Town Story: Trinidad
As you walk down Main street in Trinidad, nestled along the Front Range 12 miles north of the New Mexico line, there’s no mistaking it for any other place in Colorado.
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Trinidad is a city built on coal. Not literally, perhaps, but the coal mines that sprang up in the surrounding hillsides made the town rich. “Trinidad, Colo., has enough coal to melt the North Pole till it runs,” wrote Will Rogers after a 1935 visit. In the city’s heyday a century ago, Trinidad was home to 30,000 people, and most of their livelihoods were somehow tied to the mines.
David Hadad, owner of Hadad’s Home Furnishings in downtown Trinidad, has a personal connection to coal, even though he’s never worked in the industry. His grandfather came to Trinidad from Lebanon in the 1900s and built up the family business traveling between the many coal camps to sell goods to the miners. The Hadads made enough money to start a general store in Segundo, a mining town west of Trinidad, but when the mines there closed down in the 1950s, so did the store. In 1959, the family opened its Trinidad store at its current location on Main Street, where they sold just about everything you can think of. But mines kept closing, and Trinidad lost more people – and Hadad’s lost customers – until the population dropped to 9,000, a level that’s held steady for the last few decades.
Sales are down from when he first took over the family business, but Hadad, now in his 70s, never gave up on the store – and he never gave up belief in Trinidad’s future. The store’s inventory, once diverse, is now mostly beds and furniture, but people still come in. Customers are often the grandchildren of Hadad’s earliest customers, and he asks about their family members as he cuts them a deal on a mattress or love seat.
As one industry waned in Trinidad, another, rather unusual one was emerging – one that got the city nicknamed the “Sex Change Capital of the World.” Dr. Stanley Biber, an Army MASH unit surgeon during the Korean War, came to Trinidad after the war as a general practitioner at Mount San Rafael Hospital. In 1969, a man asked Biber if he would help him become a woman, and Biber was game for the challenge. He did the surgery, with help from diagrams borrowed from a doctor in Baltimore, and the results were a resounding success. Wordof-mouth spread, and with few doctors in the country performing the surgery, Biber emerged as an expert in the practice, taking patients from across the globe. He performed more than 4,000 gender-reassignment surgeries by the time he retired more than 30 years later. A new doctor, Marci Bowers, took over in the 21st century, but in 2010 she moved the practice to California.
Trinidad’s economic hardships have had a spectacular silver lining.
“During the 1950s and 1960s, when other towns were tearing down historic buildings to modernize, Trinidad couldn’t afford to do that,” said Cosette Henritze, historian and former publisher of The Trinidad Chronicle-News. “That proved to be a good thing because we ended up having most of our historic buildings survive all that.”
Trinidad is an almost perfectly preserved Victorian city. And the architecture isn’t just run-of-the-mill old buildings – the historic downtown is studded with Italianate stonework facades that give the city an almost European look. Walk around town with City Planner Louis Fineberg, who moved to Trinidad two years ago, and you can see his wide-eyed marvel at the grandeur of its buildings, but also his worry that something must be done to preserve them.
“This wall looks like Berlin in 1945,” Fineberg said as he approached a crumbling stone wall. “But it wasn’t bombs that hit it – it was the economy.” Fineberg has started an all-out effort to get grant money to stabilize abandoned buildings, and the city is looking for potential tenants to occupy them. Fineberg and others see a creative rebirth in the city’s future: Trinidad as a cultural center where artists can move into historic buildings at a fraction of what it would cost in other Front Range cities.
That dream is already starting to come true – just ask artist couple Rodney Wood and Susan Palmer, who in 2011 moved to a 100-year-old building to set up their home and respective galleries; he’s a painter specializing in magical realism, while she’s a quilter and masseuse. Wood and Palmer both have moved dozens of times – Palmer has never lived anywhere longer than three years – but neither has any plans to leave Trinidad.
A friend visiting from Denver asked them, “Why Trinidad?” Before Wood could respond, the doorbell at his gallery rang: It was a florist delivering a plant for the newcomers, sent by a local business owner they hadn’t even met. That was all he needed as an answer.
Wood has created a signature event for Trinidad – the Artocade – that he hopes will draw more artistic types to the city. The Artocade, slated for its inaugural run in September, is a parade of art cars, a type of folk art that includes things like the “Chewbaru” – a Subaru covered in dentures – and other cars modified to look like giant animals and other wild things. Dozens of art cars will come from across the state and country, as well as a strong contingent from Trinidad; the local pingpong club is even working on its own car.