In 1899, the railroad was relocated near Hanna to avoid a steep grade out of Carbon. The Hanna mine then became the main supplier of coal for the locomotives. As a result the mines and the town of Carbon were abandoned in 1902 by the U.P. Coal Company. All that remains is the cemetery, dugouts that served as houses on the hillside and the sandstone slabs and rubble from the buildings that made up this once flourishing coal-mining town.
Rock Springs also contained some of the early mines in Wyoming. It was first populated in the late 1860s to supply coal to the newly constructed Union Pacific Railroad. Over the next century, more than 100 million tons of coal came from Rock Springs’ mines. The last historical mine closed in 1963 when Rock Springs had turned to other extractive industries, oil and natural gas.
Coal Mine No. 10, U.P. Coal Company, Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Back in the early days, coal mining was considered a hard, dangerous job. Thousands of Wyoming miners have lost their lives from explosions and fires. After the loss of the Hanna miners, nine other disasters occurred between 1886 and 1924, killing 328 people in Wyoming. Black lung disease, caused by lengthy exposure to coal dust, also plagued miners. Most of these safety issues had to do with miners working in underground shafts, which in those tight underground conditions posed an increased threat to the workers.
Wyoming has a long history of mine safety as a result of the early days of mining disasters that took the lives of so many. In 1886, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature, which had convened just days after another major mine disaster at Almy, passed new mine safety laws. One new law created the office of the State Mine Inspector with the duty charged with inspecting every coal mine in Wyoming every three months. In the early 1900s the State Geologist was granted the authority to make examinations or inquiries into any mine or mill in regard to worker safety; any accident was to be investigated. Other safety measures included a bill passed establishing a uniform code of bell signals for use in the mines. Unions spoke up about mining disasters and insisted on more compensation for dependents of miners killed in such incidents. Labor unions also gained the membership of miners by promising to seek greater safety. Safety features were also created to better protect the miners, such as underground ventilation systems, rock dusting, rock roof bolting and commercial explosives.
Today, mining operations are considerably safer than in the early days. Since 1978 the Mine Safety and Health Administration has overseen safety and worker protection at mines throughout the United States. Recently the agency reported that in the nation 19 coal miners had died on the job in 2012. This was the second lowest number ever recorded. In Wyoming, surface mines (17 out of 18 currently in production in Wyoming) are now the most conducive to extracting Wyoming’s coal resources, which means miners use large mechanized equipment to mine coal, which is considered much safer than working in underground mines.
In addition to safety regulations, coal mining has seen many technological developments over the past century – from the early days of men using pick axes and shovels, digging and loading coal on carts, to the use of draglines and trucks working in large open pit and longwall mines.
In the old days, coal was either mined straight from the outcrop or a vertical shaft was excavated. Coal was mined (horizontal adit mining) by hand and shored up by timbers and then hauled underground to the shaft, sometimes by burro cart. Coal would then be hoisted to the surface and the miners would tip the cars to unload the coal. The term “tipple” was coined for this process and later was used to refer to the entire facility where coal was sorted, screened and picked prior to shipment. Larger operations included a conveyor belt known as an “apron feeder” in which the coal would go onto the feeder and through a series of shakers and screens, sorting the coal by size. The coal would then pass over “picking tables” where employees known as “pickers” would remove rocks or other noncombustible material before the coal was emptied into railroad cars.
As mentioned, the Union Pacific had a monopoly (between its railroad and mines) on coal production in Wyoming, and would charge approximately $9 a ton for its coal in 1874. For independent producers, it charged $10 a ton to transport its coal to Omaha. (In 2012, the average spot price for coal via surface mining was $9.88.) The U.P. Coal Company also held tight reins with its labor policies. In 1875, the company cut the work rate paid to miners by one-fifth but charged the same price it charged for coal to its buyers. When the miners went on strike, the company decided to replace them with Chinese workers who worked for cheaper labor. This led to a long series of miner strikes.
The 20th century saw the development of what was known as the continuous miner and the automated longwall operation. The continuous miner was developed in room and pillar mining to have a machine uncover the first coal face instead of this being done by the workers. By the 1980s the longwall machine was developed to mechanically move a cutting head across a 1,000-foot-long coal face to mine large amounts of coal in a safe manner.