Out of the coal dust: A history of Lafayette

Photo: Doug Geiling

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023
This story is available to Boulder Beat through the AP StoryShare platform. It was originally posted February 24

By Doug Geiling
Yellow Scene Magazine


A blanket of January snow buries many of the small gravestones. The taller memorials stand over the snow in gray or black marble. Thick evergreen tree trunks rise like pillars throughout the cemetery. The names reveal perhaps a surprising diversity in the town’s early residents. Hispanic, Eastern European, English, Greek, Japanese.

A prominent memorial commands attention, so I walk carefully between the graves, the snow crunching under my feet, until I stand before it to read the inscription:

“Lest we forget. At dawn on November 21, 1927, six union miners were killed at the Columbine Mine fighting for a living wage and a measure of human dignity. Five are buried here.”

Coal. It is the reason Lafayette exists. Seventy million years ago the land on which the Lafayette Cemetery was built, where I stand, was under a shallow inland sea. A great swamp formed. Tropical plants grew and died in the swamp, sending their remains drifting down to the bottom over eons to form a thick black muck. Under pressure, as the Rockies lifted, the muck hardened to become the Northern Colorado Coal Field. This energy reserve powered most of the Denver area for decades, and Lafayette was the epicenter of northern Colorado’s coal industry.

Those who exploited these coal deposits beginning in the late 1800s were preceded by hundreds of generations of others who used this land. Imagine a twelve-foot length of rope laid out in a straight line. Each foot of the rope represents one thousand years. The coal miners show up only about an inch from the end. Indigenous peoples account for the other eleven feet and eleven inches of the timeline. One of the earliest of these, the Clovis culture, took down massive beasts. A railroad crew in 1932 unearthed a pile of hunted mammoth bones near Greeley carbon dated to nearly 13 thousand years ago. A site near Rock Creek on the south edge of Lafayette was occupied six thousand years ago.

The Native Americans that the white man first met here were Cheyenne and Arapahoe. But they, too, were relative newcomers to the Front Range. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe had reinvented their way of life to suit the high plains environment after being forced to move west from their Great Lakes homeland due to European settlement in the previous century. Just as they arrived in the Front Range area, from points north and east, the first European fur trappers also appeared. Chief Niwot (which means Left Hand) already spoke English when he encountered the first gold prospectors at the mouth of Boulder Canyon in 1858.

The common story is that the Indians and the mountain men coexisted relatively well. Both survived off the land, were in tune with natural cues, and were reliant on reading the mercurial seasons. These interactions are romanticized by Americans but seen very differently by the tribes whose land they were encroaching on. Many tribes were relative newcomers to this area as well, surviving as hunter-gatherers due to necessity rather than choice.

Other interpretations see the mountain men as the first wave of colonizers, paving the way for further American expansion into lands already occupied. Agriculturalists from successful societies suddenly forced into a nomadic lifestyle by disease and disruption differ drastically from the early tendrils of entrepreneurial colonialism that were mountain men.

Everything changed drastically when gold brought hordes of prospectors and their hangers-on to the area in the late 1850s. By 1864 the mostly white settlers outnumbered the Cheyenne and Arapahoe by at least three-to-one. What happened during that time was disgraceful. It started with broken promises, progressed into coercing the Cheyenne and Arapahoe into ever smaller and less desirable territory, and culminated in wanton slaughter at Sand Creek where approximately 200 Native Americans, mostly women and children, were murdered by a 700-strong militia out of Denver. Among the dead was the ever conciliatory Left Hand.

As I walk through the cemetery, I try to imagine this place in 1864. There would have been no gravestones or structures and probably no trees. I envision an expanse of dry grass with low rolling hills extending for miles in every direction — high prairie. To the west is a clear view of the Rockies. In the foreground is a wagon road where 111th Street is today. This is the Cherokee Trail, and it passed right through what would later become Lafayette.

I imagine the earthy thumps of hooves on dirt, faint at first, building into a rumble as a six-horse team rides up from the south pulling a Wells Fargo coach. The party is headed north to Cheyenne. They would have recently passed through one of two stage stops not far to the south. I head that way from the cemetery.

From the Centaur Village neighborhood, I walk east on ice and mud along the beautiful Coal Creek Greenway. Just before the wide path reaches Highway 287 a spur trail breaks off to the right and crosses the creek on a footbridge. Here I find a historical marker for the “Old Laramie Trail Crossing.” I walk down to the snow-covered bank, leafless winter cottonwoods all around. The unfrozen creek pools into a dark swirl at my feet. I imagine in 1864 a group of tired and dirty travelers bent over the creekside at this very spot to wash sweat-stained clothing. By the time they arrive here they have already come a great distance for many weeks across a monstrous prairie wilderness under nothing but horse and foot power.

Just up the hill from the crossing is another historical marker near three big cottonwoods. It’s the old Waneka Stage Stop. Before moving his operation to the stage stop, Adolf (sometimes spelled Adolph) Waneka built a small cabin in 1861 near the bank of Coal Creek in what is now south Louisville. Although records are conflicting, some historical information suggests that he may have lived in a small cave near the creek until his cabin was ready. Waneka’s descendants are still in the area to this day, and every July 4th Lafayette residents celebrate their independence at Lafayette’s Waneka Lake.

In 1864, the future founder of the town of Lafayette would have been just a couple miles to the south at Rock Creek. Lafayette and Mary Miller, young twenty-somethings and pioneers from Iowa, set up a stage stop and tavern there. Unlike most of the other Lafayettes, Fayettevilles, and Fayettes scattered around the country, Lafayette, Colorado is not named after the French fellow who helped Washington win the American Revolution. The town is named for Lafayette Miller, or just “Lafe” to his friends and family.

Lafe, however, did not found the town of Lafayette. He drank himself to death (most likely) in 1878 at the age of 38. The real dynamo of that partnership in marriage was his wife, Mary. She was just nineteen years old when she ventured into the vast western wilderness of the Colorado Territory, chasing a dream born out of the 1862 Homestead Act.

When Lafe died, he left Mary with their six kids. Along with her brother, James Foote, Mary started many local ventures. In 1888 Mary subdivided her land, sold off the lots, often directly to other women at deep discounts versus the men, and the town of Lafayette was formed. Learning of massive coal deposits under her land, she worked smart deals with coal mining interests creating the passive income of royalties on the extracted coal. She became the first woman in America to head up a bank. She started Lafayette’s first school and hired its first teacher. Likely because of her husband’s alcohol addiction, Mary was a prohibitionist and made Lafayette a dry town everywhere east of Public Road, a rule that remarkably stood until the early 1980s.

Our view across Waneka Lake. Photo by Makia Minich via Wikimedia Commons

The First 40 Years

Coal mining began in Lafayette in 1888 with the opening of the Simpson Mine in the southeast part of present-day Old Town Lafayette. The various coal mines in the area excavated a massive honeycomb of shafts, passages, and underground rooms. Walk around Old Town Lafayette, and you will be walking over places where, just a few decades ago, subterranean men in canvas hats and oil headlamps moved about like moles through a dangerous underworld of creaking mine timbers and wafting coal dust.

The life of a coal miner in those days was often brutal. The companies that owned the mines cared little for the wellbeing of the miners. In those days the predominant perspective of the mine owners was that, if a miner didn’t like the job, he was free to quit. The problem with this is that swinging a coal miner’s pick was often the only game around for a roughneck with a family of mouths to feed and few marketable skills. The mining companies knew this and put the miners into a de facto state of slavery, often paying them in scrip (fake money) that could only be spent at the company store. They offered them housing in the company town (The one at the Columbine Mine was ironically named “Serene.”) for which the miners became indebted to pay the rent.

The working conditions were dangerous — inhumane even. Since most coal mining was done in the winter, Sunday was truly “sun day” for miners. On all other days of the week, they would drop underground before sun-up and not emerge until after sun-down, never feeling the sun on their faces until Sunday just to do it all over again week after week. The miners also only got paid for actual mining work. If they needed to secure a bulging beam so their skull wouldn’t get crushed in a collapse, they were not paid for that work. This led to horrible accidents in the mines as desperate miners were loath to spend time on unpaid labor, called “dead work.” These conditions inevitably led to revolt. Strikes broke out regularly which were often suppressed with brutal indifference to the miners by both the mining companies and the local and state authorities.

I learned a lot about Lafayette’s nationally instrumental coal mining labor movement from two great local historians and published authors, Nicholas Bernhard and Dr. Leigh Campbell-Hale. Bernhard wrote the historical novel “November in America” and Dr. Campbell-Hale is the author of the 2023 book “Remembering Ludlow but Forgetting the Columbine: The Colorado Coal Strike of 1927-1928.

Dr. Campbell-Hale is a coal miner’s daughter from the mines of Arkansas. Unlike in Arkansas, according to Dr. Campbell-Hale, Lafayette coal mining depended largely on immigrant miners. First, they came primarily from England and Wales. Then, in the 1910s and 1920s, a second wave arrived, often as strike-breakers, from all over the world — Eastern Europe, Mexico, Greece, Japan, and many other places.

In the 1910s and 1920s the town of Lafayette was filled with tension during strikes as clashes erupted between strikers and strike breakers (called scabs). In one such account, described in Doug Conorroe’s book “Lost Lafayette,” a great gun fight erupted between the two groups in east Lafayette in 1913. Apparently, while miners may be good with a pickaxe, they are terrible shots. Over one thousand rounds were fired, and the only fatality was a single horse.

It was during this time that Lafayette was also put on the map, literally. Before Eisenhower’s Interstate Highways, and even before Route 66, there was the Lincoln Highway. It was the first transcontinental automobile route. Thanks to the then recent designation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, local lobbyists convinced the Feds to route a south-to-north spur of the highway from Denver to Cheyenne right through Lafayette. It followed the same general route as the Old Cherokee Trail, right up 111th St. past the Lafayette Cemetery.

The combination of World War I and the route of the old Lincoln Highway resulted in the construction of the World War I pillars at Nine Mile Corner in 1928. It was part patriotic remembrance and part marketing scheme by the citizens of Boulder to encourage more traffic to turn left at this gateway and go to Boulder instead of Longmont. The pillars are a historical site, and they are under threat from development. They will likely need to be moved soon, and the Boulder Rotary Club is leading an effort to organize that work. At a recent town forum on the project it was confirmed that there is a time capsule in the south pillar. Legend has it that a live toad was placed in it. When the pillars are moved and restored, the contents of the time capsule will be revealed. Hopefully it will not be a mummified toad.

As the World War I pillars went up, so did the burning crosses. Throughout much of the 1920s and into the 1930s the Ku Klux Klan menaced minorities and Catholics in Lafayette and the state of Colorado. On July 4, 1923, the fireworks show in town was a burning cross on a hill just east of Lafayette. Extensive local Klan membership included William Lafayette Miller, Mary Miller’s grandson, who once led a Klan parade from the saddle of a white horse through downtown Lafayette. In the mid-1920s most of Lafayette’s city council, volunteer firefighters, teachers, school board members, and Mayor Lee Baker were members of the Klan, as was Colorado governor Clarence Morley.

On November 21, 1927, six miners on strike were killed by gunfire from state rangers in plain clothes as violence erupted at the gates of Erie’s Columbine Mine. Dozens of others were injured. But out of this tragedy came progress. Shortly after the massacre, Josephine Roche took over majority ownership of the mine and implemented some of the most progressive labor policies of the time. This set an example for other heavy industries to follow. After running for Colorado governor in 1934 Roche served in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet as the second woman in American history to hold a cabinet level position.

Photo: Doug Geiling, Yellow Scene Magazine

The Last 100 Years

By the 1930s, coal was in decline with natural gas taking its place. The Great Depression and then World War II did not allow the town to relax from the trauma of its coal mining heyday. Coal mining continued into the 1950s before petering out completely. By then Lafayette had become a sleepy hub for local agriculture and a bedroom community for a growing Denver-Boulder metropolitan area.

Jerry Morrell, founder and owner of long-time local business Morrell Printing and President of the Lafayette Historical Society remembers what Lafayette was like when he first moved to town in the mid-1960s. In those days, if you lived in Lafayette, you did your business there. You got your groceries, did your banking, and bought your appliances right in town. High school kids cruised up and down Public Road on weekends. “It was American Graffiti,” said Morrell. Instead of a Mel’s Diner there was an A&W. It was classic mid-20th-Century Americana.

One of the culminating local events of this era was the epic rivalry between Lafayette and Louisville High Schools. As Morrell described it, they had to stop football games between the two schools due to the fights, not between the students, but between the parents. In 1968 some kids from Lafayette prematurely burned down the bonfire pyre at Louisville High School. Louisville kids retaliated by setting fire to the press tower at Lafayette High.

Then things changed. Malls and big grocery stores went up in surrounding communities, and local stores closed up shop. Centaurus High School was built in 1973, mixing the student population and ending the rivalry. Downtown Lafayette became a place that you drove through to get somewhere else. “Nobody walked up and down Public Road in the 1980s,” said Morrell. “No one had any reason to.”

Morrell recognizes the similarities between the new vitality of today’s Lafayette and that of the 1960s, although the nature of it is different. Back then Lafayette was a town of necessity. You went to town because that’s just where business was done and where local life happened. Now it’s a town of choice. We go to Old Town for the atmosphere and a sense of nostalgia, choosing that local, small-town experience over the suburban big-box sprawl down the highway.

Long time resident Bill Gougler moved to town in 1979, recruited by Storage Tech which was building offices on Lafayette’s west side. I learned from Gougler that, in the 1980s the west side of Lafayette was a boomtown. People were moving in to fill new jobs in the burgeoning tech scene of the 1980s and housing developments like Indian Peaks were going up. But the boom was bypassing downtown Lafayette as Louisville arguably benefited more from Lafayette’s west side growth.

As I was speaking with the very enthusiastic Mr. Gougler, his wife Barb jumped on the phone to tell me about the origins of what became the world’s largest annual oatmeal festival. Started in 1996, the Lafayette Oatmeal Festival was just a crazy idea to get people back into downtown Lafayette, and it arguably worked.

In the 1990s there was concern in the town that the Highway 287 bypass would hurt the town’s economy by directing thru-traffic away from Public Road. According to Gougler the bypass was a blessing because it allowed downtown Lafayette to become a bonafide destination. Before the bypass, Public Road was just an exhaust-choked thoroughfare as motorists squeezed through town to get somewhere else but never having any reason to consider stopping in Lafayette.

Lafayette’s current mayor and Angevine Middle School teacher, J.D. Mangat, was born in Lafayette just twenty-seven years ago, the son of Indian immigrants. Mangat told me that, despite popular belief, Lafayette is not currently experiencing high levels of population growth like it did in the 1990s through the early 2000s. Now it is growing inwardly, figuring out what it really wants to become.

Mayor Mangat was proud to point out that “Lafayette currently has the most diverse city council in the history of Boulder County.” Reflecting on that comment I thought it to be a perfect closing to this brief journey through the town’s history. Lafayette is originally a town of immigrants who came here to find a life, but through their struggles, they built a legacy. Like the high school kids who used to cruise down Public Road, Lafayette is a town that is now coming of age. Like the mayor said, it’s time for the town to grow internally, to leverage its rich legacy, and finally come into its own.

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