THEN & NOW: Digging Up Wyoming’s Coal Mining History

THEN & NOW: Digging Up Wyoming’s Coal Mining History

This is a two-part series about the history of coal mining in Rock Springs and Wyoming.

Jay Gould

Many miners were controlled day in and day out by the mine manager’s policies. In some instances, the company fixed mining equipment prices the miners had to purchase, controlled housing and the stores where the miners purchased their food. There didn’t seem to be a way to escape the mine and its reaches.

In 1875, Jay Gould decided he wanted to eventually reduce the price paid per ton of coal to miners from $2.13 per ton to $1 per ton, a 54% pay cut. Although Gould never reached his goal of a $1 per ton, by 1883 the price had been reduced by 65¢ per ton while coal production had almost tripled.

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Retired Chinese Coal Miners

Chinese Coal Miners

Gould’s policies were not popular. He decreased the cost of coal production by reducing the amount miners were paid per ton of coal and then would employ a large number of Chinese workers when miners went on strike. Gould employed Chinese labor not only because he could pay them less and save money, but also because he believed they helped maintain control of the mines. He is quoted as saying “You can play [Chinese] against the [native miners] and thus keep master of the situation.” Gould later learned his attempt to “keep master of the situation” led to major trouble.

In time, miners’ resentment of the Union Pacific Coal Company’s pay cuts combined with rumors that Colorado miners would receive pay raises and anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in the Rock Springs Massacre. Members of the Knights of Labor Union burned 74 Chinese families’ homes and killed 28 people. After the massacre, the Chinese still played a significant role in coal mining in the area.

Coal miners headed into a mine in Sweetwater County

Transitioning to Modern Mining

In the early 1900s, it seemed everyone wanted coal. In response, several large coal mines opened in Wyoming, including another mine in Rock Springs. In 1900, 3.77 million tons of coal were produced. By 1910, that number had doubled to 7.58 million tons of coal.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the coal market went through ups and downs. Miners would go months without work while families made ends meet any way they could. The mechanization of coal mining was a major contributing factor. As time passed, fewer and fewer men descended into the darkness to haul the valuable black material to the surface; however, more and more coal was produced with the help of machines and improved mining techniques.

Underground mining in Wyoming was slowly phased out as more and more mines became surface mines. In 2013, Wyoming produced 39% of all coal mined in the United States, which was sent to 33 different states. At the time, some of those states relied on Wyoming for more than 90% of their domestic coal. In 2014, almost 88% of net electricity generation in Wyoming came from coal. In 2010, Wyoming produced about 442 million short tons of coal, 58 times more coal than it was producing in 1910.

Many towns in Wyoming, like Rock Springs, exist today thanks to the hard work and determination of the early coal miners and their families.

This is the second part in a two-part series of stories about the history of coal mining in Sweetwater County. Read part one of the story for more interesting details.

Special thanks to the Rock Springs Historical Museum for the images and some of the information for this story.

Then & Now