After 1874, as we have seen, the Union Pacific held a monopoly on coal production in Wyoming. Late that year, the U.S. secretary of the Interior noted that U.P. was able to sell Wyoming coal, delivered in Omaha, Nebr. for the modern equivalent of $9 per ton, while charging other coal companies $10 per ton just to ship their freight.
U.P. Coal Company officials also held a tight rein on worker pay. In 1875, company executives cut the work rate paid to miners by one-fifth, but kept charging the same coal prices to its buyers. When the miners went on strike, company officials replaced them with Chinese laborers who worked for less. This led to a long series of strikes, and eventually to murder.
In 1885, the Rock Springs Massacre made national headlines. The miners’ resentment of the U.P. Coal Company and its pay cuts, combined with rumors that Colorado miners were to receive pay raises, resulted in a major uprising. Members of a union called the Knights of Labor burned the homes of 74 Chinese families, and 28 people were killed. The Chinese fled toward Green River and U.P. trainmen rescued them as they fled along the tracks. Federal troops were called in to restore order and eventually the Chinese returned to work.
During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, coal became the dominant worldwide energy source. In Wyoming, as in other places with growing industry, coal was cheap and abundant. It was much easier to mine coal than to cut wood for fuel. Hotter coal fires brought major changes in the metal industries. Demand grew for the products of the new technologies fueled by coal. Converting coal into clean natural gas was also first considered at this time; cities such as Boston used large ovens to turn coal into gas that fueled streetlights and lamps in homes.
In the second half of the 19th century, more uses for coal were discovered. Civil War weapons factories converted to coal. By 1875, coke, a hotter fuel refined from coal, replaced charcoal as the primary fuel for iron blast furnaces used to make steel. Smith’s Fork in what is now Lincoln County, a long-time trading post for trappers and Indians, changed its name to Cokeville because of large deposits of coke-suitable coal nearby.
Charcoal Kilns at Piedmont, built in 1869 to supply pioneer
smelters in the Utah Valley. Photo courtesy of the USGS, 1984.
A 1907 report by the Wyoming State Geological Survey (WSGS) noted, “coal was the principal mineral product of Wyoming, constantly increasing in volume” as the railroad’s demand for the product grew. According to the report, the quality ranged from high-quality coal from the famous Kemmerer and Rock Springs coal seams, to low-grade lignites found near a dozen towns in Wyoming.
Growth in coal production spiked again during World War II, when national demand soared for Wyoming’s coal and other natural resources.
In the 1960s, Wyoming’s first coal-fired electric-power generation plants were built, establishing a reliable local market for coal. In the 1970s, demand boomed for low-sulfur Powder River Basin coal after new amendments to the Clean Air Act began regulating sulfur emissions. Most of the coal from the Powder River Basin is shipped by rail to power plants in 34 states.
Wyoming’s strip mines increased enormously in size in the 1970s. Today they represent the largest scale of coal mining anywhere in the world. Wyoming is home to nine of the nation’s 10 largest coal mines, and coal in Wyoming is mined at a rate of 12 tons per second. Fifty to 70 coal trains per day carry coal out of the Powder River Basin. The trains are generally 110 to 140 cars long, carry 15,000 to 20,000 tons of coal each, and stretch more than 1.5 miles along the tracks.
Wyoming produces around 400 million tons per year—nearly 40 percent of the nation’s coal.
Since Territorial days the Wyoming State Geological Survey (WSGS) and the Wyoming State Geologist have played major roles in researching and tracking Wyoming’s coal resources. In 1976, a new building and headquarters for the agency was built on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, where the work of the WSGS became more specialized.
Wyoming geologists formed a special coal section and coordinated their efforts with the U.S. Geological Survey to evaluate the northern coal lands of the Powder River Basin. The state 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.
The WSGS maintains a wide variety of records and maps on this natural resource and its economic importance to the state, the nation, and increasingly to the world. The agency researches and produces a variety of written materials on Wyoming’s coal resources, from publications to maps, website content to summary reports. It also tracks and forecasts industry and economic trends for decision makers for a “material” that has long been considered more than useful since its early discovery. Twenty three hundred years after he first noted that “coals made of earth” would burn, Theophrastus would find that not only do they still burn—they provide electricity to the world.
- Beeler, H.C. Wyoming Mines 1907. Geological Survey of Wyoming. Laramie, Wyo. 1908.
- Coal and Oil of Wyoming. Wyoming Board of Immigration Bulletin 3. Cheyenne, 1911.
- Frémont, John Charles, John Torrey, James Hall, and Charles Preuss. Report of
the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon
and north California in the years 1843-'44. Washington: Gales and Seaton,
printers, 1845, p. 131. Accessed Oct. 5, 2013 at
- Bryans, W. A History of the Geological Survey of Wyoming. Geological Survey of Wyoming Bulletin 65. Laramie, Wyo. 1986.
- “Coal Camp Photos.” Wyoming Tales and Trails, accessed Oct. 4, 2013 at http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/coal.html.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Wyoming State Profile and Energy Estimates,” accessed Oct. 4, 2013 at http://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=wy.
- U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), accessed Oct. 4, 2013 at http://www.msha.gov/.