Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dawson and the Italian Connection

The students, Leo and I did something really wonderful and lasting, almost by accident.

Leo and his students, while studying Italians in the California Gold Rush, decided to plan a study trip into the field. They pondered the best way to find the Italian immigrants who had left Italy in the 1800's and had made their way out to the West.

Leo, during his travels around California clearly had seen evidence that Italians had come to this land. He saw familiar architecture in old homes, stone walls and marble statues created by Italian hands. But what he wanted most, were names.

The students used the Internet to find immigrant Italian names and found plenty of them, in cemetery listings. They used GPS to plot out the locations of the various locations. In looking closer, they discovered many of these cemeteries were no longer associated with active towns, but with Ghost Towns.

Leo and I took a stack of listings and in early 2006 made a trip to the Arizona/New Mexico/Colorado trip by ourselves. The plan was to scout out the most promising places, so the students could make a future research trip.

Armed with the students' printouts on a clipboard, we spent 10 days on the road. Leo's English was still a bit uncertain. I went as a note-taker and as an English and cultural translator.

This Blog entry is only about Dawson although we did find more than we expected in Bisbee, Arizona and in Colorado at the site of the Ludlow Massacre.

It was the first time for both of us to travel to New Mexico. With our maps and Garmin Navigator, we made our way to the town of Colfax, New Mexico. We were not expecting to see the total absence of a town. It was marked with a name on the map, but we found only a burnt out building and not a soul in sight.

We turned off Hwy 64 onto a marked unpaved road, passed over the cattle grating and headed in five miles to find the Dawson Cemetery. At that time, we didn't know the exact history of the area. We only had the students' listing, showing many many Italian names for this particular cemetery.

We drove through a countryside that was idyllic, serene and breathtakingly beautiful.

Five miles is a long way to travel down a lonely gravel road. We were worried we had missed our cutoff.  Leo had been watching the odometer creep toward the 5 mile mark, so knew we were close.

Then we saw a tiny arrow sign, pointing up off to the right. We turned from the gravel road and transversed up a steep small dirt driveway.

There in front of us, with a rather desolate hill behind, was the cemetery. We had arrived. We saw a large blackish gray wrought iron gate, with the word D A W S O N (later painted bright red).

We parked the car on a level spot which was overgrown with vegetation and left the car.

With only the sound of a slight breeze, we quietly entered through a small latched gate into a cemetery filled with identical white iron crosses.

Both of us were overcome with a strong emotional reaction, as if the spirits had been waiting for us.

With our list, we searched for names and marked them off. So many Italian names, most with the white iron cross and showing the same date of death. Something really bad had happened here in Dawson, which had not been obvious on the students' listing of only names.

We took only a few pictures to document our day. Before we left the enclosed area, I asked Leo to say the Lord's Prayer in Italian for the souls whose spirits we felt here.

Days later, as soon as we were able, we researched Dawson and to our astonishment, Leo could find no information in an on-line search in Italian.

This is what we discovered during our English language Internet search:

On October 22, 1913, 263 miners were killed in Dawson during a mine explosion. Ten years later, 123 men were killed, many of them children of the men who had died in 1913. The cemetery itself had been lost until 1992. These miners had been mostly immigrants, who had traveled here from Europe to work.  A large percentage had been Italian.

Leo was determined that these Italians be remembered by their homeland. After we returned to Los Angeles, he made an appointment with the Italian Consul Diego Brasioli to discuss the possibilities.

After learning what we had found, the Consul felt he needed to make his own trip to Dawson. He later told Leo that when he entered through the cemetery gate, he too felt strong emotions. He decided something needed to be done, immediately.
We know he called the Governor of New Mexico to co-ordinate the events which took place a few months later on Memorial Day Weekend 2006.

Today, the town of Dawson, New Mexico no longer exists. In another tragedy, in 1952 the residents were told the town was closing. They were given just a few weeks to pack up and leave their homes and jobs. It was after all a "Company Town" without a heart it seems. Shortly afterward, the town was sold and totally dismantled.

The picnic takes place where the hotel on the right once stood.

The townspeople never forgot Dawson. Since 1952, the private land owner has allowed past residents to have a town picnic on the old town site, every two years, on Labor Day weekend.

During the 2006 Dawson Town Reunion, members of the Italian government traveled to Dawson to place a plaque in the cemetery. In a moving ceremony with tears all around, Italy officially remembered the forgotten ones in Dawson, New Mexico.


Over 350 white iron crosses in the Dawson Cemetery mark the graves of those who perished in the mining disasters. The cemetery, a deeply moving site, is now the only part of Dawson still open to the visitor. These silent sentinels, some with individual names and some unmarked, are poignant reminders of the tragic deaths of the victims, and, more importantly, their lives.

For a while, Dawson had been truly forgotten by New Mexico until two brothers went on a metal detecting expedition in 1991. Dale and Lloyd Christian were shocked when they saw the uncared for and abandoned cemetery. When Dale Christian returned home to Albuquerque he petitioned the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Division to place the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.

The New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs was unaware that the cemetery even existed and asked Christian to provide measurements of the site. Not only did he provide the measurements, but he also provided pictures and an accounting of the number of graves and pictures. The Office of Cultural Affairs was amazed and although very few cemeteries are placed on the National Register, the Dawson Cemetery was added on April 9,1992.


Event reunites coal camp
Staff Reporter
Mon, Aug 30, 2010

The Raton Range • 208 S. Third Street • Raton • NM • 87740 • Phone: 575-445-2721 •
Dawson’s life as a coal-mining town came to an end about 60 years ago, but its former residents and their relatives continue to return to the Colfax County site where memories remain.
A thousand or more people have attended the recent Dawson Reunions — held every other year on Labor Day weekend — and a similarly sized crowd is expected for this weekend’s festivities.

The bi-annual Dawson Reunion has been held since 1954. The old Dawson town site is about 30 miles west of Raton and five miles north of U.S. 64, where only a small sign points to the road leading to the cemetery that holds many former residents of Dawson, a thriving town of several thousand people at its peak in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Today, the Dawson site is on land owned by the Florida-based Colfax Land and Cattle Company, which allows the area to be opened for the Dawson Reunion as long as everyone who ventures onto the property signs a waiver of liability.

Dawson was founded in 1901 when rancher John Barkley Dawson sold his coal-rich land to the Dawson Fuel Company. The mines were productive, and by 1905 the town had a population of close to 2,000.

In 1906, the mines were purchased by the Phelps Dodge Corporation. The company built homes for the miners, and numerous other facilities, including a hospital, department store, swimming pool, movie theatre and golf course. Dawson coal operations had 10 mines.

In Oct. 22, 1913, Dawson suffered its first major disaster. Stag Canyon Mine No. 2 was shaken by an explosion that was felt two miles away. The explosion killed 263 miners. Two rescuers died during the rescue effort. It was later determined that the explosion was caused by a dynamite charge — set off as part of regular operations — that ignited coal dust in the mine.

Nearly 10 years later, on Feb. 8, 1923, Stag Canyon Mine No. 1 suffered an explosion. A mine car derailed, sparking coal dust to ignite. A total of 123 men were killed, many of them children of the men who died in 1913.
In early 1950, with railroads using less coal as they converted to diesel power, the Phelps Dodge Corporation closed Dawson and put the town’s facilities up for sale.
Dawson’s abandoned cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 1992.

Italy’s connection to Dawson — many of the town’s residents came from that country — has been remembered during recent Dawson Reunions.

In 2008, the reunion featured the arrival of a commemorative bell — cast in Agnone, Italy — celebrating the history of the Molise Region of Italy. The bell was brought by Giuliano Colajanni, the grandson of Teridano diTella, an Italian immigrant from the Molise Region who was a carpenter and furniture maker in Dawson from about 1900 until his death in 1944.

In 2006, officials from the Italian government came to the Dawson site to present a plaque that remembers and honors the large number of Italian immigrants who died in the pair of mine explosions.

The reunion events are not just for those with family connections to Dawson, but are open to the public. The main event, Sunday’s picnic, is set for 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. A social will also be held Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. in Raton at the Elks Lodge at 300 S. Second St. In addition, the Raton Museum has a photo display about Dawson that will be exhibited through Sept. 30.

Some Dawson history and information is found on a website, set up by Amarillo, Texas, resident Chuck Speed, whose wife’s ancestors worked at the Dawson mines. The site is at

I would like to acknowledge our late friend, Massimo Seracini
June 7, 1943 (Florence, Italy) - January 16, 2009 (San Diego, CA)

Not even cancer stopped him from driving from San Diego to Dawson for the Town Reunion in 2006.

Whenever possible, we took students to San Diego to get a good pep talk from Massimo.  He was blunt and direct with them, urging this next generation to do something of value for themselves and for Italy. He never lost his passion for the Italian culture.

In his later years, he campaigned to represent fellow expatriates in the Italian parliament.