Friday, February 2, 2018

Chas. Niccoli and Colorado Towns of Violence and Fear

If it be true that every bottle has a story behind it, then the
details behind the liquor jug shown right suggests enough material for a novel.   It would document an epic struggle between miners and mine owners in Colorado that involved armed intimidation, “stalag” conditions, shootings, and even murder.  Charles Niccoli, a saloonkeeper, was in the thick of it all.

Note the two Colorado addresses listed on the jug:  Hastings and Delagua, two adjacent settlements about 22 miles northwest of Trinidad.   A 1910 description of Hastings, shown below, set the population at 2,000 and described it as having a general store, meat market, saloon, and a good public school. Delagua, it was said, had a Catholic Church, a “substantial” general store, and a good public school.  Delagua was incorporated, boasted telephones, and had four-times-daily stage runs to nearby towns.

In effect, however, both towns were mining camps operated by the Victor-American Fuel Company.  In Hasting, Victor-American Fuel operated 190 coke ovens, with a daily output of 300 tons of coke and 2,300 tons of coal.  Details of the Delagua operation were not provided.  Left unsaid was that both settlements were surrounded by fences and that the road from Hastings to Delagua next door was blocked by a gate guarded by armed men.  Freedom of travel was sharply restricted.  Hasting is shown above with Niccoli’s saloon the building with the signboard, lower left.

Most Colorado miners lived in these company towns, renting company houses, buying food and supplies in company stories and drinking at saloons controlled by the company.  Law enforcement officials,  school teachers, doctors and even priests all were company employees.  Charles Niccoli likely was not an employee.  His ability to rent the saloon building shown here in detail was predicated, however, on his being on good terms with Victor-American Fuel.  This included not objecting to paying the coal company each month a per capita sum that might range from  25 to 40 cents for each person whose name appeared upon the company payroll.  This payoff allowed Niccoli to enjoy exclusive saloon business in the camps.

Niccoli was born in 1858 in Poings, Italy.  Christened “Pasquale,” he became Charles (or “Charley”) upon arrival about 1884 in the United States.  A number of the Niccoli family had immigrated from Italy to Colorado, working both as miners and in other trades in the vicinity of Trinidad.   One Niccoli, for example, was proprietor of the Grand Eagle Saloon, above.  According to census data, in 1885 Charles married a woman named Theresa (“Treza”) from the same region of Italy he had come from.  They would have five children, four of them living to maturity.   Nicolli surfaced about 1907 operating the Niccoli Brothers’ store front saloon in the Trinidad Hotel, shown above, a three-story brick building on North Commercial Street.  

When Niccoli came to Hastings and Delagua is also unknown, but he likely arrived before the unrest that gripped Colorado mines in the early 20th Century.  The Victor-American Fuel Co. had a reputation for paying low wages and a lack of attention to mine safety.  The death rate for miners in Colorado was over twice the national average.  Shown here is a photo of a draped corpse from a 1901 disaster at Delagua that killed a number of miners.  The political power of Victor-American and other coal companies allowed them to hand-pick coroner’s juries that virtually always absolved them from blame.

In 1913 those working conditions triggered a strike among the miners, many of them members of the United Mine Workers (UMW).  As the strikers set up a camp outside the mine perimeters, Victor-American Fuel imported strikebreakers, largely immigrant labor from Southern and Eastern Europe, many of them Italian.  As the months progressed, violence between the strikers and the company’s militia, sometimes known as “death squads,” escalated.  As shown here, the hired guns were well armed and drove armored vehicles.  

The 1913-1914 Colorado Coal War was one of the most violent events in American history.  The strike resulted in 66 deaths and a number of wounded.  The UMW lost the battle but in a broader sense, it was a victory for the union.  The strike helped to galvanize American opinion and led to reforms in labor relations, ultimately assisting the miners at Victor-American’s facilities and other Colorado mines.  

The Coal War caught the attention of the U.S. Congress whose Subcommittee on Mines and Mining held a series of hearings on what had occurred.  The counsel for the hearings was Edward P. Costigan, Virginia-born who had moved with his family to Colorado as a child in 1877.  Shown here, a Harvard graduate, Costigan studied law and eventually became a U.S. Senator from Colorado.  At that point, however, he was a House staff member directing an important investigation.

Among those testifying was a individual whose name was kept anonymous.  He was an Italian miner brought in as a strike-breaker in 1913.  Through a translator he told of being privy to a killing, apparently by guards, at the Hastings mine.  When he tried to accompany the body of the dead miner, he was told to “go home and go to sleep.”  Thoroughly frightened, instead he went to Charles Niccoli’s saloon.  Niccoli was there and the Italian miner asked him who the victim was.  He testified that the saloonkeeper told him:  “Nobody got shot…You can work—you go out—and you believe nobody got shot.”  Niccoli clearly was in the pocket of Victor-American Fuel.

The violence later spilled over into Niccoli’s own family.  In October 1915, seven coal miners, armed with guns and knives, stormed into his Delagua saloon.  A pitched battle ensued in which one man was killed and Charles’ brother, Frank Niccoli was stabbed with a butcher knife.  According to a newspaper account:  “His assailant after inflicting three wounds left the weapon in Niccoli’s back.”  When Charles removed it, Frank fainted.  Two years later Charles would lose a Niccoli kinsman, a miner at Hastings, in a April fire that would claim 121 lives.  The monument shown here memorializes the event.

By that time, Colorado had adopted a ban on the sale of alcohol of any kind throughout the state.  Niccoli was forced to shut down his saloons in Hasting and Delaqua and seek other employment.  He had accumulated considerable wealth and owned substantial real estate in Colorado.  In the 1920 census he was recorded as owner/operator of a stock ranch and by 1930 as retired.  Charles died in April of that year and was buried in the Masonic Cemetery of Trinidad, where other Niccoli family members, including his wife Theresa, also are interred.

Over time the coal seams at both the Hastings and Delagua mines begin to give out.  By 1969 both mines were shut, the buildings abandoned and the villages became Colorado “ghost towns.”  Above is Hastings as it looks today.  Locals say that sometimes at night the cries of the miners can be heard through the hills. While we can fault Charles Niccoli for his willingness to help cover up a crime, we can thank him for creating a whiskey jug that holds so riveting, if troubling, a story.

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