La Belle, New Mexico, the frontier mining town in which the new Netflix drama Godless takes place, may not be a ghost town — but it certainly is haunted. Two years prior to the start of the show’s action, 88 of the town’s men descended into the mine for work, and didn't come out alive. Left without no alternative, the wives, sisters, and daughters the miners left behind took over the governing and functioning of La Belle. The absence of so many loved ones is haunting in itself.
The burning question on your mind is probably the same one I had while watching Godless: “Did this terrible accident really happen to the good people of La Belle, New Mexico?” The short answer is no, not quite. While La Belle, New Mexico actually existed — the tiny settlement spurted up in the 1890s, during the gold rush — the town was abandoned by the early 20th century, once its gold ore was proven low-grade.
So, though no such mining accident occurred in the real La Belle, Godless creator Scott Frank did base the show’s tragic premise on the aftermath of actual events. "Sometimes all of the men would die in a single day in an accident, and the women would be left there...sometimes they would all leave, and sometimes they would be stranded and have to make the town work," Frank said in an interview in Variety. "I thought, 'Oh, that’s it.”
Frank didn’t have to look far from La Belle for inspiration. In fact, the town of Dawson, New Mexico, only one county east of La Belle, was wracked by two of the most devastating mining disasters in American history — and within ten years each other.
Only 23 men survived the explosion that took place in the Stag Canyon coal mine on October 22, 1913. Despite a tremendous rescue effort, 236 of their fellow miners perished in the explosion. Another explosion at the Stag Canyon mine occurred ten years later, in 1923, leaving the town of Dawson reeling from the loss of yet another 123 men. Many of the deceased were the sons of miners who had died in 1913.
Of course, Frank didn’t exclusively draw inspiration from New Mexican mining disasters when writing Godless. The whole “women in charge of a small frontier town” thing happened, too — though we’ll have to leave New Mexico and look to Jackson, Wyoming for more concrete evidence of that phenomenon.
On May 11, 1920, the people of Jackson, Wyoming, population 307, elected the United States’ first all-woman governing board. At the time of the election, the tiny town, right on the border of the newly formed Yellowstone National Park, had been grappling with a number of issues. Most pressingly, how could they accommodate the influx of visitors to the national park if their basic infrastructure was already so lacking? And something had to be done about the muddy streets, which were flooded during each year’s spring thaw, and forced kids to wade through the streets on their way to school.
Some prominent townswomen, including the soon-to-be-mayor Grace Miller, marched into the town council meeting demanding a solution. As legend goes, one man suggested, “Let’s elect the women.” Whether his tone was sarcastic or genuine, we can’t say — but the town followed his advice. Grace Miller, Rose Crabtree, Mae Deloney, Genevieve Van Vleck and Faustina Haight were all elected to be the country’s first all-woman town council. Jackson’s Dream Team ended up fulfilling all of their campaign promises, including installing drainage for the muddy roads.
While the women of Godless were certainly placed in different circumstances than the all-woman council of Jackson, Wyoming, they rallied in a similarly triumphant way, and kept their community trudging along.
The take-away? Though Godless isn't based on a precise true story, its roots are easily found in the tragedies and the toughness found in the history of the American West.
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