Several strikes occurred in the history of Wyoming coal mining. The Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 was one of high profile, making national headlines. The miners’ resentment of the U.P. Coal Company from pay shortages and after hearing that Colorado miners were to receive a pay raise, resulted in a major uprising. This was led by a union called the Knights of Labor, which burned the homes of 74 Chinese families in protest of their working in the mines. Twenty-eight people were killed. Federal troops were called in to assist, and the Chinese fled to Green River and were saved by the Union Pacific.
Another strike in 1894 involved the Pullman Company, which laid off one-third of its workforce and cut the wages of the remaining miners. The railroad workers struck in sympathy. The Army, called to serve by President Cleveland, moved in to break up the strike, and the federal court became involved by discharging more than 800 Wyoming railroad workers. This caused the workers (miners and railroad) to boycott against the military and the U.S. marshals. A number of arrests ensued, including the arrest of the City Marshall.
Increased Uses of Coal
In the second half of the 1800s, more uses for coal were discovered. During the Civil War, weapons factories were beginning to use coal. By 1875, coke (which is made from coal) replaced charcoal as the primary fuel for iron blast furnaces to make steel. Cokeville, Wyoming was once a trading post for trappers and Native Americans. The town was originally called “Smith’s Fork” but was changed to Cokeville because of the large deposits of coking coal. Coal was also used in smelting for coal furnaces known as cupolas.
A major change in the metal industries during the era of the Industrial Revolution (18th and 19th centuries) was the replacement of wood and other bio-fuels with coal. Coal required much less labor to mine than cutting wood, and coal was more abundant.
The Industrial Revolution also spurred an increased need for energy to fuel new technologies invented, which led to coal becoming a dominant worldwide supplier of energy. Turning coal into clean natural gas was also first considered at this time. In the 1800s, cities such as Boston used large ovens to turn coal into town gas to fuel streetlights and gas lamps in homes.
According to a report by the Wyoming State Geological Survey (WSGS), in 1907 it was stated that “coal was the principal mineral product of Wyoming, constantly increasing in volume, as new railroads [reached] new fields and production facilities [became] more equitably.” Also recorded was the quality, ranging from the famous Kemmerer and Rock Springs coal seams, to some of the later lignites found near a dozen towns in Wyoming.
The growth in the Wyoming coal industry spiked again around World War II (1939-1945). National demand for the state’s natural resources increased, including coal. Nazi Germany used coal, developing coal-to-fuels technology and turning it into liquid fuel to operate its tanks after its fuel supplies were cut by the Allied Forces.
In the 1960s, Wyoming’s first electric-power generation plants that used coal as fuel were constructed, which indicated a reliable market for coal. The Powder River Basin also began ramping up coal mining efforts, which had dropped during the 1950s. In addition, several industry groups conducted experiments with the state's coal to assess its value as a coke source. Wyoming surface coal mines increased enormously in size and now represent the largest scale of coal mining anywhere in the world. Today, Wyoming is home to nine of the nation’s 10 largest coal mines, and produces nearly 40 percent of U.S. coal.
The WSGS and the State Geologist, dating back to the Territorial days, have long played a role in researching and tracking Wyoming’s coal resources. After the agency’s new building was completed in 1976 on the University of Wyoming campus, the work of the WSGS became more specialized. A Coal Section was formed and its geologists cooperated with the U.S. Geological Survey in an evaluation of the northern coal lands of the Powder River Basin. The agency also reported on the strippable coal reserves of the Hanna Coal Field for the U.S. Bureau of Mines, and performed a variety of other studies related to the state’s increasingly important coal reserves.
As with the varied history of coal, the WSGS has maintained a wide variety of records and maps on this natural resource and its economic importance to the state. Today, the agency continues to study, produce written materials and maps, and track and forecast the coal industry in Wyoming.
Beeler, H.C., 1908, Wyoming mines 1907, State Geologist Office, 46 p.
Bryans, W., 1986, A history of the Geological Survey of Wyoming: Geological Survey of Wyoming Bulletin 65, 125 p.
Gardner, D.A., 1989, Forgotten Frontier: A History of Wyoming Coal Mining
Wyoming Board of Immigration, 1911, From coal and oil of Wyoming, Wyoming Board of Immigration Bulletin 3, 16 p.
Wyoming Places, at
Wyoming Tales and Trails, 2013, at
U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2013, at
U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), 2013,