Campbell County, Wyoming

Campbell County, in northeastern Wyoming, is part of the Powder River Basin, which stretches from the crest of the Bighorn Mountains to the western Black Hills. A perfect habitat for the North American bison and other large mammals, for generations the region was a valued hunting ground for American Indians, especially the Lakota Sioux.

The rectangle of present-day Campbell County, approximately 4,761 square miles, is mostly grassland over extensive sub-bituminous coal deposits dating from the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods. Some of the coal deposits in the Powder River Basin are so close to the surface that early settlers could dig their own coal.

campbell2.jpgCampbell County’s coal is low in sulfur compared to coal mined in the eastern United States. Since 1990, when the Clean Air Act was amended to require electric utilities to reduce sulfur emissions from their coal-fired power plants, Campbell County’s low-sulfur coal has enjoyed distinct advantages in the national market—despite the long distances the coal is often shipped to utilities in the Midwest and South.

Campbell County is bordered on the south by the counties of Converse and Niobrara; on the east by Weston and Crook; on the west by Johnson and Sheridan; and on the north by the state of Montana. Although the Powder River flows through only the far northwest corner of Campbell County, the river’s south-to-north course roughly parallels the western border of the county, just across the Johnson and Sheridan County lines.

Ancient Times and Early Explorers

Ancient deposits of bison bone establishing the presence of Paleo-Indians have been found at various points in Campbell County. The Ruby Site near Pumpkin Buttes in the southwest corner of the county is one of the best known. It is a bison pound—an ingenious structure similar in design to a modern-day cattle corral, though likely much stronger. It was probably used by the Besant hunters around A.D. 100 or shortly afterward.

An older site from perhaps 10,000 years ago is the Carter/Kerr-McGee site north of Gillette, Wyo., excavated in 1975 before the opening of the Carter/Kerr-McGee coal mine. There, a bison butchering area was found and, nearby, an arroyo that probably formed a natural trap into which the animals could be driven. This site indicated the presence of the Goshen, Folsom, Agate Basin, Hell Gap, and Alberta-Cody cultures. Prehistoric cultures are generally named for the places where artifacts identifying them were first found.

campbell3.jpgThe first American explorer-trapper to travel through the area that is now Campbell County was probably Francois-Antoine Larocque in 1805, trading with the Crow Indians on behalf of the Montreal-based North West Company. John Colter visited the area in 1807-1808, followed in 1811 by Wilson Price Hunt and a party of men sent by fur-trade tycoon John Jacob Astor. This group, the "overland Astorians," crossed the basin on their way to the Columbia River drainage.

Then, in 1828, Robert Campbell and a party of men from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company traveled through, trapping for beaver along Powder River. The peripatetic missionary Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet passed by the Pumpkin Buttes in 1851, and referred to them in a diary entry as the "Gourd Buttes."

The Bozeman Trail, a route from the Oregon Trail along the North Platte River to newly discovered gold fields in Montana Territory, passed through the southwest corner of what’s now Campbell County. It was traveled by prospectors and settlers starting in 1864. Attacks by the Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux and Arapaho were common, earning the trail its nickname, the Bloody Bozeman.

To protect the white travelers, the U.S. Army was ordered to patrol the trail, and for four years there were many fights and skirmishes in what came to be called Red Cloud’s War. In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Powder River Basin was relegated to the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Only eight years later, on Jan. 31, 1876, the U.S. government proclaimed that all the Indians must move to reservations. More warfare followed. By 1878, the area was open to white people.

Early settlement and cattle ranching

The earliest cattle drive from Texas to Montana passed through northeast Wyoming in 1866. In the late 1870s, cattle ranches began to be established, and with the end of the Indian threats, white settlement began in earnest. Although the winter of 1886-1887 destroyed many large herds and ended the open range era, some cattle ranching continued. Ranchers began to grow their own hay for cattle feed or sometimes shipped herds to out-of-state winter feeding locations.

County boundaries and organization

The area that would eventually become Campbell County began as part of Albany County, Wyoming Territory in 1869. In 1875, the territorial legislature created Crook County out of the northern halves of Albany and Laramie Counties; Crook County took up the entire northeast corner of the territory. Future Campbell County would occupy the western half of this area. First, however, in 1890, Weston County was created from the southern half of Crook County, with a boundary stretching from the Nebraska state line to Johnson County.

Finally, with the creation of Campbell County by an act of the state legislature on Feb. 13, 1911, and the organization of its government on Jan. 6, 1913, the western halves of Crook and Weston counties were sliced by a north-south line running from the Montana state line to the Converse County border. (Converse County had been formed in 1888 out of other parts of the original Albany and Laramie counties.)

There is some dispute about who the county was named for--either Robert Campbell, the early fur trader mentioned above, or John A. Campbell, the first territorial governor of Wyoming. According to the Wyoming Blue Book, some sources "probably trying to make peace, claim Campbell County was named for both men."

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The railroad and small towns

In August 1891, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad's subsidiary, the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, reached Gillette, creating a more convenient shipping point for cattle ranchers in the area. Prior to that time, herds had to be trailed hundreds of miles to be shipped to market.

For approximately one year, Gillette was the terminus, and with the presence of the railroad commissary, this created a small, short-lived boom that ended when the tracks reached Sheridan in November 1892. Still, the railroad brought an influx of settlers—farmers, ranchers and townspeople.

Gillette was incorporated that same year. After the railroad terminus moved on, Gillette settled into a typical small-town rural economy with livery barns, stables, blacksmiths, hotels, cafes, bars and brothels.

The earliest surviving edition of the Gillette News, which began publication in 1891, is dated Jan. 14, 1892, showing J.S. Taylor as editor. Page two of this issue featured advertisements for the Hotel Empire, Windsor Hotel and the Miller House. The latter boasted, "Excellent Accommodations for Transient Patronage." The Stafford Restaurant claimed that fresh oysters were always on hand.

The first school had been built in 1891, but the first bank, the Bank of Gillette, was not opened until 1902. A full telephone exchange was established in 1910. Five years later, electricity was supplied. When Campbell County’s government was organized in 1913, Gillette became the county seat.

On May 4, 1934, Camp Miller, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, was established near Gillette. The primary work for these 100 or so men was to fight the underground coal fires that had been destroying veins for some years. Some of these fires weakened the surface above them, creating unseen dangers for people and animals. In 1941, with the start of World War II, the camp was abandoned.

campbell4.jpgCampbell County’s population, meanwhile, had reached 6,720 residents in the 1930 census. At least 23 small towns had appeared in the county in the decades after the railroad arrived. A handful of these remain, mostly hamlets: Spotted Horse, Recluse, Rockypoint, Weston and Savageton. Rozet, on I-90 13 miles east of Gillette, is slightly larger. The Great Depression and dust bowl years caused a decrease in total county population to 4,839 by 1950.

Coal and the Wyodak Mine

As early as 1909, coal was already being mined underground. By 1918, underground mines included the operations of the Peerless Mine east of Gillette. With the use of fresnos—earth scrapers drawn by two- or four-horse teams—Peerless operated from approximately 1918 to 1925, producing 20,464 tons of coal in all.

In 1923, near the Peerless Mine, the Wyodak Company began developing surface operations in the same coal seam. In 1925, Wyodak produced 33,579 tons of coal. Wyodak, purchased by the Black Hills Corporation on Nov. 1, 1956, is considered to be the oldest continually operated coal mine in the United States, according to the Wyodak company website.

Sources repeatedly assert that Wyodak was also for many years the largest surface coal mine in the world. According to Robert Henning, Registrar of the Campbell County Rockpile Museum, this claim probably refers to acreage and possibly depth, rather than to production. In 2011 Wyodak produced 5.7 million tons, with an estimated reserve of 256.2 million tons.

Oil and a growing population

The first commercial discovery of oil in Campbell County was in 1948. Later oil strikes at the Dead Horse Field on the Johnson-Campbell county line in the 1950s, at Belle Creek north of Gillette in 1955, and at Hi-Lite in 1967 created a long-term economic boom.

Between 1960 and 1970, the county's population more than doubled, from 5,861 to 12,957. Most of this growth occurred in or near Gillette from 1965 to 1970. Demographics also changed, with 11 percent of the population employed in mineral extraction in 1960 and 27.5 percent 10 years later. In 1970, the county's unemployment rate was 2.6 percent, one of the lowest in Wyoming.

Coal, oil and the boom of the 1970s

Coal and oil development in Campbell County nearly doubled its population again between 1970 and 1980, from 12,957 to 24,367. This growth was reflected in Gillette, with 7,194 in 1970 and 12,134 in 1980, a 69 percent increase.

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Key Dates

May 4, 1934

Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Miller established near Gillette.

Date: 1934-05-04

June 1, 1998

Black Thunder Mine in Campbell County acquired by Arch Western Resources, LLC, part of a larger purchase of Atlantic Richfield’s (ARCO's) U.S. coal operations.

Date: 1998-06-01

Campbell County
quick facts

Land Area

4,797 square miles, 7th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Campbell County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
Forest Service 139,776 4.56
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 223,731 7.30
Wyoming    
State Lands Comm. 185,757 6.06
Local Government/Other 10,450 .34
Total Public Lands 559,715 18.25
Private Lands 2,507,165 81.75
Surface Water 3,072 .10
Total Area 3,066,880 100

Campbell County Population

46,133 (2010 U.S. Census)
46,618 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Gillette (county seat) 29,087
Wright 1,807

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 688
Forestry, Fishing & Related (D)
Mining 8,898
Construction 4,602
Utilities 264
Manufacturing 643
Wholesale Trade 1,746
Retail Trade 2,821
Transportation & Warehousing 1,441
Information 244
Educational Services (D)
Health Care & Social Assistance 1,166
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 165
Accommodations & Food Service 2,059
Management of Companies 252
Finance & Insurance 615
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 664
Professional, Scientific & Technical 1,082
Administration & Waste Services 995
Other Services except Public Admin. 1,462
Fed, state, local gov't 4,349
Total 34,302

D=not disclosed to avoid disclosure of confidential information, but estimates included in totals.
L=less than 10 jobs, but estimates included in totals.

Sources: Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis Equality State Almanac, County Profiles, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/almanac/Page135_183.pdf ; Wyoming DEA summary of decennial U. S. Census data, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/demog_data/cntycity_hist.htm; Wyoming DEA Employment, Income, and Gross Domestic Product Report, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/i&e/Inc_Emp_Report09.pdf; 2010 Census Summary Report for Wyoming, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/
demog_data/pop2010/2010_Census_Summary.pdf
; 2011 county population estimates, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/pop/CO-11est.pdf.

About the Author

Rebecca Hein is the author of more than 80 published articles, mostly about cello playing and its relation to a variety of subjects from marriage to taxes. Her book, A Case of Brilliance, is a memoir about the discovery that her two children are profoundly gifted. She is the former principal cellist of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, and wrote arts columns for the Casper Star-Tribune from 2000-2006. She blogs about writing at musicofwriting.wordpress.com and about the special needs of gifted children at caseofbrilliance.wordpress.com.

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