Coal History is Sweetwater County History: Coming to an End (Part 3)

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This is just one of the early coal mines. Photo courtesy of the Rock Springs Historical Museum

Beginning of The End

By 1940, coal mining in Sweetwater County was moving into its final decade of full operation, with the handwriting on the wall.

The Union Pacific had its last steam engine built in 1944, a “Rosie the Riveter” project, the famous Engine 844, which still roams the rails of Wyoming and the West today as a goodwill ambassador for the U.P.

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After World War II, air travel became the quicker, more preferred method of traveling long distances, and as a result rail passenger service faded out in the 1950s.

In addition, interstate freeways made shipping by truck quicker and more convenient than it had been prior. Trucks could go where trains could not. There was less need for rail traffic, and as a result, less need for coal mining in the first place.

The big impetus, though, for shutting down coal mining was the conversion in the 1950s from steam to diesel fuel for locomotives. Diesel had been experimented with since the 1930s and the mid-20th century saw its rise to prominence.

One other faction in coal’s demise included federal legislation. An early 20th century federal law, the Hepburn Act, was finally being enforced. Under the commerce clause terms of the Hepburn Act, the Union Pacific Railroad could no longer sell its own coal. (Union Pacific, Volume II, 1894-1969, p. 475).

The U.P.’s ability to remain a vertically integrated company was thus severely hampered. At best, the Union Pacific would have become a client of whatever commercial entity would have taken over its coal mines and the U.P. would no longer have had control over coal mining operations.

Finally, with railroads in decline by the late 1950s, calls were rising for government ownership of the nationwide rail system, and any latter-day investors in the U.P.’s coal mines would have lost their mine assets to the government in any case.

Be that as it may, coal mines operated by the Union Pacific Railroad and other smaller operators had had a long and productive run.

From 1868 through 1940, in Rock Springs the U.P.’s mines had produced an estimated 50,398,681 total tons of coal, including 5,411,018 tons in 1939 alone (History, pp.15-16).

When the coal mines shut down, however, all was not lost for the miners who no longer had jobs. For just when coal mining was collapsing as an economic force in Sweetwater County, a new mineral came along to take its place.

Trona, a sodium carbonate remnant from ancient lakes, had commenced to be locally mined in the early 1950s and would eventually produce over 1,000 jobs in the Rock Springs area, fueling the local service economy and helping to create ancillary jobs centered on mining interests.

Natural gas extraction also began to be commercially important during the 1950s, again producing jobs for former coal miners (Images of America, p. 36).

The new opportunities in trona mining and natural gas production, with oil extraction continuing as it had all along during the coal mining era, ensured that communities like Rock Springs and Green River would not turn into two of those picturesque, but dusty and deserted ghost towns typical of the West.

So many other Wyoming mining communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries boomed for a short while and then busted never to rise again, and now exist at most only as building skeletons of a bygone time, or in many cases, only in memory.

Acknowledgements

All of the source materials referenced in this article are available at the Rock Springs City Museum library, and the assistance of museum staff in the preparation of this article is gratefully acknowledged and deeply appreciated.

The History of the Union Pacific Coal Mines, 1868-1940 contains a long chapter describing the mining-based 1885 anti-Chinese riot and massacre in Rock Springs, which was the subject of a previous SweetwaterNOW article.

The body of source material about coal mining in and around Rock Springs is immense, and should be of inestimable value to students and other interested parties looking for detailed information.


This is the final part of a three-part series on the history of coal in Sweetwater County. To read Part 2 click here.