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. The U.P.’s route across what soon became Wyoming Territory depended on two main factors, topography and plentiful coal. The route connected the major mines of Carbon, Rock Springs and Almy, Wyoming, near Evanston.
The first mines 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. Consequently, the Union Pacific Coal Company was formed as the Union Pacific Coal Department by the Union Pacific Railroad, with the railroad effectively taking over the mines. U.P. Coal Company then had a monopoly on coal production in the territory and used the coal primarily for its railroad operations.
Ruins of the town of Carbon, Wyoming
Carbon, on the UP line southwest of Medicine Bow, was founded by Thomas Wardell in 1868 and incorporated in 1890. Seven mines were worked in Carbon and the town supported a population of about 3,000 people.
In 1899 the railroad was relocated to Hanna, just northwest of Carbon, to avoid climbing a steep grade. The Hanna mine then became the main supplier of coal for train locomotives. The mines and the town of Carbon were finally abandoned in 1902 by the U.P. Coal Company. All that remains of the town is the cemetery, dugouts that served as houses on the hillside, and a few of the sandstone walls and foundations from the buildings that made up this once flourishing coal town.
The Carbon cemetery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, located just north of the town, includes the graves of many members of the Carbon community. It also contains the graves of some of the miners killed in an explosion in one of the Hanna mine on June 30, 1903, which took the lives of 169 men. A pair of explosions in 1908 killed 59 more. The accidents decimated the town’s male population and left hundreds of orphaned children and widows.
“The Carbon cemetery is a place that preserves the lives of these people in the landscape where they lived and worked,” says Nancy Anderson, curator of the Hanna Basin Museum. The museum protects the records and artifacts of Carbon and Hanna coal miners and their families from that era, including the records of Hanna’s mine disasters. Coal mining at Rock Springs, 140 miles west of Carbon, also began in the late 1860s to supply coal to the U.P. During the next century, more than 100 million tons of coal came from Rock Springs mines. The last mine closed in 1963, when Rock Springs had turned to other extractive industries such as oil and natural gas.
Coal mining in the early days was a hard, dangerous job. Thousands of Wyoming miners lost their lives from explosions and fires. More than 300 miners died in disasters between 1886 and 1924. Black lung disease, from long exposure to coal dust, also plagued miners. Most of these dangers were connected with miners working in cramped mine shafts and larger underground rooms that could quickly fill with deadly gas.
Since the early mining disasters Wyoming has made significant strides to improve mine safety in the state. In 1886 the Wyoming Territorial Legislature, convening by chance just days after another major disaster at Almy, passed new mine safety laws. The new office of the State Mine Inspector was charged with inspecting every coal mine in the state once every three months.
In the early 1900s, prompted by so many accidents in the previous decades, the State Geologist was granted the authority to examine or inquire into any mine or mill in regard to worker safety; any accident was to be investigated. Other safety measures included a law establishing a uniform code of bell warning signals for use in the mines.
Union representatives took the initiative and spoke up publicly to protest mining disasters, insisting on more compensation for dependents of miners killed. Labor unions attracted new members by promising to seek greater safety. Safety features such as underground ventilation systems and rock dusting—a process using crushed limestone to dilute the explosive nature of coal dust—have provided miners with better protection.
Today, mining operations are much safer, especially in Wyoming where nearly all the coal now mined—at 17 out of 18 coal mines currently in production—comes from strip mines on the earth’s surface. Since 1978, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has overseen safety and worker protection at mines throughout the United States. In 2012, MSHA reported 19 coal miners in the nation had died in on-the-job accidents, the second lowest number ever recorded.
But even with increased safety measures, surface and underground mining both remain dangerous. Surface mining requires constant safety checks of log books, powder magazines used for blasting and the major equipment used to load coal and haul it away. Underground mining —far more dangerous—requires constant checks on air quality, roof integrity and fire danger. Rescue of miners trapped underground can be extremely difficult. Explosions are also a risk; twenty-nine miners were killed in 2010 in an explosion at West Virginia’s underground Upper Big Branch Mine, owned by Massey Energy.