophobia usually kept me out of small, dark places, but while the men chatted about coal mine accidents, curiosity drove me to peer inside the entrance.
I pulled out my cell phone and tapped on the light. Its ray illuminated a large, red plastic bowl not too far from the entrance. Obviously, someone had lived here in the not-too-distant past and probably used the mine as shelter during storms.
Since they’d sheltered inside, I thought it might be safe, so Kenidee and I ventured in a little farther, my light shining on a spatula, an empty half-gallon jug of Dairy Pure Milk, and the end of a pencil.
So far, no problem. I kept walking. The tunnel’s walls were black with lighter seams running through it. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect the mine to end so soon, perhaps 40 or 50 feet from the opening.
I cast my light around to see if another tunnel jutted off the main one, but, no, it was the end.
I tiptoed back, a little disappointed not to have found more clues.
As I exited the mine, Ted called, “How’s our yellow canary?”
“Still alive,” I said. “It doesn’t go back very far.”
“Devon Hurst may have filed on it,” Ferd said, “but not too many people know it’s here.”
Later, when we researched the mine’s history, we discovered that Devon Hurst, born in 1924, had probably been too young to do much mining there. We looked up his mining claims, none of which matched the coal mine’s location, so we wondered if his father, Oscar Parley Hurst, had filed the claim.
Following that thread, we talked to a woman whose family had lived in Brown’s Canyon. She told us no roads existed in the early days, so Edson Black had gone out with a wheelbarrow, loaded it with coal, and trundled it back to town.
Edson, born in 1886, was the son of John M. Black who built, owned, or operated at least eight different flour mills and taught Edson and his brother Chester the fine art of milling. They settled in Blanding in 1911 and constructed Blanding’s mill.
In an article posted on “Find a Grave Memorial,” Edson and Chester were lauded as “enterprising and progressive young business men.”
Edson’s son Anthon, in the talk he gave at his dad’s funeral, said Blanding City asked his dad in 1918 “about putting in a light plant.” They located it by the mill and ran both by steam power. According to Anthon, “Dad said he burned more cord wood than anybody in the country.”
Anthon didn’t mention supplementing the wood with coal. It makes sense, although shoveling it out and wheelbarrowing it into town must have been painful and labor intensive.
Edson ran the power plant for eleven years, but in 1929, the city installed a diesel engine, so wood and coal weren’t needed anymore. Years later, in the 1950’s, Anthon and his boys did, in fact, have a contract with the School District to haul good quality coal to Blanding and Monticello.
Despite our sleuthing, the mystery of San Juan County’s only coal mine remains as open as the mine itself. After seeing it, we headed back to town with Ferd and Ted keeping up a commentary about the landscape and its human history.
As we pulled into Blanding, Ferd asked if we’d ever seen the Westwater cave where a family had lived for five years. They’d arrived from the colonies with nothing, “not even shoes,” but that’s a story for another day.