Steamboat resident Bill Neish lived in the uppermost house in this image while his father worked as a foreman at a coal mine in the company town of MacGregor in the 1920s.

Photo by Tom Ross

Steamboat resident Bill Neish lived in the uppermost house in this image while his father worked as a foreman at a coal mine in the company town of MacGregor in the 1920s.

Whispering the Past: MacGregor was a company coal town

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Whispering the Past

Routt County has made notable progress in the restoration of historic buildings. But there also are modest buildings gradually giving in to time and gravity that have rich stories to share about the people who once occupied them. The Steamboat Pilot & Today shared some of those buildings and their human stories.

— Everyone who has delivered a load of cast-off possessions or construction waste to the Twin Enviro Services landfill near Milner has noticed the two skeletal homes on the hill overlooking U.S. Highway 40 to the north.

But few realize the old buildings are the last vestiges of the company-owned coal mining town of MacGregor, which flourished in the 1920s before the Great Depression shut it down in 1929.

Longtime Steamboat Springs resident Bill Neish, who turns 96 this week, knows all about the old buildings that are clad in plaster. He lived with his family in the uppermost house as a high school student.

“My uncle was the superintendent of the mine, and my dad was the foreman,” Bill said from his current farmhouse close to the west bank of Lake Catamount. “The mine was across a little valley where the railroad came on the south side of the highway.”

Neish recalls that MacGregor was a true company town. And the company was the McNeil Coal Mining Corp., with other mines in Cameo and outside Denver.

“They owned everything — the grocery store, the pool hall and the amusement hall,” he remembered. “They showed silent movies — cowboy movies — and they also held dances there. Everyone in MacGregor cooked on a coal stove. The company provided everyone with coal.”

Neish recalls that he and his buddies often played in the Yampa River, and one day, that habit was almost the end of him.

“There used to be a cable across the river,” he recalled. “One day, I lost my grip on the cable, and I couldn’t swim. It carried me away. I had a cousin on the bridge laughing. But he jumped in even though he couldn’t swim either, and he saved us both. I don’t think my parents ever knew.”

Bill attended fourth and fifth grades in MacGregor, but when it came time to go to high school, he and friends took turns driving the family automobile to Steamboat for classes when the weather was good.

“Before we left, we’d always check the weather,” Bill recalled. If the highway was too muddy, the youngsters would stay home from school.

You hear correctly, the U.S. Highway 40 you know today wasn’t paved. When the driving was fine, the town of Brookston was a landmark along the way to Steamboat. You’ve never heard of Brookston, either?

Bill tells the story: There was a family that owned a big, white house along the route that still stands to this day. When the railroad wanted to come through their property, Mr. Brookston insisted that he wouldn’t give the easement unless the combined freight and passenger train pulled by a steam locomotive between Craig and Steamboat made a stop there, Neish said. The railroad agreed, which allowed Mr. Brookston to become the postmaster of the town of Brookston.

“We’d stop there and buy some candy caramels,” Bill recalled.

In winter, high school students boarded in Steamboat. Bill and some other boys rented a house on Hill Street.

“The boys all called it Hell Street,” Bill remembered.

To this day, people in the area know the bridge on Routt County Road 205 over the Yampa River leading to the landfill as the MacGregor Bridge.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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