Steeped in History - Walsenburg's Early Years
The people and events associated with the Cucharas make Walsenburg the true Gateway to the Real Southwest. In October of 1862, sheepherders from the San Luis Valley herded their sheep over to the Lower Cucharas Valley (near La Veta) for the winter. They knew about the area from their buffalo hunting expeditions. Jose Rafael Esquibel was in that first group that traveled to the Cucharas. He and his brothers Jose Ramon and Juan Esquibel had links to the Arroyo Hondo are of northern New Mexico and were famous for raising prize horses and as political activists. A few years later, later moved to la Plaza de los Leones (named after Miquel Antonio Leon) – now known as Walsenburg.
During this era, Mouache Ute, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians roamed the land inhabited by both Hispano and Anglo settlers. The Hispanos were more familiar with Indian customs and were able to get along with the native tribes. However, conflicts increased between the Indian natives of the Ute and the Anglo immigrants, and Fred Walsen purportedly jumped right in to the fray. The Utes believed “that the Great Spirit or Creator is everywhere and in all things and that the Creator’s energy is associated with the sun. When a Ute dies, his or her spirit is reborn through reincarnation.” Fred Walsen asked Ute Chief Kaniache where his Great Father was. Kaniache answered, “In Heaven Above.” Kaniache was familiar with the concept of heaven and hell from Spanish Catholic influence at pueblos and missions. Walsen then provoked him by asking, “What will then become of us White people?”” Annoyed, Kaniache replied, “You will all go to Hell!” In May of 1881, D&RG trains transported U.S. soldiers through Cucharas, La Veta and Walsenburg to escort the Utes to a reservation in Utah.
Prior to 1863, there were no stagecoach lines or trains between Denver and Sante Fe. Several stagecoach companies operated along this route. Eventually, stagecoach lines traveled through la Plaza de los Leones to the San Luis Valley. Freighting companies started up as the area continued to grow, using oxen for heavy loads and mules for light loads of food, hardware and dry goods. They also hauled equipment to expand the rail lines in the area.
Don Miguel Antonio de Leon was born in 1799. In his youth, he traveled with the Challifou brothers of New Mexico to the delta of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean. He was an old man when he settled in the area soon to be known as la Plaza de los Leones. His second wife Cruzita was known here for her skills as a midwife and her hospitality to travelers. Don Miguel was a quiet man “noted for his wisdom and just approach to all problems. He was the alcalde – a combination of mayor and judge. He still lived in Walsenburg when it was incorporated in 1873 and is buried in the South St. Mary Cemetery on June 24, 1884. The other founder of Walsenburg was Miguel Antonio Atencio born in 1810 and buried in 1885.
“Governor” August Sporleder moved to Walsenburg from St. Louis in 1873. He established the famous Sporleder Hotel near the river (NE corner of what is now Eighth and Main Sts.). He built another hotel at Main and Fifth several years later. Sporleder was the area historian and wrote about his early relationships and goings on in Walsenburg. His great-granddaughter Gretchen is now the editor of the Huerfano World Journal carrying on the family tradition. Other early families included that of Captain Cornelius Downing Hendren, Jose Anastacio de Jesus Valdes, Benton Canon, Robert Quillian, Charles Mazzone – who opened the first saloon and liquor store and described by Sporleder as “well-groomed and tidy as a woman”, and Charles Otto Unfug- who opened the mercantile business and was active in Huerfano County politics. 
It is not known exactly how the name Walsenburg was chosen when the City was incorporated – but most say it was when a Pueblo newspaper editor suggested naming it for Fred Walsen in honor of his many civic activities supporting the growth of the community. Ironically, Fred Walsen moved his family to Denver in 1872 when he was elected State Treasurer and no direct descendants remain, while most of the other families stayed and their descendants still call Walsenburg home.
Settlers to the area were aware that the ground was rich with coal and dug it out and used it. In 1876, Fred Walsen bought the land - allegedly for “a wagon, a team of mules and $100 in cash - where the first coal mine was established. This became the Walsen mine - and the direction of Walsenburg’s economy was set.
This first mine was little more than tunnels where English, Scottish and Mexican miners crawled in. The coming of the railroads broke the coal mining economy in Walsenburg wide open. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad laid track from Pueblo reaching Walsenburg in 1876 and the Colorado and Southern Railroad soon followed. Both had their own train depots and freight outlets. Other mines opened – the Toltec, Pictou, Maitland, Alamo 1 and 2, Robinson, Cameron, Solar, Rouse, Pryor, Ideal, Ravenwood, and others. Walsenburg soon came to be known as “The City Built on Coal.”
Most early miners lived in housing built at the mines – shacks with no indoor plumbing and families had to carry water from nearby streams. They were eventually replaced by camps with small homes – some of which still stand in Walsenburg neighborhoods today. Mining brought bustling economies – commercial businesses, livery stables, banking and more ranching. At its high point, there were no less than fifty mines in Huerfano County.
The work was hard and dangerous. Working in “rooms” of exposed coal face, miners loaded coal cars with a brass tag to show which minor loaded that car. They were paid only for full loads that arrived at the mouth of the mine with their tag. Miners were not paid for other work required to enlarge the mine and make it safe, or to clear away the rock that was not coal. Often a car that the miner loaded with 4000 lbs. weighed in at much less by the company and there was no way the miner could dispute the discrepancy. A room could be four or five feet high. Shifts were at least 10 hours long. “Accidents and death in the mines were frequent” – by the collapse of a room ceiling, explosions from built up gases, and runaway coal cars. Usually the coroner would rule the death as caused by the “miner’s own carelessness.” The family was rarely compensated and pensions were unheard of.
The first major strike occurred in 1893 but was quickly put down. The next strike occurred in 1903-1904, bringing Mary Harris Jones – known to posterity as Mother Jones - to the City. The strikers were demanding were basic – ventilation to vent poisonous and explosive gases, “a 10 cent advance in wages on tonnage and rate and day wage scale,” an 8 hour work day (already law in Colorado but not enforced), pay for work other than just for coal delivered to the surface, right shop in town, live in housing of their choice and see the doctor of their choice That strike too lead to the miner’s defeat. Wealth and prosperity came to the businesses and coal operators, but not to the miners.
A third strike was considered at an April 1913 meeting in Trinidad. When negotiations broke down, the United Mine Workers set up tent cities from Walsenburg to Trinidad and the families vacated their shakes and move into the cold in tents. Tensions broke between striking miners and those that chose to continue to work. Several people were killed in Walsenburg in skirmishes. During this strike, Mother Jones was imprisoned in a hospital ward in Trinidad without charges. In October of 1913, the state set up a military camp in Walsenburg to control strikers. After the New Year, violence became more frequent. Mother Jones was sent to Denver on a train with orders not to come back but she returned to Walsenburg in a few days and was arrested at the train station and put in the Walsenburg jail, which remains behind the Huerfano County courthouse and is now the mining museum. When she was released, she went to Washington DC to testify about the condition of the miners. While she was gone, the Ludlow Massacre killing of 11 children and two women occurred in the Ludlow tent city. Acts of indiscriminate violence continued and more people were killed. Upton Sinclair’s novel King Coal was said to be based on Walsenburg during this difficult era.
During the prosperous years after Walsenburg was formed, the town continued to grow. In 1874, the County seat was moved from Badito to Walsenburg. The beautiful courthouse on Main Street was constructed in 1904. The Mazzone Saloon and Opera House was one of the more memorable new businesses. The first floor was the saloon where Rob Ford – who killed Jesse James – ran gambling games in addition to his own saloon, dance hall and prostitution business. The second floor an opera house. This Opera House had a two story outhouse. This allowed the ladies attending events to cross over a walkway to the second story of the outhouse without having to tramp through the saloon and thus maintain their dignity.
WWII brought its impacts to Walsenburg, and after it was over, coal continued to be produced and things in town were relatively quiet.
In the summer of 1923, the Cucharas River – usually close to dry – flooded after severe storms. People were evacuated and several died in the rushing waters. In 1927, the International Workers of the World – aka Wobblies - tried to organize a strike and the mining companies increased wages to try and avert it. The IWW called the strike anyone but it was poorly attended by the miners. In this strike effort, the coal companies used spies to keep abreast of the IWW’s next moves. While the IWW failed in their efforts to organize the miners, the coal companies decided to accept unionization and began to negotiate with the more moderate United Mine Workers.
 Pgs. 13, 14. Sanchez, Virginia. Forgotten Cuchareños of the Lower Valley, The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina. 2010
 Ibid. Pgs.23-26
Ibid. Pg. 30
 Ibid. Pgs. 43-45
 Ree, Dorothy Rose. Walsenburg: Crossroads Town. Independent Nocturn Publishing, Walsenburg, Colorado. 3rd printing 2012
 Ibid. pgs. 16-24
 Ibid. pg. 32
 Ibid. Pgs. 41-55.
 Ibid. Pgs. 58-82
 Ibid. pgs. 75-90
 Ibid. pgs. 133-134
 Ibid. pgs. 136-139
Greater numbers of immigrants from the New Mexico Territory continued to migrate to Huerfano County and in 1865, the population grew to 371, 336 which were Hispano. They brought with them Indian captives as members of their families. Social life revolved around the “fandango” – dancing events – and the wealthier families owned a Colt army revolver and a good horse, saddle and bridle.
Adobe homes prevailed with walls that were two to three feet thick with pole support beams to support the roof. Some of those structures remain scattered throughout Walsenburg. Most current residents of the City of Walsenburg can trace their roots back to these early settlers and share Hispano, indigenous Indian and Anglo ethnicity.
Henrich Anton Frederick “Fred” Walsen arrived in the US from Germany in 1859, also migrated to the San Luis Valley in 1864 and followed the San Luis immigrants to the Lower Cucharas Valley in 1870 and established his home in la Plaza de los Leones. There he managed the Bartels General Store. La Plaza de los Leones was the supply center and hub for the many smaller villages in the area.
The first longhorn cattle arrived from Texas in 1870. By 1900, Anglo settlement and cattle corporations absorbed most of the available range land and the Hispano settlers had to pay cash to use national forest or private rangeland. Along with many other Anglos, Fred Walsen and Alexander Levy – his future brother-in-law – were involved the cattle business and supplied beef to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad both for transport and to feed their workers. Fred Walsen owned 24,000 sheep and 250 head of cattle.
After WWII, Walsenburg had almost 6000 residents and the first mines began to close. Miners moved from the camps into town. In the 1950’s more mines closed and the population started to drop. This trend continued into the 21st century. Walsenburg’s population was 2,900 in 2014 and it is among one of the poorest communities in Colorado. It has recently experienced some signs of economic resurgence due to allowing marijuana related businesses and the growth boom on the Front Range. Huerfano County and the City of Walsenburg have recently joined efforts to aggressively improve the economy to take advantage of the Colorado front range growth boom as well as its proximity at a crossroads of state highways including Interstate 25, its cheap land and buildings and the incomparable beauty of its location in the foothills of the Rockies, the Spanish Peaks and access to hiking, hunting, fishing and the historic Southwest.