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High Altitude Energy, by Lee Scamehorn

Review by Ed Quillen

Mining – August 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

High Altitude Energy – A History of Fossil Fuels in Colorado
by Lee Scamehorn
Published in 2002 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-661-6

The role of mining in Colorado’s identity is pretty clear — we celebrate the Gold Rush of 1859, our 1876 state seal features the miner’s hammer and pick, and today, our old mining camps are popular tourist attractions.

But that was hard-rock mining for gold and silver, along with more prosaic metals like molybdenum, lead, and zinc. There was another sort of mining just as vital to our history and economy — the “soft-rock” extraction of coal from the earth, as well as petroleum, natural gas, and oil shale.

Important as it is, that story is seldom told, so High Altitude Energy is a welcome addition to Colorado’s mining lore. Although it is sometimes rather dry, the book is easy to follow — even for non-experts who are merely curious.

Coal gets most of the attention, and for good reason — it was Colorado’s primary fuel until the 1930s. Most houses were heated with coal, most factories used it for fuel, and coal-powered locomotives carried most of Colorado’s commerce.

Since it was bulky, the nearby source had the edge, and coal mines sprouted from the High Plains to the Western Slope — most were along the Front Range, though, since that was the major market. There was a northern field in the Erie area along the line between Boulder and Weld counties, and an immense southern field around Walsenburg and Trinidad. Both areas were battlefields in the labor wars of the early 20th century, most notably at Ludlow south of Walsenburg.

Central Colorado was mostly a consumer, not a producer, of coal. The nearest fields were at Cañon City (there was also oil nearby) and Crested Butte (which began as a silver camp), and neither remains in production.

The Crested Butte mines were controlled by an industrial behemoth, Colorado Fuel & Iron, which made steel in Pueblo. Steel-making, like the smelting of metallic ores, requires a hotter and purer flame than coal can deliver.

The solution was similar to the process of turning wood into charcoal (an early smelter fuel). The coal was heated in a beehive-shaped oven to drive off the gasses that contained impurities like ammonia. The gasses poisoned the air and soil for miles around, but the remaining solid, known as coke, was nearly pure carbon.

Another coal product was synthetic gas, produced by distilling bituminous coal or by running superheated steam across coal. The result was “illuminating gas” from the gasworks, and it fueled the gaslights we associate with the Victorian era. Gunnison and Leadville were among the five Colorado cities which had gasworks a century ago.

Gaslights were replaced by electricity (often generated at a coal-burning plant), and synthetic gas was replaced by “natural gas” — a mixture that emerged early on from oil wells, but was rare in Colorado until the petroleum companies started looking for it.

America’s first oil well was in 1859 in Pennsylvania, but Colorado wasn’t far behind — the first production was in 1860 along Four Mile Creek, northwest of Cañon City. As is the case with coal, Central Colorado has been mostly a consumer, not a producer, although there were refineries in Alamosa and Florence for many years.

And then there’s oil shale — touted for years as a solution to America’s energy needs, but still in need of an economic way to refine it.

Scamehorn covers the ups and downs of each fuel from the earliest days to the fuel shocks of 1973, and then through various energy crises to the present. It’s a solid book, focused on technology and economics, with little social history or anecdotal material (although there is some). It has a superb index and bibliography, two important features that often get scant regard these days.

High Altitude Energy isn’t light reading, but it’s not difficult, either, since Scamehorn writes clearly about subjects that can be quite complex. The book is well worth reading if you enjoy Colorado history — because it relates a part of our mining history that is important but too-often ignored.