Wyoming’s coal mining industry was secure until the early 1950s, when the Union Pacific switched to diesel-powered locomotives. Laid-off miners and their families struggled; little company towns disappeared. Eventually, trona mining expanded and replaced many of the coal jobs—and in the 1970s, coal came roaring back.
Since it first entered the state in 1890, the Burlington Railroad has helped connect Wyoming with the world. Burlington officials were drawn here by Wyoming’s marketable natural resources and by its geography: Wyoming offered the best routes for transcontinental lines from the Midwest and South to the Pacific Northwest.
Mary Hughes was just 17 years old in 1908 when the No. 1 Mine exploded twice in one day—and for the second time in five years—in Hanna, Wyo. Her story shows the devastating impact that coal mine accidents had on families like the Hugheses across Wyoming’s mining communities, and reveals her determination to survive disaster.
Accidents and disasters have plagued Wyoming coal mines since territorial times. In 1886, legislators created the office of the state mine inspector to help improve safety. Still, explosions and cave-ins killed hundreds of miners in the following decades. The worst accidents happened in Hanna in 1903 and near Kemmerer in 1923. Lawmakers continued to increase safety measures and eventually expanded the duties of the state mine inspector. Modern strip mining is far safer.
Hanna, Wyo., best known for its coal mines, was founded in 1889 by the Union Pacific Coal Co. as a company town. It has survived mining disasters and a long cycle of booms and busts. The last mines around Hanna closed in the mid-2000s. The town survives today as a bedroom community, with hopes of future mineral development.
Founded in 1868, the short-lived town of Carbon provided crucial coal supplies for the Union Pacific Railroad. Its rough reputation was boosted in 1881, when a mob of miners pulled Dutch Charley Burris, accused of the murder of a popular lawman, from a train and hanged him from a telegraph pole. Many Finnish men worked in the coal mines until 1902, when the mines closed. Today, there are only a few ruins to mark the site, but the Carbon Cemetery has been recently refurbished and is still being used.
Sheridan, Wyoming first boomed when the Burlington and Missouri Railroad reached it in 1892. Named for a Civil War general and situated in the center of Indian War country, the town became a regional center for business and western culture. Sheridan developed many local processing industries in its first few decades, and also attracted wealthy residents. However, its fortunes have fluctuated with the nation’s demand for nearby natural resources like coal, and the changing economics of agriculture. Today, Sheridan’s unique identity is still rooted in its distinctive culture and scenic location near the Bighorn Mountains.