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History of Mines
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A Look Back on the History of Mining in Wyoming

CITATION: “© [Rosemary] / Adobe Stock”

Wyoming is currently the leading producer of coal in the United States and is home to the largest coal mine in the world. Dig into the rich history of mining in Wyoming to learn how it all began.

The Beginning

Wyoming’s coal mining legacy began in 1843 when the Fremont Expedition led to the first discovery of coal in the state. Years later, the second recorded discovery of coal in Wyoming was made during the Raynolds Expedition in 1859. This discovery of coal in the Powder River Basin was particularly influential as it is now home to many of the largest coal mines in the country.

In 1867 the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad brought on commercial coal mining. The Wyoming Coal and Mining Company owned the first coal mines in the state. This company sold coal to the railroad which used it to fuel steam engines. As a result, coal quickly became the main energy source for trains. In 1874, the government terminated the agreement between the Wyoming Coal and Mining Company and the railroad. It was then that the Union Pacific Coal Company effectively took over the coal mining industry in the state.

Danger and Disaster

Due to its dangerous nature, many disasters have occurred throughout the history of coal mining in Wyoming. From 1886 to 1924, over 300 miners died due to explosions and fires. One of the biggest coal mining catastrophes occurred in 1903 when a huge explosion in one of the Hanna mines claimed the lives of 169 men. Five years later, two more explosions caused the death of 59 more miners, which severely decreased the town’s male population.

Another large threat to the lives of miners was the incurable black lung disease. This illness arose due to the extended exposure to coal dust, which the miners would inhale while working in the mine shafts and underground tunnels. Fortunately, many safety precautions such as underground ventilation systems, rock dusting, and regular safety checks make coal mining much less dangerous today.

Coal’s Impact

Coal played a huge role in the Industrial Revolution. Not only did it make room for changes in the metal industries by allowing for hotter fires, but coal mining was also much easier and cheaper than harvesting wood. As such, people used this fuel source to power steam engines, heat buildings, and generate electricity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Coal was also a very influential resource during the Civil War when Americans used it to produce weapons and steel. Later in the 19th century, coal-fired electric power generation plants and a new demand for low-sulfur Powder River Basin coal led to a huge increase in the size of Wyoming’s strip mines. Today, the state is home to 7 of the 10 most productive coal mines in the nation.