New Castle, Colorado: A Coal Town That Survives Despite Disaster

The town of New Castle was one of many Western Slope towns incorporated during the coal boom of the 1880’s, but is one of few coal towns from that era to have survived. During Colorado’s silver heyday, silver mining required coal to fire smelters. New Castle was renowned in both railroad and silver circles for providing a soft coal that burned good and hot. The first settler came to farm this narrow valley along the Colorado River in 1883, but by 1888, when the town officially incorporated, it was hopping with coal miners, including many immigrants from Italy and the United Kingdom. The Colorado Midland Railroad followed, and its narrow gauge trains carried coal from New Castle’s coal mines to the silver mines and beyond. Despite its prosperity, New Castle has suffered tragedy out of proportion to a town its size. New Castle has been the location of two of Colorado’s ten worst mining disasters and one of its worst train collisions. On 18 February 1896, the Vulcan Mine exploded, killing 49 men. Townspeople in New Castle rushed into the streets and miners from neighboring mines hurried to help. The mine was flooded to staunch the fire and then closed. It was reopened under new ownership some years later, only to have another tragedy strike. On 13 December 1913, the Vulcan Mine exploded again, this time killing 37 miners. Both times, miners had complained about high concentrations of methane gas before the explosions, but dubious inspections had kept the mines open. The second Vulcan explosion signaled the end of coal mining in New Castle, but even today, the coal in the seam that the Vulcan mined still burns inside the mountain, and smoke is sometimes visible. Thanks to ranching, farming, tourism and the presence of railroads that connected it to Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, New Castle survived as a town and is once again a vibrant little place with an outsized history. Many of New Castle’s historic 19th Century buildings still stand today, some visible from I-70. To learn more about New Castle, including its role in Colorado’s labor wars, come to Western History and Genealogy and read the short and wonderful book by Dale Shrull, The Legend of Burning Mountain. Search DPL’s catalog to find the many other histories of small Colorado towns that live both here in our department and elsewhere in DPL. For more information about the photos of New Castle in this blog, click here and here. View our Digital Archives for more photos of New Castle and other Colorado towns.

My grandma was born in New Castle Colorado. When I was a kid, in the 80's, we would take grandma up to visit with her sister and mother. We always had fun. I remember being told about the mining accident, and was told that even in the 80's that mine was still smoldering in the mountain, Im wondering if that was true, and if so, is it still on fire??

In reply to by stacie cady (not verified)

Stacie, as someone has lived in New Castle in my childhood, and again a few years ago, I can verify this. Yes, the fires still burn, and you can still see the bald spots on the slopes where plants do not grow and snow melts.

In reply to by stacie cady (not verified)

Yes the mine is still burning today, I lived in New Castle from 1982 till 2002 and in the Winter, steam and smoke was visible from several vents along the mountain on both side of the river. When driving along I-70 and snow covers the hillside you can see the warm vents melting away the snow.

In reply to by stacie cady (not verified)

As of this year I’m pretty sure it’s 102 Years this year that the mine is still smoldering you can see it from the hiway in the winter

My Great-Great-Great-Uncle, Ben Davis died in the Vulcan Explosion.New Castle, CO Mine Explosion, Dec 1913 TERRIBLE MINE DISASTER 38 MINERS PERISH Two Former Plateau Valley Men Victims of the New Castle Horror One of the worst coal mine disasters that has ever happened in Colorado occurred at New Castle last Tuesday morning at 10:20 o'clock. Coal dust and gas in the west tunnel of the mine was in some manner ignited and exploded with a detonation that shook the earth like an earthquake for miles around. Of the forty men working in the mine only two escaped, and they chanced to be in an upper gallery away from the main workings. The men who were in the lower levels were terribly burned and mangled, and though most of the bodies have been recovered, identification proceeds very slowly. The following is a list of the dead: L. L. CRAWFORD, foreman, L. WALTERS, fire boss, WALLACE BAXTER, M. McLAIN, C. RAYFORD, BEN DAVIS, D. Z. NOLAN, D. PECORELLI, R. FILSO, A. OAEPKE, J. KALONOWSKY, L. FUSCHINO, DAVE TALMAGE, F. COOK, A. JOHNSON, RALPH WENDALL, WM. SHERER, JOE FARRER, GEO. SMITH, M. MURPHY, R. NORTON, J. REED, FRANK McCANN, H. WOOD, IRA STARBUCK, GALE ASBESTA, LEO BANTA, E. STRONG, F. OBEATER, BERT BARTLE, JOHN ALLEN, WM. NEESE, GABE MONACELLI, JOE MONACELLI, TONY MONACELLI, JOE LaBRANCH. It is almost certain that two, at least, of the unfortunate men were formerly of Plateau Valley -- RALPH WENDALL and WALLACE BAXTER. MR. WENDALL had been living at New Castle and last summer ran an auto stage from New Castle to Raven. The description of the WENDALL who lost his life states that he had been driving stage, which leaves little doubt as to his being the former COLLBRAN boy.

it very well is still burning

In reply to by stacie cady (not verified)

Yes. yes it is still on fire

Burning Mountain is the mountain just west of downtown, but as for the mountain that housed the Vulcan mine, what is its name?

In reply to by Ezra (not verified)

Hi Ezra - As near as I can tell, Horse Mountain is the one that housed the Vulcan.

In reply to by Ezra (not verified)

Burning mountain is aka Ward's peak. Named originally after the founder of the town of New castle.

My step-father & his father both worked in this mine, my stepdads father, was killed in one of these explosions. The information that I have in regards to specific information involved about this is very small would love to find MORE information to back up family records, for future family members, so they will be able to pass it on ! . I have pictures of miners, old,old ones of miners standing in front of a supply store ??

In reply to by diana richardson (not verified)

Would love to see the photos you have. My great grandfather died in the vulcan mine explosion.

In reply to by diana richardson (not verified)

Hi Diana,
What year, more or less, do your photos depict?

One of my GG-Grandfather's nephews was crushed next to the first chute of the Vulcan mine, in Oct., 1895, the year before the first explosion. He was just 24 and not even married yet. It was an accident and he was pushing cars all by himself. It took me a long time to track him down, but glad that he was put to rest in such a beautiful place, with loving attendance. He and family had only been there for about a month.

In reply to by Judy L. (Blacklock) (not verified)

Judy, we are glad that you were able to track him down. Thank you for sharing his story with us!

I'm grateful for the people who helped me find some Newspaper references of his accident and death, and findagrave, all of the online records and resources. But it's the people and their efforts to keep the info available, and their efforts to help that count for so very much! Thanks for all you do!!

Two of my grandmother's brothers were killed in the 1913 explosion. The story I was told by my father was that the men had gone on strike for unsafe working conditions. The men killed in the explosion in 1913 had replaced the men on strike. As for my g. uncles, they came down valley from Aspen for jobs. There were no jobs in Aspen at the time.

There is a statue in the park in New Castle to honor the men killed in both explosions. Maybe you can google it to find a picture of it.

In reply to by Patty Henke (not verified)

Thanks for sharing that memory with us, Patty. Even under "good" conditions those coal mines were extremely dangerous. We can only imagine how unsafe the conditions were by the time they went on strike.

Ralph Wendell who was killed in the mine in was an ancestor of mine.

Thanks for sharing your personal connection, Charlott. It was a devastating loss.

Would love to hear more about the 1913 incident. Shortly after was the Ludlow Massacre. Those were hard times for miners in Colorado.

It seems like it was only hard times for miners! Thanks for reading and commenting, Paul!

I am curious to know if anyone has information or memories about a rancher named Rapisardi. He had a ranch uphill from Bruce Road. He probably passed away sometime in the mid 20th century. From stories as a child, I do recall that he was remembered as a man that weighed about 300 lbs., had amazing strength, ordered his dried pasta in crates from Italy, etc.. Anyone has anything to add? Thanks.

In reply to by Earl (not verified)

Angelo Rapasardi was my grandfather. He was widowed twice and had seven children. My mother Angelina is the only living child of Angelo and Concetta. She just celebrated her 94th birthday. My mom does not recall him buying pasta from Italy but from Denver and grapes from California to make homemade wine.

In reply to by Earl (not verified)

I grew up in New Castle, born in Silt, during the 40's and 50's. I graduated from New Castle High School in 1956. I think Mr Rapisardi's first name was Angelo. I remember people saying he had two belts spliced together to go around his waist. I remember a story that at supper he would have a whole cooked chicken place in front of him, he did not share, he ate it all. He was a big man. He drove a pickup with a cover over the back, sort of a home made shell. He would come to town and pick up his crates of pasta with that pickup. He live near the Harvy Gap. reservoir.

Angelo Rapisardi (sp?) lived on the ranch adjoining the Bruce ranch (my grandfather’s and then my father’s) on the east. Bruce Road, named for my father was the southern boundary. I was quite young and have no recollection of what he was like other than that he was large. The Cerise family took over that ranch in the 1940’s and posted a sign on the closed gate reading “Keep out or get shot”!

Verlene, I would love to talk with you about the Bruce family. I'm very familiar with the history of the mine explosions and the area itself having spent the past 30 years doing historic research. Vernon Bruce was the best man at my grandfather's wedding, EJ Rippy, in 1921. Let me know if there is a way to contact you. I have an old school photo that I believe your are present.

I grew up in Newcastle and graduated from high school there in 1956. The Rippy's were very well known in New Castle, they were in the construction business. I remember Harley well, he was the same age as my older brother. The mines in New Castle were not shut down after the 1913 explosion. My dad worked at the mine in the 30's and 40's. A person by the name of Coles (or Cole) ran the mine. He lived in the same part of town as the Rippy's.

Hello all,

My name is Bridget Ries. My husband and I bought in Canyon Creek and are told this property hosts an original livery that served this area many moons ago. I hosted the McNeil's of the New Castle Historical society and they came to see the stone structure out back, at the very top of the hill, butted up against a steep rise to the flat tops.

My husband and I would love to find any photos of the South Canyon mines and I am having a hard time finding very many. We hope to have a local artist paint an image of one of the actual tunnels in the mines on our garage doors~kind of like a 'trompe l'oeil' as though you are actually looking into the depth of a mine/tunnel...?

I am also interested in finding anything out about this livery. I aim to claim Doc Holliday slept here!!! Prove me wrong! It's a very cool old structure. The roof is gone and it is a square stone 4-walled structure with a couple of windows and 3 doors on the front! It looks like it had 3 separate rooms~probably one for the caretaker, one with the hearth and a main gathering area, and one for bunks probably... We have found a few very large horse shoes like those of draft horses. And I hope to host an historical dig too! Thoughts anyone?!

In reply to by Bridget Ries (not verified)

What interesting research projects, Bridget! If you want one of our librarians to take a look at related materials in our collection, you can submit a question using the "Contact" button in the top right of this page. Happy hunting!

In reply to by Bridget Ries (not verified)

I was born in Silt in 1938 and grew up in New Castle, I graduated from New Castle High School in 1956. I now live in Erie, C0. My dad worked at both the New Castle and South canyon mines in the 30's, 40's and 50's. I have a group photo of all of the miners taken at the south canyon mine in about 1937. It includes my dad, two uncles, a cousin and about 14 other miners. A shed is shown in the background of the photo. If you are interested I will make you a copy of the photo.

In reply to by Joe Eccher (not verified)

Do you remember a Rev Schumann & wife Mary or Maria .

I have family roots ties with New Castle, where both of my maternal grandparents grew up (born 1892 and 1894). Both of my grandmother's parents served as mayors, as did my grandmother's brother (the Ritters of Ritter Plaza fame).

My grandfather's father was a mining safety engineer who helped advise coal companies on how to avoid fires, explosions, and cave-ins, and often visited the aftermaths of mining disasters. Great long-distance love story: my grandparents separately ended up in southern California years later reconnected through a mutual friend when they were in their early 30s.

It is great the several of the old buildings still survive. My younger son did a walking tour of the town, something that is certainly on my bucket list.

Raised 10 miles up Garfield Creek , went to school in New Castle Angelo Rapasardie ( not sure of spelling ) was heep rancher and very friendly man , very large in size , had a car with seat moved back to enable his driving and reaching pedals. For years out at Hank Williams Rocking Pines Restaurant. There was a artists rendition of him earing spaghetti. He was as I remember , of Greek Descent and people liked him. He had a granddaughter named Margie who I ent to school with in New Castle back in the late 50s . Good memories I have of the old New Castle

Me again , my dad arched 10 miles up Garfield Creek but c when Joe Shanks sold the property to the Talbot family from Palisade and Ross Talbot moved onto the property, my dad , Ralph " Bud " Snead irrigated their hay ground for the Talbots , my dad and Ross old tell stories of going up onto the burning coal mine property , either looking for lost cattle or deer hunting and then seeing an animal fall into a dark smoking hole to disappear, when it happened the second time , they promptly quickly went down the hill to safe stable ground. Frank Porter of Alkali Creek told us similar stories years later

My great grandparents, grandparents, great uncles, aunts and second cousins lived in and just outside of Newcastle. I used to spend my summers there in the 60s and 70s. It was a very colorful and friendly community. I have many fond memories of visiting the older folks there. The Flynn’s had the store then. The 3 Mativi? brothers had some business’ there (gas station & Liquor Store). The Dawson’s had the Taxidermy. The Rippy’s ranched down the Cerise Road. I used to listen to the old timers tell the local stories and legends. They worked the mines for grub steaks. After scrimping and saving, later were able to ranch and tend orchards. Mr. Angelo Rapasardi was such a strong large man had won a bet by carrying a large gunny sack of potatoes using only his teeth down main street. Now as an older man myself, I have trouble recalling the exact spelling of the names of these people. I would sit for hours listening to my grandfather and his friends while they played cards at local restaurant bars. When there were disasters, people pulled together and adopted some of the children. I would cringe and stare up at the snow barren steam vents from the coal mines. It is a beautiful valley.

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