The Town Beneath the Lake

A local haven of boating, fishing, camping, hiking, and more, Trinidad Lake welcomes visitors to the Scenic Highway of Legends with the captivating Sangre de Cristo peaks awaiting. They stand imperiously tall over the reasonable distance of miles and shoreline creating weary Trinidad residents and revel seekers from around the globe’ enjoyable oasis in the high desert and foothills of the Raton Pass in Southern Colorado. Still, many fail to know the story of how Trinidad Lake came to be. What most remain unaware of is the history of the community once thriving here, the story of miners and their life struggles and how the town came together to bid farewell before demolition and flooding as the Trinidad Dam rose and pooled the Purgatoire River into the flowing calm waters of the lake. So begins the story of Sopris, Colorado.


Near where the Trinidad Lake Ranches exist for home and safe harbor now, a town called Sopris once stood. Along with Sopris Plaza and also Upper St. Thomas. In 1860, the Lave brothers first settled the area of Sopris Plaza which rest opposite the settlement of Sopris on the south side of the river. They came from Taos, New Mexico along with Horace Long and Uriel Higbee. Long eventually set home near the opening to the canyon now in possession of his name in the Trinidad Lake State Park as Long’s Canyon.

When the Denver Fuel Company purchased the coal deposits in 1887 the name of the settlement emerged as Sopris, named for the Trinidad businessman who helped negotiate the sale. It stayed this way even after it was sold by the Company to the Colorado Fuel Company later known as Colorado Fuel and Iron. As one of 38 mining towns, Sopris grew into the largest mining town in the Trinidad area, providing for the Pueblo Steel Mill. The first 100 ovens found themselves built in 1888 and another established in 1892. With the advent of a more efficient coal oven, the town added on 120 more ovens the next year, followed by another 50 in 1900, leading to an impressive till of 3,000 tons of coke per day.


Sopris as it was, photo courtesy of

300 men worked away every day at the mine housed in tree-lined, two-story duplexes and a large community center in the middle of town.  Possessing a public school and library of its own, Sopris constructed its own post office in 1888 that remained open until 1969. The mining company charged a ripe old sum of $2 per room for rent and eventually 80 cottages existed. Sopris even had its own electric trolley line, The Trinidad Electric Railroad. Reports from the mining camp spoke of how happy and cheerful the location was, increasing the odds of obtaining more willing miners for work.

In 1929, the mine shut down. But Sopris tried to press on. However, in 1969 talks began to plan the building of a large reservoir at the Sopris location. Residents sold their homes and the post office was closed down. The town started demolition to make way for the project. A final reunion of the residents, some the Brunelli’s with their old grocery store, was held in 1970 just before the town was flooded and the image of Trinidad Lake began with the damming of the Purgatoire River, the images of the town and Upper St. Thomas and Sopris Plaza never to see daylight again. Now the haunting images only exist in memory and history books along with the reminiscing of families. So remember that the next time you look out at the lake and think of the memories buried beneath the surface and the struggles of the miners journeys that made Trinidad Lake possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: