The narrow streets and sidewalks of Trinidad, Colorado, are paved with thousands and thousands of old red bricks, each stamped with the name of the town. In the hot afternoon sun of mid-September, they take on a near-golden hue, making the town look, from afar, more tidy and prosperous than it is. On closer inspection, many of the Victorian houses in the hills above Main Street are empty, dilapidated, or overgrown with weeds, and the downtown is deathly quiet, many of its fine, old commercial buildings vacant or occupied by seedy bars.
In recent years, Trinidad's most famous resident has been Dr. Stanley Biber, a pioneer in sex-change surgery, who for decades conducted a bustling practice in the operating rooms of the local hospital. Today Biber is said to be on the verge of retiring, but his understudy carries on, and her pre-op clients, all male, can be seen strolling in drag along the streets of downtown and browsing the stacks of the town's Carnegie Library.
Because there wasn't much to do in Trinidad, a few years ago a casino was proposed, but state voters shot it down. They were afraid of the organized crime it might encourage. Though Trinidad looks harmless enough, its dusty hills hold many secrets that cast far shadows. Some reach all the way to San Diego and its titty-bar bribery scandal.
Trinidad got its start as a wayside along the Santa Fe Trail in the early 19th Century, but the place really took off after 1890, about the time bituminous coal was discovered nearby. More than 60,000 souls would eventually come to live in "coal towns" with names like Sopris, Starkville, Engleville, and Cokedale, all within a few miles of Trinidad. Many came to be owned and operated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s Colorado Fuel and Iron. Rockefeller ran the mines from his offices in New York by personal fiat and did not look kindly on his workers. Decades of labor strife plagued the mines, and Trinidad became nationally famous when radical Mother Jones came to town on the miners' behalf to give speeches and stage daily marches for a week.
The mining companies drew the bulk of their cheap labor from immigrants who were then pouring into the country from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as an impoverished Japan. Of these, Sicilians were predominant. Italians, notes Rick J. Clyne in Coal People, his book about the region, "were by far the largest single ethnic group in the field, outnumbering 'Austrians,' the second-largest nationality, by a factor of four to one at the outbreak of World War I."
Life was difficult for the miners of Las Animas County. Because they were poor, uneducated, and from diverse cultures, it was easy for the Rockefeller interests to pit one ethnic group against the other, and therefore defeat any attempt at unionization. "Stark cultural differences fueled the fires of racism," observes Clyne, "but the Japanese aroused even more resentment because they often arrived in the southern Colorado fields as strikebreakers, and hard feelings remained long after the strikes ended.
"In Cokedale, the large Japanese work force was kept completely segregated both above and below ground. Japanese workers had their own bathhouse and separate entry into the mine; as one miner put it, 'There was just Jap people working in there and a Jap boss.' "
Among the Europeans it was no different. Even choosing a "checkweighman," who would determine how much each miner would be paid by weighing each worker's coal output, could cause strife. "It is right difficult for these men to agree on a checkweighman," a coal-company owner quoted by Clyne once testified to Congress. "If they agree on an Italian, the Slavs believe he is stealing from them and giving to his Italian friends, and if it's a Slav it is vice versa."
Such conditions tended to reinforce the traditional ties between each ethnic group. Not only did they live in their own ghettos -- Italian miners resided in places with derogatory names like "Cast Town" or "Laredo," blacks in "Coontown," Japanese in "Jap Town" -- they also fell back on their own social societies, borrowed from their ancestral homes. "Many societies existed in Las Animas and Huerfano counties, and their names reveal their strong ethnic bias. Italians had the Dante Alighieri Society, Nueva Italia, Pietro Toselli, and the Legabuchase or League Abrusi, to name a few," Clyne observes, adding that the Italian societies "usually organized a large celebration for Columbus Day and another for St. John's Day, which fell close to the Fourth of July."
Many were legal, traditional, and harmless. Some were not. Among white workers from the American South, the Ku Klux Klan sprang up early in the 1920s, tacitly spurred on by the coal companies to burn crosses on the hills behind Cokedale, where blacks were prohibited from working. Much of the violence that permeated Trinidad and its surrounding coal towns was carried out between factions of the same ethnic groups, remaining largely outside of the established legal system, which often failed to investigate and prosecute worker murders -- a situation sanctioned by the coal bosses for their own ends. As a result, the roots of organized crime became firmly implanted in the local culture.
"Vendetta killings, particularly among Italians, occurred in Las Animas County," writes Colorado Metro State College professor Stephen Leonard in his book Lynching in Colorado, 1859-1919. "Although they had aspects of lynchings, they belonged at least as much, if not more to old-world customs than to the American tradition of lynching. Hence they have not been included among the lynchings in this book. If they had been, the number of lynchings would increase substantially, for more than 20 vendetta homicides took place in Las Animas County alone between 1880 and 1920."
According to local lore, Chicago gangster Al Capone once hid out with relatives in the small nearby town of Aguilar.
Trinidad's coal business began a long decline in the 1930s, as energy uses shifted and the demand for coal to make steel declined. In the years following World War II, says Clyne, "The towns of Trinidad and Walsenburg went into long-term hibernation, subsisting on the relatively meager returns from ranching and small scale tourism." Yet some enterprises with a relation to the region's agricultural economy seemed to thrive remarkably well. One was the Colorado Cheese Company, which according to an August 1980 account in the New York Times, had a big connection back East: Joe Bonanno, who at the time headed one of New York's five major Mafia crime families.