Requiem For A Small Town

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The death of a small town in America does not count for much. Small towns succumb to dams, farms to factories, forests to subdivisions; wilderness depreciates into real estate, mountains are divided by interstate highways, and wild rivers learn to mind their manners.
 

The death of a small town in America does not count for much. Small towns succumb to dams, farms to factories, forests to subdivisions; wilderness depreciates into real estate, mountains are divided by interstate highways, and wild rivers learn to mind their manners.

On the bank of the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado there is a town called Sopris that will die this New Year’s Eve, when Catherine Maccagnan will serve the last drink over her orange, black, and green bar; when the power will be shut off, the last good-bys said, and Sopris will surrender to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The bulldozers will come to knock down what is left of the town, and by and by a giant earth-filled dam made from the streets and fields and back yards of Sopris will restrain the temperamental Purgatoire, once known as El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio —The River of Souls Lost in Purgatory. By 1975 one hundred feet of water will cover the place where four generations of Italian-American coal miners have lived and labored and loved.

Sopris has had no important history, no significant architecture. It produced no famous men, no great thinkers, no millionaires. The Indians never bothered it, the gold prospectors passed it by, the homesteaders refused it. But the water politicians coveted it, and the only people who cared about Sopris were the people who lived there.

In 1885, when the steam engines were pulling long freight loads over Raton Pass toward Trinidad five miles east of Sopris and the wagons were still rolling nearby along the Santa Fe Trail, the new Sopris mine produced more coal than any other camp in Las Animas County. By World War I, nearly two thousand people, mostly immigrant Italians, lived in Sopris and the three adjoining communities. They came from the old country to join their friends and relatives in this isolated coal camp that became as Italian as the towns they had left.

They married among themselves generation after generation, until so many of them shared the same family names that the church records read like a litany. A Maccagnan married a Cunico, another Cunico married an Incitti, the Regusas became related to the Terrys, two Sebben brothers married two Terry sisters, a De Angelis married a nonrelated De Angelis, two Liras married yet two more Cunicos, and on and on in a multiplication of relationshios unfavorable by any outsider.

When the last Sopris mine shut down in 1940, the population dwindled rapidly. By the time the Army Corps of Engineers arrived in 1967 to begin the two-hundred-foot-high dam tower that already looms above the town, Sopris had about three hundred people, most of them pensioners.

Fifty years ago there was talk of a dam, because the Purgatoire goes on a rampage once every five years or so and floods nearby Trinidad, population ten thousand. The river drops eight thousand feet in seventy-five miles, and dozens of small streams swell and feed into it when it rains, so the Purgatoire sometimes descends with a wall of water and no warning. The river also floods because the giant Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, which owns all of the coal mines and much of the landscape around Sopris, has been careless with the watershed. “They cut trees up there till hell wouldn’t have it,” remembers Paul Butero, who retired with black lung disease after forty years in the mines.

For years the government men came and went, survey after survey was taken, and Congress finally voted the dam, convinced that the benefits outweighed the $55,000,000 cost. The only casualty was the little town of Sopris.

Because Sopris never bothered to incorporate, the government did not have to build new houses for the people or move them to a new location. They were simply paid a sum of money for their places and told to move, and their homes were bulldozed into piles of rubble, which still remain. If the people didn’t want to leave they could lease back the homes they had built with their own hands and stay a little while longer.

A few refused to accept the government’s price and saw their property condemned. A few wrote to Washington and received courteous, intractable answers. A few fought with the government appraiser and claim they got less for their houses because they did. And a few, it is said, died on purpose rather than pack up and leave.