THEN & NOW: Coal Mining in Sweetwater County

THEN & NOW: Coal Mining in Sweetwater County

The Discovery that Powered the West

According to, the first documented mention of coal in the Rock Springs area was by an 1850 U.S. Army survey commanded by Howard Stansbury and guided by Jim Bridger. The party was seeking a quicker way through modern day Wyoming. They probably never guessed just how extensive and rich the deposits were.

The Rock Springs mines were vital to the Union Pacific railroad in its early stages of formation. U.P. President Charles Adams is quoted as saying they were the “salvation of the UP; those mines saved it. Otherwise the UP would not have been worth picking up.”

By September of 1868, mining efforts started near Rock Springs when Thomas Wardell and his Missouri minors opened the no. 1 mine in Rock Springs. The no. 1 mine went on to become one of the largest coal mines in the West. Rock Springs coal was considered the highest quality coal found along the Union Pacific mainline.

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Life Underground

Wyoming definitely has several reasons for its tough nature; the lives and the living conditions of the early coal miners are, no doubt, a major contributor to that.

To the coals miners fell the burden of settling the land skipped over by the gold miners, farmers, and ranchers. These men and women settled areas previously unoccupied and were true pioneers.

-Forgotten Frontier Gardner and Flores

Many early miners didn’t just work underground, they and their families lived underground. Dugouts scattered along Bitter creek in Rock Springs were home to many families. The dirt ceiling/roofs in these homes shed bits of earth and insects at times and were known to leak when it rained and during the winter. There is an account of a person holding an umbrella over the stove as a woman cooked pancakes to keep dirt from falling into them while she cooked.

Rock Springs Coal Mining

Toxic Gas, Small Spaces and Underground Mules

One of the difficulties of working in a coal mine is the harmful gases. In the East, canaries served as a coal miner’s early warning system. In a mine, toxic gases like carbon monoxide, methane or carbon dioxide would kill the birds before affecting the miners. When a canary showed signs of distress, the miners knew conditions were unsafe. In Wyoming, canaries were not available so the miners used mice. Similarly, if a mouse died or showed signs of distress, a miner knew there was gas.

Coal mining had other difficulties aside from harmful gases. A man working the coal mines was paid based on how much coal he could take out of a room each day. Often, miners would have to kneel, lay down or stoop for long periods of time to get coal from different seams. These conditions affected how much coal a miner was able to extract in a day. Because of this, some families said to their boys as young as 6 or 7, “You can stay in school if you maintain good grades, but if you don’t maintain good grades, you can go down into the mine and work with your dad because you can fit in places your dad can’t.” Eventually, child labor movements changed that.

There are rumors of horses and mules being born, living their whole lives and dying in the mines. Rather than take them down at the beginning of the day and bring them out at the end, workers decided it was easier to leave them in the mines permanently.


Coal Camps Everywhere

There were mines everywhere in Rock springs. Down Town Rock Springs alone had 10 mines in it. The odd layout of the streets today follows the layout of the paths coal miners used to get to the different mines. To understand just how extensive coal mining was in Rock Springs, check out the large maps in the Rock Springs Historical Museum that show the different shafts under the city. According to the maps, there were shafts everywhere.

According to an article in the Cheyenne Daily Leader on October 5, 1875, “The Rock Springs mines, as it is well known, furnish the best coal yet discovered in Wyoming, East of Evanston; the deposits in this section are inexhaustible, being far more extensive than those of Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Iowa combined.” claims at one time there were more than 130 mines operating in Sweetwater County in places like Winton, Reliance, Superior, Dines, Lionkol and others surrounding Rock Springs.

This is the first part in a series of stories that will be published about coal mining in Sweetwater County.

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

Then and Now stories of the Green River Police Department with Mike Kinniburgh