In 1881, William Jackson Palmer directed the first blast furnace to be blown into Bessemer. The industrious “iron hand” of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) was always at work in Bessemer, erecting cottages for the workers, state-of-the-art medical facilities, opening a company store, and translating company documents into four languages. In 1902, the mill underwent an incredible expansion, hiring 2000 workers. Much of Bessemer’s housing dates to that period. Many of the cute cottages dotting avenues in Pueblo are from “Our Brief Spark” as I call it: a time of unprecedented growth in Pueblo, closely tied to the mill’s growth. It’s when we truly grew from a town into a Western Industrial City.
Little do most people know, the iron hand of Bessemer steel snaked out from the city on tendrils of rail, and sinuous streets and roads out into Denver, Salt Lake City, and small towns throughout the region. Bessemer literally built the West: its rail connected it, its barbed wire partitioned it, and the demand for labor populated it. Travel outside Pueblo and tell someone you’re from here; if they‘re over 40 they will tell you their grandfather worked at the mill, almost everyone’s did. CF and I was the largest employer in Colorado, and the largest landowner. In the 1950s, the mill employed over 8,000 people in a county that grew from under 90,000 residents to over 115,00 that decade – an increase due in large part to the jobs at the mill.
The Iron Hand touched well beyond our state line, too. It was present at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Aside from the big-ticket visibility, the mill touched much more. It touched the lives of children across the state. Those early wire fences – the ubiquitous mid-century chain link fence that children peered through to watch their fathers walk home from the mill – were made in Bessemer. The nails that held together the homes, businesses, and schools across the region were made in Bessemer. The world was literally held together around us because of the work done on that smoky dark maw on the mesa.
That spot on the mesa was dirty, dangerous, and depressing for many who worked there. Abuses by the corporation helped usher in a new national labor policy, and if you’ve ever seen how steel is made, you can understand why Bessemer gave birth to so many bars and churches. The old way of making steel was like visiting another world: heat, noise, and commotion that few could imagine. Prayer, and sometimes alcohol, were common ways for those fathers to recalibrate and come home to their families who could never understand the sacrifice they made so that their children wouldn’t have to work in those conditions, though many of those children did work there as the mill got safer and the pay got better.
Those men, little cogs in a massive machine, churned out the rails and nails that kept us together. Walking along the tracks in Canon City, I still see “CF and I Pueblo” marked on the steel. That dirty assemblage of buildings along the interstate – that blast furnace – is probably the most significant historical and cultural property in the region. It’s one of only a few places to experience the industrial revolution, for better or worse. Instead of occasionally being embarrassed by it, we should proudly exclaim, “The workers of Bessemer built the West here; America was built here.”
By Wade Broadhead