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Erie – Little Big Town

Erie – Little Big Town


Erie has long been defined by its rural past and as the town grows, will need to draw from its history to maintain its authenticity.

Two Trappers

Charlie Liley had a dangerous job in 1897. He was a trapper in an Erie, Colorado coal mine. For hours on end, day after day, he sat alone in the blackness of an earthen underworld. His job was simple — to open and close big wooden trap doors to let fresh air through the mine when the mules came through with their loads. It was dangerous work. Runaway coal carts were death machines, and cave-ins were a constant threat. But the trapper’s boredom and loneliness were the worst part. Solitary confinement in the pitch black could play cruel games on a man’s mind. Except Charlie was no man. He was just a 10-year-old boy.

This was America’s Gilded Age when barons of heavy industry steamrolled the dignity of the less fortunate. By the time Charlie became a coal mine trapper, Erie was already one of Colorado’s most important coal mining towns. It was a rough place then. If one were to venture up the hill east of town for a birds-eye view in 1897, they would have seen a small dusty town surrounded by coal mine tipples in every direction.

The first coal miner in Erie is said to be fur trapper and mountain man Jim Baker. He was a friend of Kit Carson, John C. “Pathfinder” Frémont, and Jim Bridger, legendary names of the pre-gold rush fur trapping era. Baker once had part of his face chewed off by a grizzly bear he killed.

Coal Miner Memorial: Photo: Doug Geiling

Relations between the mountain men and Native Americans were complicated, and Baker’s life was certainly an example of that. Baker was a part of the vanguard of white explorers from the East who represented unwanted encroachment upon native lands in the West. But he also adopted native ways, learning several Native American languages. Like the tribes he interacted with, he fought both against and with Native Americans depending on his alliances and interests. He once rescued a Shoshone chief’s daughter, named Marina, from Blackfoot captivity and then married her. In marriage he adopted the Shoshone lifestyle and was given the name “Red-Haired Shoshone” by his allied tribe.

As the fur trade withered Baker briefly tried his hand at coal mining. In 1858 Baker’s Bank was a small slope mine on the west bank of Coal Creek near present-day Old Town Erie. The effort proved unprofitable within a year, and Baker moved on to other ventures.

Baker’s Bank notwithstanding, the discovery of coal in Erie was officially documented in 1866. By this time the growing settlement was unofficially known as Coal Park. More settlers arrived near the end of the decade just to the northwest in an area called Canfield. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were known to have camped along Coal Creek in what is now Erie at times. But by 1870 the crushing wave of white settlers and the repressive government policies that supported them had largely forced the Native Americans onto less desirable lands farther south.

In 1874 the town of Erie was founded by a group of men including Richard van Valkenburg. Van Valkenburg named the town after Erie, Pennsylvania, his former home. By 1874 the new town was already well entrenched as an up-and-coming coal mining epicenter in the massive Northern Colorado Coal Field.

Photo courtesy of Erie Historical Society

By this time Erie had already scored a railroad connection. A rail spur from Brighton to Erie called the Boulder Valley Railway greatly accelerated the capacity of coal transportation. With this rail link in place, new coal mines began to sprout like weeds. More rail connections followed quickly including a narrow-gauge line carrying coal and passengers along today’s 119th Street from Canfield to Longmont. This train was nicknamed Longmont’s “Baby Railroad.”

By 1890 the Baby Railroad was replaced with the standard-gauge Burlington and re-routed along Erie’s High Street as part of a line from Denver to Lyons. The Burlington intersected with the Union Pacific near the south end of High Street. A train depot was built near the intersection still known today by some locals as either “the thirteen trees” or “the witching trees.” The depot is no longer in its original location, but it still stands today, having been saved and moved a couple hundred yards to the southwest by a local homeowner. You can see the small white structure directly east and across the road from County Line Lumber.

If you’ve ever wondered why Old Town Erie has that wonderful linear open space along High Street, it’s because that was the old Burlington rail line. The train ran well into the 1980s, and the tracks were finally pulled in 1990, a run of almost a full century.

Trains ran through Erie for nearly a century beginning in the early coal mining days. Photo courtesy of Erie Community Library

Machine Gun on the Tower

Northern Colorado coal mining was dangerous, back-breaking work. In Erie’s early coal mining days mine managers and their wealthy owners and financiers, like the Rockefellers, treated miners and their families like cordwood. Their practices were sometimes called industrial slavery. The coal miner was routinely cheated, brutalized, and dehumanized. Pay was barely a living wage at best, and often they were paid in company-issued currency called scrip that could only be used to buy overpriced goods at the company store. The average coal miner worked 12-14 hours a day and yet could never get ahead. As in the lyrics of the song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, the coal miner was stuck in a life where each day he loaded sixteen tons only to get “another day older and deeper in debt.”

Company towns sprang up at the larger mines to offer miners and their families affordable housing but in effect turned them into de facto labor camp prisoners. At Erie’s Columbine Mine near today’s landfill, the company town was named Serene. James B. Stull wrote in “A Brief History of Erie Colorado,” “It was a collection of dirty company houses surrounded by a barricade of barbed wire. It was illuminated at night by a large searchlight that was installed on the mine tipple.”

The result of these conditions was predictable. Frequent labor strikes broke out as miners organized to demand a modicum of dignity and fair treatment. Often this resulted in violence. Strikes were put down with brutal force and indifference by an alliance between mining interests and government authorities. State militias and troopers full of men eager to draw blood were often called up to intimidate striking miners and their families.

Company towns sprang up at the larger mines to offer miners and their families affordable housing but in effect turned them into de facto labor camp prisoners.

In November of 1927 the searchlight on the Columbine Mine’s tipple was accompanied by a machine gun. Miners were on strike again throughout the Northern Colorado Coal Field, and tensions were rising daily as a coal shortage loomed at the start of winter. Striking miners had children who attended the company school at Serene inside the gates. They would protest and agitate while taking their kids to and from school. These daily marches were often led by Elizabeth Baranek, the 5-foot-two-inch, 44-year-old wife of miner Joe Baranek, and mother of 16 kids with a 17th on the way.

The powder keg finally exploded at dawn on November 21, 1927. On that morning plain-clothed militia men, armed to the teeth, refused to let striking miners inside the gates of Serene. Strike leader Adam Bell, a “wobbly” from the International Workers of the World (IWW), was pulled over the top of the fence and beaten. Mrs. Baranek, carrying her unborn 17th child, broke through the gate and tried to shield Bell with an American flag only to be beaten herself.

When the protesters then surged, gunfire erupted into the crowd of several hundred. The massacre left six dead and 60 wounded. Erie’s doctor, James Bixler, is credited with saving the lives of many of the injured.

From left to right, the Erie “old timers” are Linette Ballew, Shavonne Blades, Dan Wendzel, Lois Joyce, Barry “Wildman” Snyder, Sherri Bond, Dan Hoback

Time Vortex

After the Columbine Mine massacre, progress was made in the labor movement under the leadership of Josephine Roche, a mining company insider who was sympathetic to the plight of the miner. By this time, however, Erie was reaching its coal mining peak. 

As the Great Depression settled over the land, Erie coal mining began its long decline, gradually replaced by oil and gas drilling. During the Depression some down-and-out families took to residing in caves and dugouts on the banks of Coal Creek. But coal mining work continued through the industry’s long decline, and for those fortunate enough to maintain employment, labor conditions improved.

Ralph Castro, a coal miner’s son, was born in Erie in 1938 and still lives in his childhood Old Town home on Holbrook Street. “My dad worked at several different mines and wound up at the Eagle.” Castro’s father, Mike, was active in the United Mine Workers Union. In those later years “wages got better and better.” According to Castro, his father was able to make a respectable living as a miner during and after the Second World War.

Castro graduated high school in 1957 in a class of eight kids. He remembers childhood in Erie as an easy going time. “We never thought about getting into trouble,” he said. “We all kept our noses clean.”

“We never thought about getting into trouble. We all kept our noses clean.”

Castro and long-time Erie resident Dan Wendzel are neighbors. Wendzel’s father, Joe, was also a coal miner. For thirty years Joe worked the mines in and around town, developing black lung disease later in life. Wendzel graduated from high school in Erie in a class of just 14 kids in 1964. As surrounding towns like Longmont began to attract new industries that spawned growth and new housing developments, Erie became a lost town in the middle of nothing on the way to nowhere. Groceries and supplies required trips north to Longmont. Water was trucked in from Lyons because Erie’s water was so terrible, nobody would drink it.

Many people still heated their homes with coal in those years. As a teenager Wendzel would drive a pickup truck to the still-operating Eagle Mine and purchase coal by weight. Pollution from coal burning was terrible at times. Wendzel told me that, on some winter days, the coal smoke would settle over town so thickly that he couldn’t see the houses through the smoke while driving into town from the hills to the east.

While Erie offered bad water, bad air, and not much for kids to do, life back then, as Wendzel described it, was authentic and simple. There was little league baseball and bike rides on dirt roads with fishing poles in hand to Erie Lake for bluegills and the occasional bass. There was also the pastime of watching the trains come and go right through town.

As a kid Wendzel lived right on the Burlington line on High Street. “You could feel the house shake when the train passed,” he said. In those days the train was still powered by steam engine. Because the Burlington and the Union Pacific crossed tracks just south of town, the train conductor was required to stop the entire train right in town on each passing to avoid collisions. “The train would head north early in the morning and come back about dusk, hauling coal one way and sugar beets the other,” said Wendzel.

“You could feel the house shake when the train passed. The train would head north early in the morning and come back about dusk, hauling coal one way and sugar beets the other.”

Lois Joyce moved to Erie in 1978, the same year the last coal load came out of the Eagle Mine ending Erie’s remarkable 120-year coal mining run starting with Baker’s Bank. She, too, remembers her house on High Street shaking when that train rolled by. “If I stood in my kitchen when that train came, it looked like it would slice the house down,” she said.

Joyce had many great stories about Erie’s small town cops. She recalled being neighbors with one of the officers whose cruiser frequently broke down. She would often hear him banging around under the hood to get it running again before his shift started. Joyce also remembers the neighborhood kids roaming free at age 6 or 7. If they didn’t come home on time, all the neighbors knew they would be down by the creek getting muddy and catching crawdads.

Both Joyce and long-time Erie resident Eva Kalemenis told me that Erie still had an operator-assisted telephone system until almost 1990, and they both reminisced about how bad the mud and dust could get in Old Town before the streets were finally paved in 1999. Kalemenis first moved to Old Town Erie in 1986, purchasing one of Erie’s oldest historic homes built in 1884. “The place was really a wreck,” she said, “but we loved it.”

Shavonne Blades, owner of Yellow Scene Magazine, moved to town in 1992 and worked as a bartender at the divey Erie Inn, now award-winning 24 Carrot Bistro, for several years. Over coffees at Fox Dog on Briggs, Blades described a 1990s Erie as a town caught in a time vortex. Except for Briggs and Cheeseman, all the streets were still dirt, and Briggs Street bars served professional drunks and locals with nicknames like “Crazy Glenn,” “Kentucky Bob,” and still current Erie resident Barry “Wildman” Snyder. Then there was “Old Grumpy Floyd” who used to ride his horse, not just to the bar, but into it. Floyd’s horse would hang out on the dance floor until Floyd was ready to leave and ride back home.

Barry “Wildman” Snyder is known as “Big Wheel Barry”. He used to lead the homecoming parade on an old-time penny farthing bicycle.

Barry “Wildman” Snyder still lives in Erie. He is also known as “Big Wheel Barry” because he used to lead the homecoming parade on an old-time penny farthing bicycle. “Barry was always the hit of the parade on that penny farthing,” said Blades.

From Fox Dog I walked with Blades the block-and-a-half to go visit with Snyder at his home. We walked through a yard decorated with old Studebakers that he likes to work on. Stepping inside the door, a man with a ZZ Top beard greeted us, and I was transported into a fascinating home full of model cars and fruit sticker art. Besides the big wheel bicycle, Snyder is also known for his works of art made from the little stickers they put on fruit. After the tour of his house and artwork, as we were leaving, Snyder remarked that he “tends to like stuff that isn’t normal.” But the twinkle in his eye said so much more as he showed me the rare British motorcycle he’s working on.

Linette Ballew was five years old in 1976 when her family moved to a piece of land over an old coal mine just northeast of Erie. She graduated high school in a class of 54 kids in 1989, moved away, and then came back home in 1997.

Through her words, Ballew painted a beautiful picture of the Erie of her youth — one where all the main roads to and from Erie were still dirt and the tall blinking weather tower always pointed the way back home. Times were certainly different then. “I had friends who would jump the train to Longmont and hitchhike back to Erie,” said Ballew. Erie residents today often identify where they live by the name of their neighborhood. When Ballew was growing up in Erie there were no neighborhood names. Instead, there was Beer Can Hill, Chicken City, and Dead Man’s Curve. Everyone in town knew where these places were.

Sherry Bond shared similar sentiments from her short time in Erie’s Airpark subdivision in the mid-1980s. Like Ballew, she too moved away only to come back many years later. She remembers the drive into Erie on a gravel Highway 7 from I-25. With the mountains as backdrop, she said you could see only three things down that westbound gravel road: Old Town Lafayette, Old Town Erie, and the Erie Airport in between. In recalling life in the Erie Airpark neighborhood, Bond remembered the airplane that was converted into the beloved Strawberries restaurant, now gone.

Perhaps the most fitting story from 1980s and 1990s Erie is the one about Jake: Jake was a grumpy Yellow Lab who ran for mayor in 1994. He enjoyed a shot or two of butterscotch schnapps from the bar.

That town that was caught in a time vortex in the 1990s with its dirt streets, horses in bars, and dogs running for mayor suddenly exploded on the scene.

From Podunk to Little Big Town

If you live in Erie today, you likely know the basics of the rest of the story. That town that was caught in a time vortex in the 1990s with its dirt streets, horses in bars, and dogs running for mayor suddenly exploded on the scene. A location that was once a Front Range void, a forgotten backwater from the heyday of coal mining, became prime real estate as the Denver metropolitan area grew north.

In the 2000s growth hit Erie like a bomb and hasn’t slowed since. After taking more than 100 years for Erie’s population to go from 600 to 1,200 around 1990, it rocketed to 6,600 by 2000; 18,000 in 2010; and over 30,000 in 2020.

This growth is not slowing down anytime soon. Erie Trustee Dan Hoback told me that Erie’s population will double again to more than 60,000 residents in the next 10 to 15 years. Open land in Erie from I-25 to Highway 287 and from Highway 52 down to Highway 7 is filling up with row upon row of suburban houses and supporting retail and business development. Erie High School’s student population of about 1,800 seems almost absurd considering Linette Ballew’s 1989 graduating class of just 54 kids was not that long ago.

Mount Pleasant cemetery with vistas of the mountains is the oldest existing historic place in Erie. Photo by Doug Geiling

According to Hoback the availability of large amounts of land with easy access to Boulder and Denver has made Erie the bullseye for North Metro housing development. Prior to about 2000 Erie was perhaps a bit too far away and off the beaten path to attract much development. But, as the Denver metropolitan area expanded northward and expensive housing in and near Boulder priced the average home buyer out of that market, Erie transitioned from small town to boomtown.

And yet, Erie remains a great place to live by most accounts. As does Longmont, which experienced similar expansion forty years ago and has grown into an admirable small Front Range city. We do lose the innocence of our small old towns when they grow into small cities, but we can also gain much through the process.

I asked each of the Erie “old timers” I interviewed how Erie can maintain its core appeal through its explosive growth. The answers were basically all the same: Old Town. Keep the historic character of Erie’s Old Town, and the town will maintain its tether to its historic roots.

Kalemenis hopes that Erie doesn’t try to change too much of the quirkiness and character of Old Town. “I don’t want everything to look like eye candy,” she said. When I asked Ballew how Erie can maintain its character she quickly said, “I hope they never take the Erie Town Fair from Old Town.” Blades is advocating for the new Town Center to be developed with the look and feel of Old Town in mind. “I really hope it looks like this,” she said gesturing out the window of Fox Dog Coffee out to Briggs Street.

For a town that, until the 2000s was a tiny, dirt-street, coal mining relic that even many Denver area natives like me never even knew existed, Erie has a remarkably rich and interesting history. There is so much more that could not fit into this brief journey through time: the Erie Raceway, the junkyard with all the VW Beetles, the hot air balloons, Biscuit Days, the history of the Airpark, the Wise Homestead, the fracking controversy, the multiple Coal Creek floods, and so much more.

Can it be done? Can Erie continue to grow like this and simultaneously maintain its historical character? Can it be the little big town we all want it to be? We think so. But it hinges on one thing: Old Town.

History of Erie


Doug Geiling
Doug is a Colorado native, a Northglenn High School graduate (class of 1993), and Colorado State University alum (class of 1997). He currently resides in Edgewater near Sloan Lake, but has previously lived in Erie and Lafayette. Doug is a backpacker, fly fisherman, traveler, writer, and business management consultant.

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