A key ingredient in the production of steel is coke, which is bituminous coal that has been heated at extremely high temperatures in order to burn off impurities. Rufe Tafoya, one of hundreds of men employed to do this type of work in the early history of CF&I, began work in 1889 at El Moro, a coking town north of Trinidad and later moved west to the coking town of Segundo. Tafoya’s job as a coker involved removing as much of the moisture, volatile matter, and sulphur and phosphate as possible from the coal, leaving only fixed carbon and ash. The new material, known as coke, could burn at intense temperatures in the thousands of degrees, a much more efficient source of fuel for the furnaces at the Steelworks in Pueblo.
As a coker, Tafoya worked in “beehive” brick coke ovens. The name “beehive” originated from the distinctive rounded shape of the oven. Coal would be loaded into the front opening of the oven, and then was sealed with brick. A small hole was left at the top to allow air to circulate inside. The coal was lit and an intense, slow fire burned the coal for around 48 hours. Any gases and impurities were burned off and the resulting material was a high quality carbon material known as coke. The gases created in the coking process were reconstituted and re-sold as fertilizer, dyes, varnishes, motor fuel, insect repellant, disinfectants and explosive charges for war munitions.
When payday came, Tafoya was not paid by the hour, but rather, according to how many tons of coke he could pull out of the ovens. According to a 1903 report of the working conditions, a man’s pay, varied by position, but salaries ranged from $2.05 to $3.10 per ton. Coke oven work was physically dangerous and grueling. To add to the difficulty for employees, there was (for a time) only one place in the nearby town of Segundo to take a bath. Each bath cost $0.25, a rather exorbitant amount to pay for a coke oven employee.
As technology changed, CF&I began construction on a by-product Coke Plant at the Steel Mill in Pueblo in 1916. More ovens were added over the years, including additions in 1942, more shortly after World War II, and in 1972. Due to serious financial issues and clean air legislation, CF&I restructured its steelmaking operations in the early 1980s. Steel would be made from scrap metal rather than directly from coal, rendering the Coke Plant unnecessary.