Coal History is Sweetwater County History: Railroad Helped Shape County (Part 1)

Coal History is Sweetwater County History: Railroad Helped Shape County (Part 1)

The Blairtown Mine looking North circa 1926. Photo Courtesy of the Rock Springs Historical Museum

Rock Springs — If it was the Union Pacific Railroad that was primarily responsible for the creation of Wyoming, then it was coal mining that was responsible for the creation of Sweetwater County, at least as we know it today.

A lucky coincidence for the Union Pacific Railroad was that along the most favorable route for the transcontinental railway there were substantial seams of coal to provide fuel for steam locomotives.

I would not be an exaggeration to say that Sweetwater County history, Wyoming history, and indeed American history would be much different if, say, the best coal seams were located in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, or Colorado.

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The Beginnings

The book History of Union Pacific Coal Mines 1868-1940 (Colonial Press 1940) lays out the development of coal mining in and around Rock Springs and gives a detailed look at the origins and progression of the industry.

On page nine of History the text relates, “…without the Union Pacific Railroad there would be no such state as Wyoming.” The text also related on page one, “The first men to see and recognize the rich coal reserves of southern Wyoming were the fur traders…Trailblazers that they were, their exploration work and scouting made the construction of the railroad more readily possible, and the railroad made the coal mines necessary.”

Finding fuel for locomotives to run on the under-construction transcontinental railroad was problematic at the start, with inferior cordwood serving as the first available locomotive fuel supply prior to the establishment of rail connections between the Iowa coal fields and Council Bluffs on the east bank of the Missouri River.

By 1869, Iowa coal was being replaced by coal from mines developed by the Union Pacific Railroad at Carbon and Rock Springs, Wyoming (p. 10).

The discovery of workable coal seams in Sweetwater County and vicinity was an important prerequisite for making the idea of a transcontinental railroad itself workable.

Page 11 of History states that “every mile of the proposed location was assiduously searched for coal by geologists and engineers.” The search for evidence of coal was a particular function of the out-front railroad surveyors.

In Union Pacific Volume I 1862-1893, pages 55-56 mention surveyor James Evans as being particularly dedicated to finding coal seams: “All along the route (Evans) inventoried the available timber and searched for evidence of coal.”

Evans even requested that a trained geologist accompany him on his dangerous survey work in the heart of Indian country and in the midst of the western Indian Wars, but his request was not granted. However, Evans’ own observations were sufficient to confirm that coal in southern Wyoming was available in abundance.

Union Pacific, Volume I goes on to make the point that efforts to find coal were continuous and ongoing, including by such men as Grenville Dodge, the transcontinental railroad construction engineer himself. Grenville used the survey information as a basis for searching for coal and other valuable minerals (p. 78).

It was Scottish immigrant Archibald “Archie” Blair and brother Duncan Blair who are usually credited with getting the ball rolling, though. With small need for premonition, Blair knew that the railroad’s coming would create a market for coal and he opened the first local coal seam in 1868.

Following test mining to confirm the availability of substantial coal reserves, the Blair brothers constructed a three-room building close to their mine for their own living space, plus a mine office and store, and for good measure, a restaurant.

The Blair brothers, not surprisingly, called their settlement “Blairtown”. The year 1869 saw substantial development of the early Rock Springs community, as coal miners moved in and settled in tents or dugouts in hillsides (History, p. 46).

Pa and Bobby at Mouth of Main Slope Blairtown Mine. Cullen Family Collection circa 1915-1938. Photo courtesy of the Rock Springs Historical Museum

Mine No. 1 began as a modest operation, producing 365 tons of coal in 1868 and 16,903 tons in 1869 (Historical Overview of the City of Rock Springs, Wyoming; Rosenberg Historical Consultants; Robert G. Rosenberg, 1989, pp. 5-6).

Different sources credit different people with being the instigators of coal mining in and around Rock Springs.

The Historical Overview credits one Thomas Wardell with being the superintendent, secretary and general manager of the Wyoming Coal and Mining Company in 1868 and with opening Mine No. 1 in Rock Springs.

The Wyoming Coal and Mining Company sold coal under contract to the Union Pacific, and within a few years of its founding was acquired by the U.P. in an effort to become vertically integrated.

Regardless of whoever deserves the credit, by 1893, Mine No. 1 was the highest producing coal mine in the state of Wyoming. Coal was here in such abundance that the Union Pacific Coal Company opened Mine Nos. 2, 3, 4, “Old No. 5”, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 during the 1870s and 1880s. (ibid.)

It took awhile, but eventually Reliance and Superior got into the act. Prospecting in Superior began in 1900 and actual coal mining in 1906, ranking second only to Rock Springs in total production of coal, checking in with 23,575,704 tons total as of 1940.

Mining in Superior was originally carried on by an outfit called the Superior Coal Company, which was bought out by the Union Pacific Coal Company in 1916.

As for Reliance, Mine No. 1 opened on March 20, 1910. Mines Nos. 3 and 4 opened in 1911, with coal seams averaging twelve feet in thickness. (History, pp. 138, 150).

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the history of coal in Sweetwater County. Keep your eye out for the next installments.