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The CF&I Connection

by Virginia McConnell Simmons

Part 2 of 2

Editor’s note: In Part One of this series the author discusses Central Colorado’s strong links with the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in Pueblo.

Limonite at the Orient Mine in the San Luis Valley was the largest producer of iron ore in Colorado. Unfortunately, it was inadequate for profitable mine operations in the long run.

Orient, variously called Oriental and Orient City, first opened in 1881, with its ore being sold to the Pueblo mill by a private operator. The ore was carried to Pueblo via the D&RG narrow-gauge branch that in 1881 came over Poncha Pass from Salida to Villa Grove in 1881, and soon afterward on a branch running southeast from Villa Grove to Orient itself. The mine was acquired by Colorado Fuel and Iron in 1892, and the peak of its production came around 1900-1903, when the population was about 400. Some ore was also being shipped to Durango, but the closing of the post office in 1905 suggests that activity had already dwindled. The mine shut down soon after CF&I opened its Sunrise Mine in Wyoming in 1919, although the Orient later reopened with a private contractor doing some mining until it closed in 1931 for the last time. Thereafter, with the exception of some coal from Utah, the Sunrise was CF&I’s principal source of coal.

Accidents and deaths were not infrequent, though rarely publicized, and the Orient had several. At this mine, as at Calumet, rock was broken off in chambers and then lowered on slopes to ore cars. The rooms were supported with pillars instead of being timbered. When miners were trying to remove good ore from one of the columns, a cave-in occurred, killing a dozen or more men.

While operating under CF&I management, Orient City was a small company town with a population of about 400 for a short time. Along with CF&I’s company store and boarding house, there were several company houses to rent, a grade school, and a library, provided through the corporation’s Sociology Department, plus a few restaurants and a saloon. Nearby Valley View Hot Springs offered recreation for the mining community which had no other close neighbors.

CF&I also needed materials like fluorspar and lime to remove unwanted minerals like silica, and to act as a flux to make iron particles bind. Not far from Creede was the Wagon Wheel Gap Fluorspar Mine, within sight and earshot of a nearby hot springs resort (now the 4UR Ranch) that had been developed earlier for the gentry.

In 1912 this privately owned mine and its mill began shipping to CF&I. The mine passed through the ownership of the American Fluorspar Company, which in turn sold it to the Colorado Fluorspar Company and then to CF&I in 1924. The superintendent at the Orient Mine had responsibilities for both mines until 1931, when the Orient closed and he went to Wagon Wheel Gap, along with some of the company buildings. Although some fluorspar was being mined in Brown’s Canyon until the 1960s for other buyers, the CF&I mine at Wagon Wheel Gap was the steel mill’s only supplier from 1931 until the 1950s.

Rather than having its own railroad spur, Wagon Wheel Gap had a track for small rail cars that coasted downhill on a gentle grade from the mill to the D&RG tracks beside the Rio Grande.

Across the river from today’s Cottonwood Cove resort, the ore was dumped into the railroad’s ore cars. A burro, which rode downhill on a flat car, then pulled the empty rail cars back to the mine.

In Central Colorado, limestone is probably the best remembered link with CF&I because of the visibility of its quarry near Monarch Pass and of the D&RG branch from Salida to the quarry. When the quarry closed, so did the railroad branch and the bridge in Salida, along with jobs, local income, and a lot of nostalgic memories.

Not all lime comes from limestone, of course. For instance, the sugar beet industry of eastern Colorado obtained lime from dolomite at Newett on Trout Creek Pass, and limestone in Central Colorado was quarried for building material. But the Monarch Quarry seems synonymous with CF&I.

Initially CF&I obtained most of its limestone to make lime for fluxing from south of Pueblo, but by 1902 it was also being quarried at Calcite, south of Howard, where a rail spur was built. By 1909 a quarry operator was also sending limestone from Monarch Pass to smelters at Salida and Leadville. In 1930, CF&I closed the Calcite Quarry and bought the Monarch Quarry from the Burton family. From then until 1982, when the quarry ceased operating, the works in Pueblo was the sole destination of Monarch Quarry limestone.

Because of winter conditions at an elevation of 10,000 feet, quarrying was done during nine months of the year to produce enough material for year-round operations in Pueblo. A 21-mile, narrow-gauge branch, later broadened to standard gauge, connected the quarry to the line at Salida. While the trains, typically consisting of 28 cars, were still running, fans enjoyed watching the intricate maneuvers that took place through two switchbacks at a highway crossing between Garfield and Maysville.

With the abandonment of the railroad branch in 1984, the last link from Central Colorado to CF&I was gone, although CF&I itself was also gone by then. Calamitous as it was for workers and the region’s economy, the loss of CF&I came as no surprise. For most of its life, the steel mill had suffered because of distance from markets and resources, competition among larger corporations and railroad companies, labor troubles, a painful downturn in the 1920s, and the Great Depression culminating in bankruptcy in the 1930s, with a few profitable years interspersed during world wars.

By the mid-1900s, coal and coke for fuel was no longer king. Smelters had closed. Locomotives were using diesel engines, not steam, and trucks had taken over much freighting. Domestic users had switched to natural gas, and CF&I itself converted from coal-fired to electric-arc furnaces.

In the 1940s, the Rockefeller interest passed to other New York investors, and in the 1960s, CF&I Steel Corporation, as it was then known, was acquired by the Crane Company. Next, Oregon Steel Company took over, and presently EVRAZ, a holding company in Oregon with Russian investors, owns the mill, now called Rocky Mountain Steel. It operates as a mini-mill, making specialty steel products.

So today, if you want to provide some raw material for the mill down at Pueblo, your best connection is a junkyard, not a mine.

Virginia McConnell Simmons is the author of numerous books about our region, including the Pikes Peak region, South Park, Upper Arkansas River, and San Luis Valley before she moved on to Ute Indians and the Grand Canyon.