In 1843, explorer John C. Frémont reported coal in what’s now southwest Wyoming. In the 1860s, the route of the new transcontinental railroad across Wyoming was chosen partly to access abundant coal deposits for fuel for the locomotives. Coal mining boomed, labor strife increased and Wyoming’s coal industry thrived despite worker strikes and a number of horrific mine accidents. Today, the state produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal, most of it from huge strip mines in the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming, for rail shipment to electric power plants in 34 states.
After the Burlington Railroad reached Sheridan, Wyo. in 1892, coal camps—company towns for miners and their families—were established next to a series of mines north of the town. The mines served local and regional markets as well as the railroad. By 1910, a total of around 10,000 people lived in these camps—Dietz, Kooi, Monarch, Acme and Carneyville, later renamed Kleenburn—more than lived in Sheridan. A busy electric railway ran the 15 miles from town to the camps and back. Most of the miners were immigrants, more than half of them Polish, and their descendants still play vital roles in Sheridan County today.
Alcova Dam, a Bureau of Reclamation project, was completed in 1937. The reservoir opened in 1938 and a power plant was completed in 1955. The $20 million dam project didn’t achieve the high expectations of immense wealth that were forecast at the time of its inception, but continues to provide irrigation water for farmers and ranchers and generates hydropower for the area. Alcova Reservoir offers fishing, boating, camping and swimming opportunities for visitors.
Seminoe and Kortes dams, both located in a remote stretch of northern Carbon County, Wyo., were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s primarily for the production of hydropower. While power plants at both dams still generate electricity, the area is frequented by tourists, especially fishermen who travel to the renowned Miracle Mile, just downstream from Kortes Dam, to catch trout.
Boysen Dam, named for local businessman Asmus Boysen, was constructed on the Wind River in the 1940s to control flooding and to provide irrigation water for agricultural purposes. The dam was completed in early 1953 and its power plant continues to generate electricity today. Boysen Reservoir provides recreational opportunities as well.
In 1869, explorer John Wesley Powell named the red-walled canyon on the Green River in Wyoming Territory “Flaming Gorge.” The Flaming Gorge Dam, completed in 1964, helps regulate water flows and its power plant generates electricity. The dam is located in Utah, but the reservoir stretches north into Wyoming near the town of Green River. In 1968, the U.S. Congress created the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, which is located in the states of Utah and Wyoming and draws visitors from around the world.
The Powder River Basin sports a colorful history. Bones of bison slaughtered by people, found south of Sundance, Wyo., date back 6,000 years, and northeast Wyoming remained a favorite hunting ground for American Indians into the late 19th century. At that time the Powder River Basin was the scene of violent conflicts between the Indians and U.S. military men. Abundant grass made this region a favored spot for cattle and sheep ranchers. Under the grass is coal—so much of it that about 40 percent of the coal mined in the U.S., comes from the Powder River Basin.
Oil seeps were reported often in the early 19th century in what later became Wyoming; it was sold, for example to Oregon Trail travelers for wagon lubricant. The first producing well in Wyoming Territory was drilled in 1883 at Dallas Dome southeast Lander. Perhaps the state’s best-known historic oil producing region is the Salt Creek Field, north of Casper, which was one of the world’s largest-producing fields in the 1920s. Oil remains an important part of Wyoming’s economy and culture today, and the state is ranked high among the top national producers.
Although the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s was named for a Wyoming rock formation resembling a teapot, the wrongdoers were not from the state. During the administration of President Warren G. Harding, oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny bribed Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall to gain access to the naval petroleum reserves located at Teapot Dome in the Salt Creek field north of Casper in northern Natrona County. Fall was the first Cabinet official to be imprisoned for crimes committed during his time in office. Sinclair also served a jail sentence.