Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Road Trip NM - Sugarite Canyon

If Sugarite Canyon is the crown jewel of New Mexico’s state parks, then volunteers like Dan Schamber are the ones who put the shine on it.

“We wouldn’t be the great park we are without them,” said Bob Dye, park superintendent. “We just wouldn’t be able to offer the services and quality programming we have.”

Dan and his wife, Lorene, work nearly full time at the park’s visitor center during the summer tourist season and share the job of leading guests on a guided tour of one of the park’s key attractions, the abandoned Sugarite coal camp.

The camp was just one of many that were once located along the 100-mile-long and 60-mile-wide, underground, coal seam that runs from Cimarron, NM, up to Huerfano, Colo., Dan Schamber explained during a recent mid-day tour.

Coal was used to power the many railroads’ steam locomotives and to heat homes and businesses in the early 1900s and the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Company built the company town to attract and keep workers at its coal mining operation in the canyon.

Located on the outskirts of the plains about six miles east of the city of Raton, the camp once employed up to 1,000 people and featured a post office, company store, school house, clubhouse and dozens of homes built in tidy rows along the hillside.

The company dug three mines into the hills on opposing sides of Chicorica Creek and utilized a gravity operated cable system to lower, fully loaded coal cars to the valley floor while pulling empty ones back up to the mine’s entrance, Schamber explained. The coal was then sorted according to size and loaded into waiting railcars and then shipped by rail to market.

The mines cable drums are still in place and can be seen the at the top of the mountain near the mine's entrance.

But over the years the coal market waned as the railroads adopted diesel/electric locomotives and oil and natural gas became more preferable for home heating, Schamber said.

In 1941 the camp closed, most of the town’s buildings were salvaged and the land was handed over to the city of Raton. The state then leased the land and opened Sugarite Canyon State Park in 1985, with Dye serving as its first and only superintendent since.

Now all that’s left of what had once been a busy mine and company town are the stone foundations, some rusty equipment and a great story.

And 73-year-old, Dan Schamber, tells it well as he leads park visitors on a hike through the hillside ruins and brings the coal camp back to life by recounting its history.

Schamber uses a series of large, plastic covered photographs he carries in a satchel slung across his shoulder to help illustrate how the camp looked during its heyday. His presentation covers a wide variety of subjects including camp life, mining equipment and techniques, site reclamation and any questions visitors might have.

Those who can’t handle the two-mile hike and 400-foot climb can enjoy the tour back in the comfort of the visitors center where Schamber or his wife, Lorene, use in-house exhibits and their oral presentation to enliven visitors.

In over five years of volunteer work at the visitor center the couple have also conducted numerous interviews with former camp residents and other people with knowledge of camp life. They have collected material and many artifacts to help record the camp’s history and Lorene Schamber has authored a 15-page booklet, “Life in Sugarite Canyon Coal Camp.”

The couple also collaborated in the creation of CD documentary about camp life titled ‘We Were Poor but We Were Rich.” Both research works are available at the visitor center.

“We’re just fascinated with history and people,” Schamber, a Korean War era, Marine Corp veteran said when asked about the retired couple’s work.

The two have been married 46 years and are classic snowbirds, having ditched their house and three kids for a big motor home and life on the road, Dan Schamber said.

“I like to tell people we spend our winters in Arizona and our summers in paradise,” he said “This is our kind of country and our kind of living. We love it.”

Superintendent Dye said the public is lucky to have volunteers like the Schambers and others who serve as campground hosts and perform maintenance and other tasks in exchange for nothing more that free camping in one of the state’s finer campgrounds.

Among Sugarite’s other notable assets are trout-filled lakes Maloya and Alice and the hilltop campground, Soda Pocket, which features great views of the valley below.

The park features numerous hiking trails including two, half-mile climbs to the mesa tops surrounding Soda Pocket campground that offer even better views.

The park is such a hidden jewel that Woodall’s Camping Life in April 2006 ranked it among the top-ten, state parks in the entire country, citing it’s abundance of wildlife viewing opportunities as one of its top draws. See the article at Camping Life.

It should be noted that Sugarite is located in prime bear country and campers need to practice precautions to avoid confrontations like the recent case in early July, 2007 where a 13-year-old boy was bitten by a young bear.

The youth slapped at what he thought was his uncle goofing around outside the tent wall in the early morning hours. It turned out to have been a bear snooping around the tent and it bit back before running off.

The boy wasn’t seriously injured but had to undergo rabies vaccination as a precaution, said Dan Williams, a spokesperson for the Department of Game and Fish.
A bear suspected to have been involved in the case was later found and killed and tested negative for rabies, Williams said.

Bears are common visitors to the park because of its mountain location, and the park emphasizes safety by using bear-proof trash cans and educating campers about the importance of keeping a clean camp and not feeding the animals.

Campers are cautioned to keep campsites clean, lock up all food and cooking utensils, and never take food inside a tent. Those who’ve been cooking also should change out of those clothes and store them away from their tent.

For more information about Sugarite Canyon State Park check them out at their website.


From Santa Fe, NM take I-25 north to Raton, head east on State Road 72 to State 526 north to Sugarite Canyon State Park. Stop at the visitor’s center for more information and to take the coal mining camp tour. Showers and ice available across from the visitor’s center. Several RV sites with sewer, electrical and water available at Lake Alice Campground. Soda Pocket Campground has no such services and is first come, first serve. Call ahead for more information at (505) 445-5607.


Sugarite state park’s alluring peace and tranquility could soon be disrupted by the roar of drilling equipment if a Texas energy company has its way.

TDC Engineering of Abilene, TX. has served notice on the city of Raton that it intends to drill five exploratory wells for coal bed methane gas on city owned land in the Lake Dorothey Wildlife Area, according to Pete Mileta Jr., Raton’s city manager.

The wildlife area is located upstream of Sugarite Canyon State Park, just across the Colorado state line.

Raton owns the surface rights in the wildlife area along with those found in Sugarite Canyon State Park in New Mexico. The area comprises the watershed that feeds reservoirs to supply the Raton’s drinking water.

But while the city may own the land and lease it to the two states for the wilderness area and state park, it’s a mining company, Newmont Mining of Denver, that owns the mineral rights.

And Newmont has since leased those rights to TDC, according to the city’s attorney Lance Astrella of Denver.

TDC wants explore for gas in the coal seam running through the area and in order to do so needs to use New Mexico State Road 526 running through Sugarite State Park to haul heavy equipment up into the wilderness area, Astrella said.

From there TDC would then have to carve out a 4.5 mile road to reach the proposed drilling sites as there is presently no other access to the sites available.

The city is opposed to the proposal primarily out of concern such drilling activity could threaten the quality and quantity of its water supply.

New Mexico State Parks is opposed to the drilling venture on the grounds it’s incompatible with the park’s mission of providing people and wildlife with a sanctuary, said Superintendent, Bob Dye.

An estimated 150,000 people utilize the state park each year and it is home to a wide variety of wildlife including bear, elk, deer, mountain lions, birds, fish and butterflies, he said.

The narrow park road is unsuitable for heavy equipment traffic and competition between those using it for recreation versus construction could create an unsafe situation.

Noise, dust and other impacts associated with drilling could also intrude upon the park’s recreational activities, disrupting those seeking solitude fishing, hiking and relaxing in a natural environment.

The impacts upon wildlife and their habitat could prove be especially damaging, he said.“I understand the nation’s need for energy,” Dye said. “But state parks and water supplies need to be protected.”

A citizens group has since formed to fight the drilling and has set up a website, Save Our Sugarite, where more information can be found.

Calls to Scott Taliaferro Jr. of TDC engineering seeking comment were not returned.

Astrella said his legal strategy to combat the proposed venture is simple.

“The best way to stop them would be to make them do it right,” he said.

While TDC may have a right to drill, the city also has a right to ensure its water supplies are protected. Requiring the company to do that could prove costly enough to make the venture unprofitable, he said.

“But the city needs to be proactive,” he said. “Because even if these guys don’t do it, someone else might.”

Astrella said there has not been any discussion with Newmont regarding purchase of the mineral rights lying under the city owned land.

In the meantime it remains to be seen if TDC proceeds with its plans to pursue drilling near Sugarite State Park and what opponents can do to stop it.


Recreational users of Sugarite Canyon State Park near Raton can breath easier now knowing that a Texas energy firm has dropped its plans to drill for gas in an adjoining state wildlife area.

“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time,” said Dan Schamber, volunteer and tour guide at the popular state park. “But just because they’ve given up doesn’t mean someone else won’t try.”

TDC Engineering of Abilene, Texas, notified the city of Raton last week that it is dropping its plans to drill five, exploratory wells for coal bed methane gas on city-owned land in the Lake Dorothey Wildlife Area just across the state line in Colorado, said the city’s attorney, Lance Astrella of Denver.

TDC notified the city that its lease with Newmont expires on September 16, 2007, and in light of their lack of progress in drilling is asking the city to drop its lawsuit against them, Astrella said.

Raton had filed suit in district court this summer to stop TDC from proceeding with its drilling plans citing the potential threat to its water supply. A citizens’ group was also formed called Save Our Sugarite to pursue options in opposition to drilling in the state park and wilderness area. See their website at Save Our Sugarite for more information.

Astrella said he will seek to have the city's lawsuit dismissed now that TDC has backed off.

Meanwhile the city has issued a press release stating its intent to remain “proactive in opposing any future drilling activities which do not accommodate and protect its water rights from depletion and contamination.”

Astrella said the city has several options it could conceivably pursue to include seeking to restrict or retire Newmont’s mineral rights, protect them under some kind of a conservancy plan or purchase them outright.

It remains to be seen what direction the city pursues and Astrella said he expects the fight over coal bed methane drilling and its impact upon water quality and quantity in the Raton basin to continue because of the high stakes involved on both sides.

These articles were originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican's Outdoors section.

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