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In Dawson, NM, Hundreds of Tombstones of Italians in the Abandoned Cemetery

In the vast plains of New Mexico, a mining town emerged in the early 1900’s. There, 2 terrible accidents killed hundreds of Italian immigrants

by Ilaria M. P. Barzaghi e Matteo Manfredini

In the vast high plains of New Mexico lies a ghost town, one among many in the American West. A frontier of little towns that would spring up thanks to unexpected fortunes, and would be born and die in the blink of an eye, then leave these towns to the mercy of time. But this one tells a very particular story. Around 100 years ago, its population reached almost 9,000 souls, and its name was Dawson.

Dawson (New Mexico), The Coke Furnaces, 1920 (Public Domain)

It was built in the wake of the discovery of an immense coal field that attracted thousands of miners in the early 1900’s. So much so that it could boast a hospital, a theater, a baseball field and its own newspaper, the Dawson News. Today there’s nothing left of its glory days but a cemetery where the tombstones carry so many Italian surnames: Antonelli, Bruno, Caldarelli, Corazzi… All bearing the same date of death.

“The Dawson News”, February 18, 1923 (Public Domain)

There’s an easy answer to this mystery. In fact, this site was the scene of one of the greatest mining disasters in American history, when in the early afternoon of October 22, 1913, a terrible explosion occurred in Mine number 2.

A 50-foot flame shot out of the main tunnel and all the buildings in the town shook for a few seconds. It was a terrible accident that claimed 263 victims—including 2 rescuers– caused by inadequate safety measures. Among the victims were 140 Italians, many of them immigrants from the Appenines in the area of Modena.

The burials of the victims went on for days, so much so that the town cemetery had to be expanded in all haste.

Crosses in the Dawson, New Mexico Cemetery (Creative Commons, credits: Wallace Schultz)

Nevertheless, the economic life of the town continued to thrive; the American railroads looking to conquer the West, and the great factories demanded an ever-increasing supply of coal and Dawson managed to produce 4 million tons per year.

But the story doesn’t end here for in 1923 there was another incident: a devastating fire in Mine number 1.

This time there were 123 victims, 20 of them Italian. Many of the dead were sons of those men who had died 10 years before.

The many widows who had lost their husbands in 1913 now lost their sons as well. 

It wasn’t until 1950 that the mines closed down permanently, not for safety reasons, but simply because the demand for coal had diminished. In just a few months Dawson became a ghost town.

The story fell into oblivion until the 1990’s, when two brothers came upon the ruined cemetery by chance, spurring the interest of the local government that subsequently had it listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

After carefully scrutinizing the headstones, the researcher Alessandro Trojani realized the crucial role that the Italian immigrants had played in those events.

“Their legacy lives forever”, plaque placed by the Consulate General of Italy of Los Angeles and by NIAF – National Italian American Foundation, in the Dawson Cemetery, New Mexico (Creative Commons, credits: Wallace Schultz)

The ruins of the ghost town are located in an isolated area about 60 miles northeast of Santa Fe. You can visit the cemetery where approximately 350 white crosses memorialize the hard and bitter lives of those who lived there. Many of those crosses are a testimony to the contribution made by a little piece of Italy to the vast story of the West.

Translated by Grace Russo Bullaro

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