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Requiem For A Small Town

July 2024
10min read

Sopris, Colorado

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.

One peppery resident of Sopris, eighty-two-year-old Frances Furia, sat in her living room one afternoon near the end, surrounded by framed photographs of her huge family. She had lived in that house for fifty-five years, the wife of a miner-shoemaker-barber now dead and the mother of twelve children. Shaking her head, she snapped, “They spend millions on that dam. What advantage is it? Flood control they say. Well there is a house down there on the river bottom where they raised fifteen kids and I said to the engineer how come it didn’t float away? But what you going to do? Fight? Kill ‘em? Then you go to jail. You argue with them they give you less money for the house.

“This was a pretty camp. A band every Saturday night. I’d go outside and listen. It was like a city—two coal mines, a coke oven, and a streetcar until they took it out and we had to walk to town like nanny goats.

“Oh, maybe no dam will ever come. I think they are all pazzo,” which means “crazy” and is accompanied by an appropriate gesture.

Crazy or not, the people who like the dam say that it will save the town of Trinidad from floods and enhance the area with a twenty-five-mile-long lake for recreation. But others say that the last two times Trinidad was flooded the water came from a tributary downriver from the dam; that the mountainous slag heaps left over from the mines will dissolve fish-killing acid into the lake; that the Purgatoire’s water is muddy and fit only for junk fish; and that an eighty-six-foot seasonal drawdown will expose an ugly bathtub ring of mud flats to further discourage recreation.

Now that the decision is final and the dam is imminent, the last wish of the Sopris people is that the dam and reservoir be named after their town instead of Trinidad. “After all,” said Joe Terry, sitting in the house his wife’s grandfather built and drinking some twelve-year-old muscatel his wife’s grandfather made, “Sopris has lost its life, and there is Trinidad with its name on the tombstone.”

But in the end Sopris will surrender to progress with dignity and without self-pity, perhaps because for eighty-five years Sopris, lacking progress, has survived on laughter and love and close ties with large and extended families and compari , those for whom one feels fraternal responsibility.

When a Sopris tavern burned down one Thanksgiving Day, the owner’s compari had him back in business by New Year’s Eve. When a man was out of work for six months, loaves of bread appeared on his table. The Sopris grocery stores stayed almost broke feeding their own.

The modest houses were built mostly of adobe or wood and stucco, and they grew as the families grew, with a plot reserved for vegetables and flowers and another for the brick ovens where the women baked the pane .

Some men died in the mines or were crippled, and many got black lung from breathing the coal dust, so they coughed and spit and were forever out of breath. In the old days a man got three dollars a day for digging sixteen tons of coal with a pick and a shovel, and he did not see the light of day except on Sundays. The men worked in the mine alongside their mules, and if his mule died in the mine, a man was fired on the spot; but when a man got killed he was left on the crosscut until the shift ended.

The poverty was endless, but they did not know until they grew up how poor they were, because they had the hills to climb for pinon nuts, the streams to fish for trout, the slag heap to ride a shovel down in winter, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains thirty miles west to hunt for deer. And they had each other in an unself-conscious sort of way.

Beneath the houses the men established their wine cellars, and every fall when the grapes came from California each man made the wine in his own way, some with sugar, some without, some adding heat and others letting the mash ferment in its own good time, some crushing the grapes with their feet as their fathers had done in the old country.

The wine was important to them. Even when the men cut up tires and fastened pieces to their children’s shoes to replace the worn-out soles, there was somehow always money for grapes. They say in Sopris that as long as they had the wine they felt lucky, and they drink a toast that goes, “A hundred years and then you die,” and they insist that three glasses are a minimum and that a drop spilled is a drop you do not get to drink.

Because making the wine and drinking it together are secular sacraments to them, they are very careful with it. Joe Terry, at twenty-nine, is the only one of his generation making wine. In the cellar of his Sopris house are about one hundred gallons of muscatel and zinfandel quietly aging in the oaken barrels used by his grandfather. “The one thing I hate about leaving,” he said, “is that my wine barrels have to get stood up.”

The people who still live in Sopris or nearby sit around kitchen tables and drink the wine, remembering when the place was good and the people were a part of one another and the spirit that united them ran as strong as the wine.

A celebration was held prematurely on the Fourth of July so six hundred Sopris people who had moved away could come back for a final farewell.

The day before the event the cars streamed up from Trinidad, crossed the rusting iron truss bridge, dodged the potholes in the neglected road, and headed single file for Catherine Maccagnan’s tavern in the shadow of the reinforced-concrete tower that prefigures the dam. The tavern is worn and plain, without a sign to announce it, but it is known for miles around as “Catherine’s place” or “Katie’s.” Inside, there isn’t much besides the long mirrored bar, “the only black, green, and orange bar in the world”; a few booths along the opposite wall, with local scenes by an itinerant artist painted on triangular panels above; a high embossed-tin ceiling from which descends a single electric fan; family pictures stuck up above the ancient cash register; a juke box, a pool table, and a few pinball machines. Everyone drinks at the bar, presided over by Catherine for thirty-five of her sixtyfive years. She doesn’t look her age, but that night she proudly claimed, “It took two thousand years to produce this face,” as the beer ran like water, the hail beat down on the roof, and the crowd sang loud and off key the same as always.

The next day dawned bright and clear with a freshness in the air following the night’s rain. All along the road to Sopris hand-lettered signs were nailed to trees and posts: GOD IS ALIVE AND WELL IN SOPRIS; DAMN THE DAM; SMILE, YOU ARE IN SOPRIS; YOU CAN TAKE THE PEOPLE OUT OF SOPRIS BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE SOPRIS OUT OF THE PEOPLE ; and at the church, THIS CHURCH is STILL USED—DO NOT DAMAGE—THANK YOU. Inside was a banner draped from the choir loft that said: FATHER JIM MADE TODAY—THANK YOU FATHER , because the person most responsible for the idea and for making it work was Father Jim Koenigsfeld, a twenty-seven-year-old from Iowa who came to the adobe church only two years ago fresh from his ordination.

The families came with lunch baskets and coolers and picnicked in front of their old homes. Salvage men who had bought up some of the old houses for scrap arrived during lunch, and the sounds of demolition punctuated the laughter. One old miner said in mid-afternoon, “They just took away the porch I was eating on.”

The old men stood arm in arm under the cottonwoods and the elms, glancing up at a jet streaking across a brittle blue sky and the sun gleaming on Fisher’s Peak away to the east, drinking beer and speaking their mother tongue. Shorty D’Ercole, eighty years old, stood with Pop Incitti, who is seventysix. Both are under five feet tall, both worked all their lives in the mines, and both have faces that have come from the earth. The two old men danced together in the gym, played boccie , and talked of old times. Shorty said to Pop, waving his hands excitedly as though it were happening then, “The mules, remember the mules in the mine that was caving in? There was the lead mule, that red one with a face like a horse, in there tangled up in the chains. And I said please somebody get out the mules, and they were making the noise and scraping the feet and I couldn’t stand it and I went in and brought them out. Then the whole thing collapsed.” The two old men laughed and went down the street together.

Grist Cunico went into the mines at fourteen and came out fifty years later, though his face is unlined and young and he appears to have spent all his life outdoors. His son, like most Sopris children, was sent to school instead of into the mines. Grist, Jr., is thirty-eight and has a degree in electrical engineering. He stood with his arm around his own small son and suddenly bent down and kissed him. “There’s something here that can’t be replaced,” he said. “We climbed those hills as kids. We had our first loves here … I’ve been in sixteen foreign countries and forty states and I make a good living in Tulsa, but I’d give it all up to come back here to live and die and be buried.”

When all the beer was gone, when the band stopped playing and the people began to leave, Pop Incitti went to his new home in Trinidad carrying a lump of coal awarded to him for being the oldest miner at the celebration, because Shorty D’Ercole went home early. He went to his cellar, drew a bottle of wine from the cool sand, and his dark eyes danced and a grin spread across his weathered face. “The wine is still good,” he said. “The wine you can still make. The wine you can take with you.” And by and by he got out his old accordion and began to play the old songs, and his family sang with him and drank his wine. After a while the old man stopped playing and took a pencil and wrote a poem in Italian about the end of Sopris. One line went: “We will leave all the roses to rest beneath the water.”

Before the celebration there was a Mass. From the back of the church a procession of Sopris people came to the altar bearing the things for the Offertory: a loaf of freshly baked bread in a basket woven by Pop Incitti, a bottle of wine, a columbine, a miner’s helmet, a lump of coal on a silver tray.

A priest read from Ecclesiastes:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die … … a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance. …

After the Mass an old woman came out of a house nearby, shooing the chickens, and said, “Be sure and have a dance so when you’re old like me you can come back with a fishing pole and say, down there is where I had a dance.”

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