A History of Coal and Mining in Wyoming
By Chamois Andersen
“Among the materials that are dug because they are useful,” the ancient Greek scientist Theophrastus wrote around 300 B.C., “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 from the 14th through 16th centuries were the first documented people to use coal as a heating fuel. While records for Wyoming do not indicate if American Indians 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 in Wyoming was in 1843 by the second Frémont Expedition. Lt. John C. Frémont, guided by Kit Carson, set out to explore routes to Oregon with the intent to gather, publish and promote new settlement in the West. In August 1843, a few days after crossing the Green River in what’s now western Wyoming, Frémont noted coal was displayed “in rabbit burrows in a kind of gap” in hills through which the travelers passed before camping late one afternoon.
Sixty years later, the area of Frémont’s discovery became the site of the coal camp of Cumberland, south of Kemmerer in what is now Lincoln County, Wyoming. Many coal camps in the Rocky Mountain West consisted of company towns like Cumberland, in which everything – the general store, workers’ houses, schools and public halls—was 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 location of the most prolific coal fields in the nation today. Geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, later director of the U.S. Geological Survey, was with Raynolds on the 1859 expedition and came across what he said were “true lignite beds” covering the region from Platte County to Pumpkin Buttes in what is now Campbell County. Lignite is a low-grade coal.