By Lynn Burton
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Guys found their way into the Mid-Continent coal mines west of Redstone in lots of ways. Some took the good pay and headed underground straight out of local high schools. Some became coal miners after serving in Vietnam. For others, coal mining ran in the family for generations and they continued the tradition.
Rob Mulford came to the job in a different way. He and his wife were living in Philadelphia in the late 1970s, when he saw a “60 Minutes” segment on TV about coal mining in western Colorado. He had a desk job designing electric controls at the time but wanted to get out of the rat race.
“So I asked my wife if she wanted to move to Colorado, and she said ‘yea, yea, yea,’” Mulford told The Sopris Sun. “That was my dream … to live in the mountains and get out of the rat race.”
The wife’s go-head was good enough for him, so after contacting the Colorado Coal Mine Association for a list of mines, he settled on Mid-Continent. “They paid the best.”
Mulford, who now lives on a homestead 20 miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska, worked several of the jobs in the Coal Basin mines, including stints on the bull gang (maintenance), and as a miner’s helper and shovel car operator. Like all new coal miners at Mid-Continent, he started as a “green helmet” (beginner) in the Dutch Creek #1 mine and earned his “yellow helmet” in 1980, just before leaving the Roaring Fork Valley for a coal mine outside Meeker, then a job on the Occidental oil shale project outside DeBeque.
Mulford, 62, is returning to Carbondale Aug. 22-31, where he plans to meet with other ex-coal miners, their families and friends to record their thoughts and memories for a writing project and for a new non-profit radio station in Fairbanks.
“They have powerful stories … it’d be a shame to lose them.”
Specifically, Mulford’s project looks at the dynamics affecting worker safety in hazardous work places.
“My own experience is not enough. I need verification and correction of my own memories. Even more, I need stories, impressions and insights of other miners if my work is to be of any value.”
Mulford moved to Alaska in 1990 but returned to the Carbondale area last summer and hiked to the Dutch Creek #1 mine, where 15 coal miners died in an explosion on April 15, 1981. Their names are carved into the marble monument in Miners Park: John Ayala, Kyle D. Cook, William E. Guthrie, Daniel Litwiller, Richard Lincoln, Loren H. Mead, Hugh W. Pierce Jr., Terry T. Lucero, Glen W. Sharp, Brett J. Tucker, Thomas N. Vetter, Kelly B. Greene, Ronald W. Patch, Robert H. Ragle and John A. Rhodes.
Mulford knew some of the miners who died. “Ron Patch was my boss at one time.”
Mulford can be contacted at 907-457-5578 and 907-687-6606.
Published in The Sopris Sun on August 13, 2015.