By Mervyn Tilden
Tilden is a Diné (Navajo) photojournalist who has written for local and regional newspapers since 1992. He is a life-long activist, documentary producer, archivist and media bug who enjoys political commentary, real-time event news feeds, family life, nature hikes and exploration of the past.
When I first began my extra-long walks, inadvertently coming upon the ruins of another time and places, it was like walking through a ghost town where human life once thrived and celebrated but was now desolate. The portals of time opened up and I came upon unknown remnants, only later to discover through much research and interviews what the object or building was and its purpose at the time.
There are homes in ruins out there and there are also burial sites, which must be respected at all times. With that I wonder what the last thoughts of the inhabitants were when they foresaw the coming end and made a mass exodus, taking everything with them.
Then Gallup made its debut.
The coal industry provided a substantial amount of income to the state in the form of taxes and royalties and Gallup is in a strategic location in regards to the construction of the early railroads that moved people and material resources across the nation. Sixteen railroads were in service to New Mexico mines between 1880 and 1963.
During World War I and II the railroads and mines were crucial. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 every able-bodied man went to war except the Japanese immigrants who provided the manpower to mine the coal and supply the area with electricity.
It’s quite different when you hear those, who were children back then, speak the living history than when you read about it somewhere. There once were trails blazed but were abandoned and the high road to the unknown that was taken with adventure and discovery in mind now scarcely remains in the minds of a few. But it is left in the touching of the object or structure of the past. Standing in the place where others once stood. Observing what they saw.
According to Bruce Williams, owner of Cowboy Auto Sales, at one time Gamerco was bigger than Gallup and many of its residents were affluent. “It had a tennis court, swimming pool, racquet ball court, baseball field (where Navajo Tractor is presently located), streets with names and numbers for the houses.
“My family were strictly Indian traders but I remember sitting at the table and listening to the old timers talk about the old times. I knew some of the people so that is what made it interesting,” Williams recollected. “We need to document this and get it all on record before it is lost.”
The community of Gibson was developed following the discovery of the Gallup Mine in 1882; John Gibson was the mine superintendent and namesake of the town. Gibson had a hotel, company store, hospital, meat market, Catholic church and a school. By 1919, there were 1,200 people living there. The closing of older mines and the decreased demand for coal in the late 1940s erased Gibson from the map. The railroad that went up Gibson Valley was dismantled and reused because of the scarcity of metal during WWII.
“It was a big community and had electric and water. There was a big railroad running through the valley,” said retired librarian Octavia Fellin. “A lot of houses, too, but the jail is the only real structure left.” Fellin added, “My father was a mining contractor and he helped build the underpinnings of the claims that became the Navajo and Weaver mines and later, The American Coal Company in Gamerco. He worked there for 30 years and my mother was a nurse at Gibson hospital.”
Although the structure at the Gibson mine site, mentioned by Fellin, is described as a powder shack (where all the explosives for mining were kept) in many historical accounts, all those interviewed said it was definitely used as a jail. On some weekends there would be eight to ten guys in there for disorderly conduct.
There was a mule barn by present-day Navajo Shopping Center. The mules were used to assist the miners and pull up the coal carts from the mine along with the underground hoists. Some said they knew when it was quitting time on Fridays; they would just stop pulling the coal carts and start braying.
Today there are mines still open but most are sealed and concealed quite well. Frank Trujillo, Chief Appraiser for the McKinley County Assessor’s Office, recalled the mines that were near his neighborhood. “We used to play in them (coal mines) when we were kids and get in the coal cars. We even used to explore the tunnels until a kid got lost and they were closed up.”
Johnny Espinosa remembered that when he was a child only the coal separator building was there, where they also burned slack. “I was ten years old when we moved from there; there were two camps at the time – the Heaton and Weaver mine camps – and two houses out there along with the hoist house, which was used to pull out coal. They were covering all the mineshafts and air shafts. The Weaver and Navajo mines caught fire; one is still burning and you can see the smoke in the winter time.”
Through the exploration of my neighborhood hills and valleys I have been fortunate to let the ruins of former towns and communities be a teacher and educate me about the history of the people that once lived here.
The areas and ruins described in this article are remote and potentially dangerous. Do not attempt to find them. The author did so at his own risk and shares his findings here.