Trinidad, Colorado

Trinidad, Colorado street scene ca. 1920
Trinidad, Colorado street scene ca. 1920

Trinidad History

Webmaster's note: Trinidad was one of the West's most significant mining cities. This was the center of Colorado's most important coal mining region, and the riches that flowed out of the mines built a substantial business district, most of which remains today.

Trinidad Colorado
Historic Commercial Building at Trinidad, Colorado

The following history of Trinidad was provided by Jan MacKell Collins.

Early History of Trinidad

The origins of Trinidad along the historic Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, is rich in history. The city is divided by the Purgatoire River. Above town is Simpson’s Rest, a prominent outcropping on a bluff that was named for pioneer George Simpson (and serves as his final resting place as well). Fishers Peak is nearby, and the Spanish Peaks are visible to the west.

Trinidad Colorado
Early 1880s view of Trinidad, Colorado

Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail served as a superhighway for those wanting to settle in the west. Of the various cutoffs along the trail, the Mountain Branch over Raton Pass proved least popular by far. Trail founder William Becknell took the route in 1821 and found the pass narrow, steep, rocky, and downright perilous.

It would be over 40 years before Richens Lacey “Uncle Dick” Wootton, an itinerant jack of all trades and the first to build a house in Denver, would come along and build his own toll road on the Mountain Branch.

Trinidad Colorado
Early street scene at Trinidad, Colorado

In the meantime, Trinidad was founded in 1861 as the last stop along the Santa Fe in Colorado before it crossed into New Mexico. The city initially flourished as a supply town. When Las Animas County was formed in 1866, Trinidad was designated the county seat, and by the late 1860’s some 1,200 people lived there.

The city also became an important center of southern Colorado’s coal mining years beginning in about 1871, when General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, established his own Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I). Palmer’s company was soon operating dozens of coal mines and their camps in southern Colorado. Some 25 of them were located near Trinidad.

Trinidad Colorado
Citizens of Trinidad pose for a photo in a local saloon

During these early years, the population of these places, including Trinidad, was comprised of Anglo, Italian, Mexican and Spanish peoples, many who worked as miners in the coal camps. The surviving historic architecture at these places illustrates the diversity of people who lived there.

Notable in Trinidad are two homes, the 1870’s adobe Baca House and the more opulent 1880’s Bloom Mansion which was built some ten years later. The homes sit side by side, a stark contrast to one another, and serve as Trinidad’s History Museum.

Trinidad Colorado
Bloom Mansion

Trinidad was incorporated in 1876, just before Colorado Territory became a state. Two years later the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) rolled into town. When Richens Wootten politely declined the company’s offer to buy out his toll road, a tunnel was built through Raton Pass instead. When laborers on each side of the tunnel finally broke through on July 6, 1879, the “Uncle Dick” engine in Trinidad let out a joyous whistle.

Trinidad Colorado
Trinidad ca. 1905

Prominent residents during the 1880’s included lawman Bat Masterson, who was appointed town marshal for a short time in 1882. And Madam Mae Phelps not only ran a grand parlor house, but also worked with the city to establish a trolley system (which of course made stops in the red-light district).

Trinidad Colorado
Commercial buildings at Trinidad, Colorado ca. 1880

Under the umbrella company of the Madams’ Association, Mae was also the first of her kind to designate an official rest home for wayward women recuperating from illness or injury, or just wanting to retire. They say that when the First National Bank of Trinidad constructed a new building in 1892, fanciful faces on the façade include that of a local lady of the night.

Labor Conflicts at Trinidad

After the turn of the century, several coal miners went on strike to protest low pay, dangerous working conditions, substandard housing, and being forced to buy their goods at the often-overpriced company store. Most coal miners were not paid by the hour, but by how much coal they brought to the surface. There was no health insurance, no vacation pay, no sick time.

Trinidad Colorado
Trinidad ca. 1905

In 1902, an explosion at the Bowen Town coal mine some six miles from Trinidad killed 13 miners. This and other incidents spurred the Colorado Labor Wars of 1903 and 1904, wherein over 3,000 miners from all over the state went on strike. The Western Federation of Miners, which represented the miners, was finally able to come to limited agreements with mine owners, but only after much violence was wrought, martial law was declared, and the Colorado National Guard was called in.

Unfortunately, terrible disasters in the coal mines of southern Colorado continued. Two CF&I-owned mines suffered devastating explosions at Primero and Starkville during 1910, killing 131 men.

Mining conditions remained hazardous enough for a second labor war to break out in 1913. This time Mary “Mother Jones,” the grandmotherly advocate for laborers everywhere, came to Colorado. In 1914, Mary lectured at Trinidad and inspired a crowd of 4,000 people in favor of the strike to march through the streets.

Trinidad Colorado
Women march at Trinidad in support of striking coal workers ca. 1914

Mary also convinced families at Ludlow to abandon their filthy housing conditions and make their own camp on the nearby prairie. Officials at Trinidad sent her to jail in April, during which guards from CF&I and the Colorado National Guard attacked Ludlow. Twenty-five people, including eleven children and five women, were dead when the smoke cleared. Afterwards, Mary was finally able to meet with John D. Rockefeller Jr., the man who had a vested interest in CF&I.

Trinidad Colorado
Coal Miner's Memorial at Trinidad, Colorado

Rockefeller visited Colorado in 1915 and finally agreed that coal miners deserved better wages and working conditions. Even then, however, yet another explosion at nearby Hastings in 1917 killed 121 coal miners. Not until the 1940’s did coal mining come to a virtual close in Colorado. After that, things remained fairly quiet at Trinidad, which melded into a pleasant city to visit while traveling Interstate 25 and Raton Pass.

Modern Trinidad

During the 1960’s, Dr. Stanley Biber’s willingness to perform sex-change operations made Trinidad the “Sex Change Capital of the World.” Other unique aspects of the city included nearby Drop City, an artist’s colony founded in 1965. And in 2015, Trinidad was nicknamed “Weed Town, USA” for generating some $44 million in annual marijuana sales.

Trinidad Colorado
First National Bank building - Trinidad, Colorado

Today, a drive around Trinidad reveals one of the most substantial historic business districts in the West, and some of the most beautiful historic homes Colorado has to offer. Museums, annual events like Santa Fe Trail Days, Trinidad Lake Park (which covers the old town of Sopris), a somber monument at Ludlow and ruins of many old mining camps make the city a very worthy stop today for history buffs of southern Colorado’s past.

Trinidad Photo Gallery

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Historic Columbian Hotel at Trinidad

Many more photos are available in the Trinidad, Colorado photo gallery.

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A tour of Colorado mining towns

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Placer mines at Cripple Creek, Colorado ca. 1892

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