Frémont County loses its last coal mine

Brief by Central Staff

Mining – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

Leadville lost its last silver mine when the Asarco Black Cloud closed in 1999, and Frémont County is losing its last coal mine at the close of 2000.

The Energy Fuels Coal Mine, eight miles south of Florence, was scheduled to shut down sometime in December, putting about 40 employees out of work.

The mine was almost depleted, although there were coal deposits nearby that could have been developed, according to George Patterson, the mine manager.

But development would require a commitment from the mine’s two major customers, and they weren’t interested in signing long-term contracts, Patterson said.

Those customers are Holnam, Inc., which operates a cement-making plant east of Florence, and WestPlains, which owns and operates the electrical generating plant on the west side of Cañon City.

Their refusal to make contracts for more than two years was “unfortunate,” Patterson said, “because there is enough quality coal for 15 to 20 years just west of Florence and close to WestPlains and Holnam. The fuel is right there in their back yards.”

Frémont County’s coal was discovered in territorial days, and the coal field was a major attraction for both the Denver & Rio Grande and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé railroads in the 1870s — coal was a profitable freight item, since people in Denver needed it to heat their houses and fuel their boilers, and it kept the locomotives running, too.

In 1920, there were several dozen coal mines operating in Frémont County, and they supported small settlements like Rockvale and Williamsburg. That year, Frémont produced 874,766 tons of coal, making it sixth in the state behind Las Animas, Huerfano, Boulder, Routt, and Weld counties. Total statewide production was 12,514,693 tons.

By 1956, state production had dropped to 3,303,661 tons, and Frémont’s share was 241,529 tons. Statewide production turned around with the energy shocks of the 1970s, but most of that was strip-mined coal shipped out of state for power generation. The federal Clean Air Act also encourages Midwestern and Southern utilities to burn Colorado coal, because most of the coal in our state is relatively low in sulfur and thus doesn’t need as much expensive scrubbing technology.

So while statewide production was up to 29,303,661 tons in 1998, none of it came from old coal-mining leaders like Huerfano (Walsenburg) and Las Animas (Trinidad) counties. And Frémont produced only 226,000 tons in 1998, which is less than it did in 1956.