When Colorado Fuel and Iron forged its roots in Pueblo 150 years ago, the company made the Steel City what it is today and helped build the West.
Construction of Pueblo’s iconic steel mill started shortly after CF&I committed to setting up shop in Pueblo in 1872. The company grew to manufacture dozens of products from railroad rails to nails, and tools and infrastructure products for agriculture, mining, commercial and residential industries. It made Pueblo the "Pittsburgh of the West."
“We always said Pittsburg built the east and Pueblo built everything from the west of the Mississippi River to California,” said Rudy Jiminez, whose father, Tony Manuel Jiminez, worked at the mill for 44 years starting in 1942.
Jiminez brought his wife, a cousin and three grandchildren to the Steelworks Center of the West Thursday for the opening of the “Steel Strong: The Steel that Built the West” exhibit. He wanted to see how a safety vest that belonged to his father was displayed.
“I remember he was so proud of it when he brought it home, but I don’t think he ever wore it,” he explained, pointing to the pristine suede Sherpa-lined vest.
One memory Jiminez has of his father was the two or so mile walk he had to make every day from the gate to the mill lugging a tool box that must have weighed 100 pounds. He did not have clearance to drive into the mill site.
“When they gave him a drive pass and he finally got to drive in, it was the best day of his life,” he said with a laugh.
His father would set the dye cutters on the machine to make the size of nails needed each day. A spool of wire would feed in one side and nails would spit out the other.
The mill workers made everything from the “smallest nails to the biggest railroad tie nails,” Jiminez said.
A machine much like the one his father operated is on display at the museum. When the mill transformed from hand operated machinery to motorized units, the workers were able to crank out “568 nails a minute,” said Victoria Miller, a curator who worked 18 months to bring the exhibit together.
Pueblo Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Duane Nava was particularly struck by a poignant memory of his father when he spotted an exhibit with a black lunchbox.
Nava’s father, Margarito, worked as a forklift operator in the brickyard for 37 years. When he and other workers were asked to put in overtime, the company always got them sack lunches from Chuck’s Lunch, which is known as the Mill Stop today.
“The lunches always had a choice of one of three sandwiches, chips, a piece of fruit and a chocolate cupcake,” Miller said.
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Often, the workers, like Nava’s father, would save the dessert to bring home to their children. Nava has vivid memories of eating his father’s desserts.
Nava said when he was in elementary school his father would “buy me math books that were two or three years ahead of my grade. He was always pushing me and telling me that I would go to college,” instead of following in his footsteps.
About 90% of the exhibit’s photos have never been displayed before and are “rare, one-of-a-kind images,” said Christina Trujillo, executive director.
One photo shows boys and young men making hoops for wooden barrels in the mill’s cooperage in 1903. By the 1950s, some Pueblo youth still went to work at the mill “instead of going to school because they wanted to make good money and lied on their applications about being 17,” Trujillo said.
The exhibit, which includes gems like the Pueblo Model Railroad Club’s miniature CF&I Steel Mill replica, will run for two years. Displays pay homage to the influence the company had in building schools, a six-room hospital, worker housing and even a grocery store.
“The exhibit spans early CF&I history all the way up to present day with EVRAZ North America, showcasing how the technology really changed through the years,” Trujillo said.
For many Pueblo families, the mill was the lifeblood of the city. As the region's largest private employer, it supplied jobs for 22,000 workers at its peak of operations.
“We did well and he provided a good life for us,” Jiminez said of his father.
The museum is located at 215 Canal St. Exhibit hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Entry costs $8 for adults or $4 for children.
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Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business news. She can be reached by email at email@example.com or via Twitter at twitter.com/tracywumps.