By Jon Pompia, The Pueblo Chieftain
PUEBLO — Like the city itself, steel-making in Pueblo has seen its highs and lows, booms and busts, and periods of “steady as she goes.”
In history tomes as well as the minds of the thousands with a connection to the “steel mill” and the mines that fed it, memories of strikes, mass layoffs, bankruptcy and name changes share space with thoughts of the glorious era when coal, and in turn American steel, was king.
Now, with the announcement that EVRAZ North America plans to move forward with an estimated $480 million in improvements at its Pueblo plant, the iconic South Side steel mill is set to become the most modern rail-rolling facility in North America.
A foreshadowing of the next era that will see Pueblo remain at the epicenter of steel-making for the next 50 years.
Steel-making in Pueblo is inextricably linked with the city, which this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary, as well as with Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I), the company that established its main plant at the location now occupied by EVRAZ.
But the genesis of the enduring moniker “Steel City” lies not with industry magnate and CF&I owner John D. Rockefeller, but with a Civil War veteran turned industrialist.
On Jan. 11, 1872, Gen. William J. Palmer, founder of the Central Colorado Improvement Company, declared the purpose of his venture “to purchase lands, minerals springs, coal and iron and other mines and quarries in Colorado Territory, and the establishment and building up of colonies, towns, coal mining, iron making and manufacturing works, and to build canals and wagon roads.”
“Just two years earlier, the general organized the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad,” notes Victoria Miller, curator at Steelworks Center of the West. “While his competitors were building rail lines east and west, Palmer proposed a narrow gauge from Denver along the Rocky Mountains southward to El Paso, Texas and eventually Mexico.”
On a cold morning in February 1880, eight men ventured to a prairie south of what was to become the town of South Pueblo and began excavating for the foundation of a blast furnace.
As the labor force grew, so too did the “neighborhood,” as makeshift homes sprung up on the construction area west of the furnace sites.
Residents named the settlement Taylorville, in honor of the superintendent of construction, Col. W.W. Taylor.
“Taylorville remained the popular name until 1881, when the company insisted that the proper designation for the area was ‘Steelworks,’” Miller said. “At that time, between 300 and 400 men were employed, and the monthly payroll was $7,000 to $8,000.”
Later that year, the corporation began organizing a town named “Bessemer” and, through the South Pueblo Homestead and Investment Company, arranged for the building of a large number of homes.
Once these permanent homes were up, the temporary dwellings were abandoned.
To celebrate the erection of the first of two blast furnaces, a formal blown-in ceremony was staged, attended by company officials and community leaders.
“The blast furnace was christened ‘Betsy’ in honor of the superintendent’s daughter,” Miller explained. “It was designed to yield 80 tons of iron daily, and the initial tap of 12 tons was made two days later.”
And with that, Pueblo was on its way to becoming “Steel City.”
The first rail came out of the plant on April 12, 1882. A few days later, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad placed it on the Animas Canyon route.
“The following July, when the Burlington Railroad reached Denver, the last 100 miles of the new line was laid with rails and fastenings made at Pueblo’s Steelworks,” Miller explained.
The raw materials necessary for the production of steel were obtained through what Miller terms “a widely organized effort from sites around the state.”
“The iron ore was mined in Fremont and Chaffee counties,” she said. “The limestone was quarried along the St. Charles River and the coke for the furnaces was obtained from the El Moro works near Trinidad. Coal was also mined in Fremont and Huerfano counties.”
Soon after that initial rush of rail production, Pueblo Steelworks began a rapid expansion.
Nail production began in the wire mill, followed by output from the spike, bolt, and merchant bar mills. Additional blast furnaces were blown-in in 1889 and 1892.
By this time, the company was known as Colorado Coal and Iron Company, representing the merging of three ventures controlled by Palmer.
And when the Colorado Coal and Iron Company consolidated with J.C. Osgood’s Colorado Fuel Company in October 1892, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) was born, launching Pueblo’s reputation as the “Pittsburgh of the West.”