View of Primero, with the camera facing west.  Image courtesy of Steelworks Center Archives.
View of Primero, with the camera facing west. Image courtesy of Steelworks Center Archives.

Primero was a coal mining town ran by Colorado Fuel & Iron. The mine was located 13 miles west of Trinidad, nearby the still present town of Segundo and was opened in 1901. The town was planned to be CF&I’s model town that the company would use to show off the amenities it could provide for its workers. Primero started life as the Purgatory mine due to its proximity to the Purgatoire River. Due to the religious objections, the name was later changed to the Smith Canyon mine, and afterwards was changed again to Primero, the Spanish word for first, in an attempt to give towns more exciting names. Primero featured 175 houses that the company built and rented out for its workers, a hotel, a barbershop, state accredited schools, a Y.M.C.A., and separate Protestant and Catholic churches. Primero was one of the more productive mines CF&I operated, but it was short lived and was closed in 1928, having been open for 27 years.

The Primero Tipple
The Primero Tipple

Primero coal was soft and bituminous, meaning that it had a high bitumen content, making it useful for the manufacture of coke. Coke is a fuel used in the process of making steel, and is created by heating raw coal in a very high temperature environment without any air, removing impurities from the coal and allowing it to burn hotter when it is used in the steelmaking process. Coal mined at Primero was loaded onto train cars via the tipple and was then shipped to Segundo to be turned into coke. The compounds contained in bituminous coal are dangerous, however, and bituminous coal produces gasses that without proper ventilation and mine safety will result in explosions in the mine. Two such explosions occurred in the Primero mine, one in 1907 and another in 1910. In total, 98 people lost their lives. Both of these explosions were the result of built up gas that had not been properly vented from the mine.
Primero had amenities that other mines didn’t, and one of the most notable examples of this was the town YMCA. The YMCA began life as the town saloon, which opened in 1902. The saloon was overseen by the company in an effort to keep drunkenness down. According to Camp and Plant,
“"Vices, especially drunkenness, all too common in most mining towns, have here been reduced to the minimum by the careful surveillance exercised by the company. All resorts and saloons common in many camps have been excluded from here by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. A club house, managed by F. McPherson, and subject to the constant oversight of the company, occupies a commodious building. Here are billiard, pool and card tables, and a place where liquors and cigars are sold. No gambling for high stakes, however, is permitted. There is no display of liquors in the windows, and no liquors are sold to minors, habitual drunkards, and those who seem to be bordering on intoxication. "
By 1916, however, the saloon was closed and the building was taken over by the YMCA. The YMCA removed all alcohol from the camp and replaced it with soda fountains and candy. The YMCA became the social center of the town, as it also contained a bowling alley on top of the card and billiards tables, Since the YMCA house the largest available indoor space for physical activities, The YMCA was utilized by the schools as their gym. The Y.M.C.A. headed many of the community activities that took place in the town, such as the house beautification contest. When the Spanish Flu epidemic hit Primero, the YMCA was converted into an emergency hospital to house patients since the dispensary was overwhelmed and unable to house all of Primero’s flu patients at the same time.

Many of the citizens in Primero were immigrants, and the YMCA hosted “Americanization Classes” with the goal of aiding citizens in passing the naturalization tests for immigrants to become citizens. According to the Industrial Bulletin, the classes performed well and by 1922 several citizens had passed their naturalization exams.

The Primero kindergarten opened in November, 1902. CF&I underwrote the cost of supplies, teacher housing, and any entertainment for the school while the school board provided teacher salaries. Camp and Plant notes that most of the children were American, Mexican, or Italian and that the average number of students at the Primero school remained around thirty.

As with other CF&I schools, domestic skills were a core part of the curriculum. At Primero, sewing and weaving were two of the main skills taught. Children also engaged in arts-driven activities, such as drawing and clay modeling. The school building also doubled as a social meeting place and entertainment venue.

The schools of Primero were part of a welfare development started by the sociological department of the mining communities of CF&I. The schools were added to the mining camps by the school boards, however, it was CF&I company that front costs for books, teacher wages, and other general costs. The boards added numerous small Districts in Southern Colorado to allow the camps to flourish in education. District 61, also known as Trinidad District, represented Primero schools, along with the neighboring camps such as Segundo, Fredrick, and Valdez, near by.

The first school establishment was in 1901 in a public dwelling house, however, by November 1902, Primero gained its first official school known as Cass Elementary. The elementary school developed a place for the children of the miners to gain an education, and by a highly qualified teaching staff. The students were exposed to domestic training and manual skills by kindergarten age. A lot of the children were immigrants that were mostly Mexican and Italian, and did not speak English. Most of the staff used songs and pictures to help teach young students.

By 1903, an average of sixty children were attending Cass. Most of the children were in grade 1-8 and divided accordingly, and the rest were kindergarten students. By 1904, Cass elementary was considered the social center of Primero.

A school train was established for the school children who attended Primero schools, but did not live in Primero. Some of the school children lived in the neighboring camps. The train would travel up to between 9-18 miles a day to haul to children to and from school. By 8:00 the children arrived to school, and by 3:30 the train finishes its run after returning the children to the neighboring camps. the train for the Primero school students was established in 1916.

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High School students of Primero, 1921

The junior high and high school of Primero were developed in the mid-nineteen-teens. The junior high school was built first in Primero, but the high school erected a short time after. Before the high school was brought to Primero, the junior high was doing its best to accommodate the children who excelled past eighth grade, and this is what prompted the community to invest in a high school.

By 1924, an athletic program was established for the high school students of Primero. First, a track team was put together to represent Primero on field days in the early nineteen-twenties. Next, a Football team was brought to Primero in 1923, however, other sports such as basketball were birthed due to the Athletic Program of Primero.

The first high graduating class of Primero was June 9, 1921. A total of four graduates were a part of commencement that took place at the club house. In 1922, another group of high school graduates had commencement at the club house once again, and a large crowd attended.

Over the course of Primero’s history it obtained two churches the first is estimated, by the Industrial Bulletin, to be built between 1901 and 1910, the second church was constructed in 1916-17. Between the two churches there were two denominations at Primero, catholic and protestant, and they both shared the first church until the second was constructed.

Plans to build a Protestant Church were spurred by John D. Rockefeller when he announced his willingness to contribute to the construction of churches in the mining camps. Other donations to the project included sums from the Catholic denomination that was set to take over the original church, and employees of CF&I, The Industrial Bulletin points out that many of the employees were immigrants.

Exclusive rights to the original church were turned over to the catholic denomination and a dedication ceremony was held on November 19th, 1916. Members attended the event from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company as well as individuals from nearby towns. Father August Forster presided and communion was administered to a class of twenty-six children.

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Once the Protestant Church was finished a council, made up of the protestant congregation, was in charge of drafting a constitution and electing the first Pastor. By January of 1917 they had obtained both and a dedication ceremony was held on March 25th, 1917. The ceremony was a notable event in the CF&I company since the church at Primero was the first church to be completed following Mr. Rockefellers announcement to aid in the building of churches. The new pastor, Rev. W. J. Gregory and three other prominent Colorado ministers, Rt. Rev. Irving P. Johnson, Rev Frank T. Bayley, and Rev. M. H. Macleod, conducted the sermon. Throughout the Protestant church’s life it hosted many sermons, events and holiday gatherings. In 1921 the church organized a “Young People’s Society. That same year about two hundred people attended the Mothers Day Program.a

The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company built 175 houses in the town of Primero and rented them to the employees that worked there. Most of the houses had three or four rooms and only seven of the houses had indoor plumbing. Standard rent was about two dollars a month with increased cost for amenities. For example, to have a running bath was an additional three dollars a month, a sink with running water added two dollars a month and if the home had power, each outlet cost thirty-five cents.

In early 1900 the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company implemented a beautification initiative throughout the company to improve the outdoor appearance of the company and the connecting mining towns. Beatification focused on the landscape of the public areas as well as the individual homes. Along with trees, shrubbery and other foliage, construction projects like sidewalks and fences were to improve the overlook and feel of the towns. Beautification at CF&I was an annual project and they held contests and gave prizes to the residents with the best-kept yards.

Beatification was not only intended to improve the landscape of the town, it was connected to a much more important way of life for the residents. Many argued that beautiful, cleanly outdoor areas aided in the individuals ability to thrive and be successful. As the secretary of the American Park and Outdoor Art Association, Warren H. Manning said to the employees of CF&I in 1903, “The Character of the Community is indicated by its treatment of public grounds.”

By January of 1916 Primero’s dispensary was established following Colorado Fuel and Iron Company decision that dispensaries would be build in the coal camps to aid with minor ailments as well as provide temporary care to injured workers while they waited to be transported Pueblo. There was also a traveling nurse program that sought to educate housewives in the camp on sanitation and hygiene.

All pictures and information used with permission of Bessemer Historical Society, 215 Canal Street Pueblo, CO 81004.
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