There is a place where the wind eats the snow. The air is pressurized over the top of a colossal mountain range we call the Rockies before it is released down the other side. Wind gusts violently careen through the pine-forested foothills and crash out onto a land ocean we know as the Great Plains.
It’s the Chinook. This warm winter wind can bring the force of a hurricane down onto the flatlands. It uproots trees, stirs up dust storms, and sends backyard trampolines flying. It can also snap live power lines and breathe life into the dimmest of embers.
On December 30, 2021 the conditions aligned in this environment to create an almost unthinkable catastrophe. An exceptionally dry early winter had turned the grasses of Colorado’s High Plains into brittle tinder. On that late December day, wind gusts were clocked at up to 115 mph at the edge of the Rockies. Multiple ignition points were activated by the winds. Spot fires lit up like blinking Christmas lights and then erupted into wind-driven hell vortexes. Fire crews had no chance to stop the blaze, which seemed to erupt everywhere all at once.
As the winds gusted and shifted, embers darted to new targets, jumping over some homes and businesses only to set others ablaze. Heroic first responders frantically evacuated citizens with only minutes to spare. Some residents took to driving through fields ahead of approaching walls of flame and smoke.
When snow finally blanketed the smoldering neighborhoods the next day, over a thousand homes and seven businesses were burned to the ground. Two people lost their lives. The Marshall Fire was the most destructive in the history of Colorado. Almost all the losses were sustained in the beautiful Colorado towns of Louisville and Superior.
Both Boulder County towns are routinely ranked as among the best places to live in America by various media outlets. In fact, Louisville is a two-time No. 1 best place to live by Money Magazine and has made the top 10 list multiple times.
But these towns have not always been the serene suburban havens they’ve become. When the aftermath of the Marshall Fire was still smoldering, some residents speculated that coal was to blame. After all, it was known that there was another fire burning in the area at the time — an underground cauldron continuously smoldering for over 100 years. Near Superior, under the Marshall Mesa, ground temperatures have been measured at over 200 degrees Fahrenheit from the simmering coal underneath the surface. The underground fire is a relic of why these towns even exist.
Seventy million years ago the land where Louisville and Superior sit today was not the semi-arid high plain beautifully situated at the base of a big mountain range. Back then dinosaurs waded through the waters of a giant tropical swamp. Over the eons all that plant matter had to go somewhere, and it ended up pressurized into a layer of soft black rock. This formed the Northern Colorado Coal Field.
The first prospectors to arrive in Colorado were seeking gold in the late 1850s. But, as they moved through the area looking for the yellow metal or related business opportunities, some of the keener observers noticed outcroppings of black rock, surface coal, on the plains north of Denver and east of Boulder. In an arc that roughly follows the course of the aptly named Coal Creek, a series of coal mining towns sprang up. Near the edge of the mountains was Superior, and just east of Superior would be Louisville.
Coal mining provided the catalyst for railroad construction in the area, which in turn accelerated the volume of coal extraction as the railroads not only ran on coal but were used to haul massive quantities of the black rock to wherever it was needed. Indeed, these new Boulder County coal towns, like Louisville and Superior, would for a time provide the growing Denver area with most of its power.
The human history of this area does not start with coal. Nor does it start with gold, or even with the first white explorers who traversed these plains and mountains from the east in the early 1800s, or the Spaniards who ventured into the area from the south with their horses two centuries earlier. People had already been here for hundreds of generations, the earliest of which hunted the woolly mammoth and feared the sabre toothed tiger. The area that is Louisville and Superior today was likely inhabited for at least thousands of years during the winter because the proximity to the mountains provided a slightly milder and more sheltered micro-climate compared to places farther east or west.
More recent Indigenous peoples include the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. While the Utes and their direct ancestors had been in the area for centuries, the Arapaho and Cheyenne were newcomers in the early 1800s having previously been displaced from their Upper Midwest homelands by the westward expansion of European Americans from the east.
The horde of pioneers and fortune seekers from the east did not just settle a land already occupied, they transformed it as if terraforming a new planet. In 1820 Colorado’s high plain was part of a vast American Serengeti teeming with millions of bison upon which the Plains Indians depended. The landscape was a vast rolling ocean of grasses crisscrossed by precious prairie riverways lined with cottonwoods. The enormous prairie was backdropped in the west by the rampart of a vast mountain range, its glacial valleys, and high peaks known only to its indigenous inhabitants.
By 1870, just a half century later, the bison were rapidly disappearing, felled by the hundreds of thousands by pioneers seeking fortune rather than sustenance from the land. Rivers were diverted, damned, and irrigated. Great fields were cultivated. Domesticated herbivores were a poor replacement for the depleted bison — the newcomers mowed down prairie grass like thousand-pound locusts. The mountains and prairies were hollowed out by people obsessed with finding black, yellow, and silver stones. The horse-drawn wagon was replaced by the steel horse belching its black smoke and bringing ever more people from the east. The Native Americans were forced from their suddenly defiled range into reservations to the north and south.
When seen through the eyes of the Plains Indian, the period from 1820 to 1870 was an apocalypse. For the newcomers, the West meant opportunity and not just for Americans. Titans of the Gilded Age industry needed bodies to extract their fortunes for them, and they often looked abroad for their labor. Many of Louisville’s early coal miners came from Italy, eventually forming large prominent immigrant families.
I spoke with Ron Buffo, a Louisville native and retired high school social studies teacher born in 1953. Buffo spun a fascinating family history for me that begins with his great grandfather Michele — pronounced MeeKAYla — Buffo. A Colorado coal mine offered him and his brother Giacomo jobs and a paid trip across an ocean a continent away from home. After the long journey Michele hopped off the train and looked around at a foreign land that bore little resemblance to his northern Italian homeland. As someone with mining experience, he knew the work would be hard and the pay little, but he also knew it was better than anything he could get in Italy at the time.
Michele Buffo worked in the Louisville mines for five years before he was able to bring his wife to Colorado to join him. They had two sons, Dominic and Baptiste. Dominic dropped out of school at the age of thirteen to work in the mine with his father. In those days the mining companies paid the miner by the ton, not the hour, and an able-bodied son could increase the load and the income for the family. School was of lesser importance than the chance to get ahead financially.
Dominic Buffo’s coal mining career ended after 31 years with a gruesome accident in 1944. While working the conveyor belt on the tipple of Erie’s Columbine Mine, his right glove was snagged in the machinery, violently yanking his body forward. Dominic threw his weight back to avoid getting pulled over the top to an almost certain death, but the force of the conveyor belt ripped his right arm off at the shoulder.
Dominic was loaded into a basket and taken on a grueling 45-minute ride to the nearest full-service hospital in Boulder, nearly bleeding to death en route. His life was saved, but a blood clot formed in his head causing him to lose his ability to speak for the rest of his life. He also developed black lung disease from his years of breathing in coal dust almost every day since age thirteen. Dominic lived in Louisville for another 31 years after the accident, passing away in 1975 at age 75.
“I tell you what,” said his grandson, Ron, “he was a strong old man.”
Before the accident Dominic was a lifelong member of the United Mine Workers of America fighting, like many coal miners of his day, for better pay and working conditions. He followed in the footsteps of his father Michele, an ardent union man himself. In fact, Michele and his other son Baptiste, Ron’s great uncle, participated in the Hecla Mine conflict of 1914 when gunfire erupted between the union men and state government forces.
The striking miners, according to Buffo, were fearful of a repeat of the Ludlow Massacre in Southern Colorado — they knew it was the same Third Colorado Cavalry that attacked Ludlow that was headed up to Hecla. The union handed out hundreds of rifles to the striking miners. Hours of gunfire ensued with remarkably few injuries. Ron Buffo still has the rifle that his great uncle used at Hecla.
It was during this time that, according to Buffo, the state government placed a trigger-happy machine gunner at Hecla who had a habit of randomly firing into the town of Louisville. One night Buffo’s great grandfather Michele went to use the outhouse when a bullet zipped through and grazed the top of his hand. When I asked if they reported the incident to the police, I knew the answer before it came. What would have been the point?
“The government supported that kind of thing back then,” said Buffo.
Just before dawn on January 20th 1936 an underground explosion rocked Monarch Mine #2 just south of Louisville. Something ignited the combustible air and uncovered coal dust, eight coal miners perished. The body of Joe Jaramillo was never recovered and he rests to this day somewhere directly beneath the Flatiron Crossing Mall.
The loss of Jaramillo compelled his fourteen-year-old son, Joe Jr., to go to work in the mines at age 14 to support his family. Joe Jr. would live the rest of his life as a coal miner with an interlude as a soldier and prisoner of war in World War II. He was among the final shift of miners to close down Erie’s Eagle Mine for good in 1978. Joe Jr., like so many coal miners, suffered from black lung disease. He died of a heart attack just three months after his retirement.
Ron Buffo reflected on the dangerous work and labor violence of those years experienced by his family and others. “Thank goodness I didn’t have to work in a damned coal mine,” said Buffo.
After his grandfather’s accident in 1944, Buffo’s grandmother was forced to find work and became one of the first people hired at Rocky Flats. Coal mining was in decline by that time and many out-of-work miners found jobs there as well. As if the risk of black lung disease weren’t enough, now they would face cancer-causing radiation, unbeknownst to them at the time.
“My father and brother both died of cancer as a result of radioactive exposure from Rocky Flats,” said Buffo.
With a strong Italian heritage comes the rumors and stereotypes of organized crime, but there seems to be little evidence of much of this in Louisville. According to Buffo, there was a small Italian Mafia presence operating out of North Denver.
“During the ’60s and ’70s, if you drove down Main Street (Louisville) you’d sometimes see five or six brand new Cadillacs parked out front of a pool hall,” he said. “Those weren’t people from Louisville.”
Legends of bootlegging tunnels underneath Old Town Louisville from the Prohibition era have mostly been either debunked or unproven. However, according to Gigi Young at the Louisville Historical Museum, the Prohibition era did produce some interesting bootlegging schemes in Louisville including a giant hidden underground still.
The nature of Louisville and Superior continued to evolve in the post World War era as coal mining was replaced by a more diversified economy in a growing Denver-Boulder metropolitan area. Buffo graduated from Louisville High in 1971. When I asked him about those days, I could feel the sense of excitement and nostalgia come through the phone. This was Louisville’s classic Americana era when homecoming and football games against Lafayette High School were the big thing.
It took the Louisville kids weeks to collect enough scrap wood for the homecoming bonfire, a tradition that would never fly today. Reflecting on this, Buffo said, “They once took Old Man Ferrari’s outhouse and put it on top of the pyre.” During football games, “a couple thousand people would show up,” said Buffo. “It was a lot of fun.”
Schools and views
Superior? It’s a strange name for a town. Located a little to the southwest of Louisville, the town of Superior was originated by a farmer, Charles Hake, who settled on the land around 1860. He knew of the exposed coal seam on his land, but it wasn’t until 1892 that he partnered with Jim Hood to drop the first coal mine shaft. The resulting mine called The Industrial would operate for the next 53 years and extract four million tons of coal from the earth.
Although the town of Superior was incorporated in 1904 only a few hundred residents called Superior home for almost the next century. Then the 1990s came and Superior exploded like a coal mine blast, booming to over 12,000 residents by the turn of the Millenium.
Chandy Ghosh and her husband were one of the early residents of Superior’s beautiful Rock Creek subdivision. Originally hailing from Calcutta, India, Ghosh came to New Mexico on a full ride scholarship in 1987, got a job in Denver at US West, and moved to Superior for the “superior schools” in the late 1990s.
Ghosh described for me a real life American dream. She became a successful telecommunications executive and found the perfect home with her husband in Superior with an unobstructed view of the mountains and a friendly community. “Twenty-five years later, I still feel blessed that we got this spot,” said Ghosh.
I asked Ghosh what she thinks about Superior’s growth. She remembered in the early years how the city lights would end on her commute home from downtown Denver near Westminster Mall and then it was pitch black. “Now, you can’t tell where Denver ends and Superior starts,” said Ghosh.
Ghosh is more than okay with the growth. “The schools and the views brought us here,” she said. “But, I’m really more of a city girl.” Ghosh believes that Superior is growing into an independent town with its own identity. “I’m loving Superior right now,” she said.
But on December 30, 2021 they nearly lost their dream home. In fact, it’s almost a miracle that they didn’t. “We smelled the smoke before we saw the fire,” she said. “Then I looked up and saw huge flames across the street, and at that moment someone started banging on our front door.” It was the fire marshall and they needed to go immediately.
They only had time to grab passports before racing out the door. “We thought there was no way the house would survive,” said Ghosh. “But the next morning some friends snuck into the neighborhood and told us ‘your house is still standing!’” Somehow the flames parted. It burned the houses one block over on both sides of their street, but not theirs. Such was the erratic nature of the Marshall Fire.
The Marshall Fire did not break these communities. Not even close. They are quietly rebuilding. These towns were forged by hardy families. They had men (and often boys) who swung pick axes at black rocks six days a week and paid the price for their toil to build better lives for their descendants. They had women who endured the low income and constant worry about their mining husbands and sons.
I know from speaking with Ron Buffo that he takes great pride in the example that his forebears set, and in the communities they helped build. Like Buffo said, we all should be glad that we don’t have to work in a damned coal mine.
Despite the Marshall Fire, Louisville and Superior remain among the best places in America to live. It is not just the great views and great schools. There’s something particularly wonderful about this area that we can’t quite put our finger on. Perhaps it’s simply superior.
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