A History of Coal and Mining in Wyoming
By Chamois Andersen
The early history of coal dates back to the Greek scientist Theophrastus (c. 371–287 BC) who wrote, “Among the materials that are dug because they are useful, those known as coals are made of earth, and once set on fire, they burn like charcoal…used by those who work in metals.” Coal has long been valued as a heating element and energy source. Today, it is the most plentiful fuel in the fossil family, representing a major source of electrical generation to the world.
In the Americas, the Aztecs (14th to 16th centuries) were the first documented people to use coal as a heating fuel. While records for Wyoming do not indicate if Native Americans used coal, early trappers were known to have found it on the ground and used it for fuel.
The first record of a coal deposit discovery in Wyoming was in 1843 by the Fremont Expedition. Lt. John C. Fremont, guided by Kit Carson, set out to explore the Wind River Mountains with the intent to gather, publish and promote new settlement in the West. He made a note in his journal in August 1843 that coal was displayed in rabbit burrows in a “kind of gap” that the expedition came across while passing over some high hills. Sixty years later, the area of this early discovery became the site of the coal mining camp of Cumberland, south of Kemmerer. Many coal camps in the Rocky Mountain west consisted of such “company towns” as Cumberland, in which everything – the general store, schools and public hall were all owned by the coal company.
The Raynolds Expedition in 1859 recorded the second known discovery of coal in the state in the Powder River Basin – the most prolific coal fields in the nation today. Col. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, while accompanying an expedition to Yellowstone came across what he said were “true lignite beds” covering the region from Platte County to Pumpkin Butte in Campbell County.
Commercial mining for coal in Wyoming began with the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1867. Coal was used to fuel steam engines to power locomotives. It was the primary source of fuel for trains until diesel engines replaced the locomotives in the mid-20th century. As the tracks moved west mines popped up all along the transcontinental railroad. The first mines were located in Carbon and Rock Springs and were owned by the Wyoming Coal and Mining Company, which leased the land from the railroad. The company mined the coal and sold it to the railroad for a profit. In 1874, the government terminated the agreement between the two companies, at which point the railroad took over the mines. The U.P. Coal Company had a monopoly on coal production in the state with its mines and the use of coal for its railroad operations.
Ruins of the town of Carbon, Wyoming
The ruins of the town Carbon harken back to the early days of what coal mining was like on the Wyoming landscape, when mining towns supported the miners, who worked in the mines to supply the fuel to the railroad. Carbon was founded by T. Wardell in 1868 and incorporated in 1890. Seven mines were worked in Carbon and supported a population of about 3,000 people. The Carbon cemetery (on the National Register of Historic Places), just north of the town, includes the burial sites of miners tragically killed in the Hanna mine disaster on June 30, 1903, when an explosion took the lives of 169 miners. The Hanna accident decimated the town’s male population, leaving hundreds of orphaned children and widows. The Hanna Museum contains the records and artifacts of the Carbon and Hanna coal miners and their families from that era. Museum curator Nancy Anderson said the Carbon cemetery is a place that preserves the lives of these people in the landscape where they lived and worked.