Campbell County, Wyoming

By 1980 the proliferation of subdivisions and trailer courts just outside the Gillette city limits forced the department of Planning and Development to create a study zone, the Gillette Planning Area. According to Rumblings in Razor City, an oral history of Gillette compiled by Steve Gardiner, an additional 5,743 people were by 1980 living in the planning area, nearly half the population of the incorporated city. The total of citizens in Gillette plus the study zone was 17,877.

campbell6.jpgIn the early 1980s, the average age in Gillette was approximately 28. Brought on by the influx of young adults to fill jobs in coal mining and oil drilling, this change pervaded many and diverse sectors. Mike Enzi, now a U.S. Senator, was 30 when he was elected Mayor of Gillette in 1974. He served until 1982. At the time of Enzi's election, the city attorney was 24. Kevin Doll, Managing Editor of the Gillette News-Record, was 29.

Phil Roberts, in his New History of Wyoming, Chapter 19, "Boom and Bust Again: Wyoming in the 1970s," describes boom-town conditions in much of the state that must have characterized Gillette as well. "Older residents, living off of Social Security or other fixed income, watched property prices spiral upward…with…rising assessments… Small business operators, accustomed to hire employees at the minimum wage, suddenly faced competition for laborers from the much better paying mines. … Town councils were overwhelmed with demands for water and sewer taps for housing developments."

In his 1974 paper, "Social Consequences of Boom Growth in Wyoming," University of Wyoming Sociologist ElDean V. Kohrs coined the term “Gillette syndrome," to refer to the myriad pressures felt by so many residents—and use of the term spread widely.

The stresses, as reported by Kohrs, included a higher rate of school drop-outs, more people on probation, and more arrests than in more heavily populated counties. For example, in 1970 there were 1,025 arrests in Campbell County (population 12,957), as compared with 674 in Sweetwater County (population 18,391) and 616 in Sheridan County (population 17,852).

Along with the stress on infrastructure, social institutions and individuals in Campbell County, however, came more opportunities than in many other parts of the state. Opportunities, as we have seen with Mike Enzi and other young people in Gillette, are not limited to the public sector. Carol Ullrich, a heavy-equipment operator, noted in her Rumblings From Razor City interview, "I can keep my job probably as long as I will want to work…If I had not come to Gillette, I would never have bought my apartments or this house."

Ironically, some students dropped out of school in boom times to take jobs in the mines at $30 to $50 per hour. Teachers sometimes followed suit or became land developers because their salaries did not grow at the boom-town rate of rents, grocery prices or property valuations. Phil Roberts best summed up these effects of energy development: "Many Wyomingites became prosperous during [boom] years, but there were contradictions of 'prosperity.'"

Thus, the economy and development of Gillette and its environs have been profoundly affected by energy production resulting from coal mining and oil drilling. Thirteen of the top 20 coal producers in Wyoming in 2011 operated in Campbell County, and these 13 produced a combined total of more than 426 million tons and employed 6,098 workers.

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Wright and the Black Thunder Mine

Wright, Wyo., in southern Campbell County, is a company town created in the 1970s to deal with boom-time pressures resulting from coal development. The growth and planning of Wright was more orderly than in Gillette during its boom years, probably because issues of city planning, including housing, zoning, water and sewer, and recreation were extensively studied by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) before the opening of the Black Thunder Coal Mine and the resulting influx of workers.

The town’s name dates further back than the opening of the Black Thunder Mine. From approximately 1887-1953, in southern Campbell County, a total of 12 small post offices served the area. Usually located at a homestead or some other private residence, these post offices were open for as short a time as 10 months or as long as 33 years. The first Wright post office, recognized in April 1906, predated Campbell County in what was then Weston County. This office was located 45 miles southwest of Gillette at the home of Richard A. Wright, who served as the first postmaster. The Wright Post Office continued in two other locations until closing in 1942.

In 1976, Atlantic Richfield began to create the town of Wright for its employees, near Reno Junction at the intersection of Wyoming Highways 387 and 59. Before 1976, there were only two buildings at the junction: the Three-Way Stretch gas station and the Long Branch Saloon.

ARCO's first housing effort for its construction workers at the Black Thunder Mine was the Cottonwood Mobile Home Park with 108 units. By fall of the same year, there were 203 more units, plus an elementary school housed in a portable classroom.

campbell7.jpgFrom the beginning, and despite starting with mobile homes, ARCO officials displayed a vision beyond the early 20th-century, company-town model of company-store scrip and rows of identical houses for workers. This improvement was part of a larger social trend, explained by historian Robert W. Righter in The Making of a Town: Wright, Wyoming.

Near the middle of the 20th century, companies such as Richfield Oil, operating in the Cuyama Valley of California; the American Potash and Chemical Corporation in Trona, Calif.; and the Kennecott Copper Corporation in the southwestern U.S. improved existing company towns, primarily by building subdivisions, including water and sewer, and garbage removal. Indices such as employee turnover, accident rates and labor grievances improved.

Thus, when ARCO began to evaluate the feasibility of building an entire town, company officials had reason to believe this was a good investment. In 1975, consultants and developers were hired to study the problems inherent in providing housing and community services such as schools and medical care. The planning team also considered the addition of parks and a community center. The final proposal for housing included 1,381 houses and 500 mobile homes, at an estimated cost to ARCO of more than $14 million.

Yet ARCO's housing goals proved difficult to realize due to the inevitable delays of planning, surveying, permitting, construction and financing. By the early 1980s, the Cottonwood Mobile Home Park had grown to approximately 311 units, with a 75-space addition in progress. By Jan. 1982, just 150 houses had been built, with town houses and apartment buildings under construction or in place.

Progress in general community services was more noticeable. ARCO subsidized the Latigo Hills Shopping Mall, completed in October 1978. Unlike many malls in larger cities, Latigo Hills had a small medical clinic, a branch of the Campbell County Public Library, the Wright Post Office, and a 200-seat auditorium. Also in 1978, construction began on the Wright Community Recreation Center. This structure included meeting rooms, spaces for exercise classes and games and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Later, Kerr-McGee assumed half the financial interest in the recreation center, that half amounting to $212,242. This was a gesture of sheer public relations, since Kerr-McGee had no financial interest in the Black Thunder Mine.

Wright was incorporated in 1985, making it Campbell County's second incorporated town. The population was then approximately 1,100. Wright is now served by its own newspaper, the High Plains Sentinel, and an outreach center for the Northern Wyoming Community College District is located in City Hall.

On June 1, 1998, the Black Thunder Mine was acquired by Arch Western Resources, LLC, as part of a larger purchase of ARCO's U.S. coal operations. In 2010, Black Thunder produced 116.2 million tons of coal, making it the top producer in the U.S.

The Future of Coal in the Powder River Basin

Currently for Campbell County, the 2013 Wyoming Business Directory lists nine different coal mining companies, mostly in Gillette. Among these are Alpha Coal West, Arch Coal Inc., Cloud Peak Energy, Foundation Coal West and Powder River Coal. Eighteen oil and gas producers are listed, including two in Rozet and one in Recluse. Some of the Gillette producers are Big Basin Petroleum, Callaway Oil and Gas, Marathon Oil and Skinner Oil and Gas.

And coal mining in the area may be on the wane. The Casper Star-Tribune, in a Jan. 28, 2013 article, "Wyoming coal production, jobs cut in 2012," reported that three percent of all Wyoming coal workers lost their jobs in 2012, a result of an eight percent decline in production. Reporter Adam Voge noted that "the vast majority of the job cuts came from mines in the Powder River Basin."

The Wyodak Mine cut more than 40 percent of its work force, from 116 in 2011 to 67 in fourth quarter 2012. A Jan. 25, 2013 Star-Tribune editorial noted that natural gas, cheaper than coal, is undercutting U.S. markets for coal, and that access to international markets, especially in Asia, is currently hobbled by the limited capacity of west coast ports and "political opposition and bureaucratic red tape."

Despite these downturns, in 2012 Campbell County was the richest county in Wyo., according to the Department of Revenue assessed valuations, at $5.8 billion; more than a billion ahead of Sublette County at $4.4 billion. Thus energy development, dominating this coal-and-oil rich area for nearly three quarters of a century, has ensured a strong economy for Campbell County.

Resources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

  • Book of Lists 13”. Wyoming Business Report, 6 (Aug. 16-13, 2012), 33.
  • Campbell County Historical Society. Campbell County: The Treasured Years. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth Publishing Co., 1991, 5, 16.
  • Campbell County Rockpile Museum. Accessed Jan. 7, 2013, at http://www.ccgov.net/departments/museum/.
  • ________________________________________. “Campbell County History.” Accessed Jan. 7, 2013, at
  • http://www.ccgov.net/departments/museum/history/campbell_county_history/index.html.
  • ________________________________________. “Gillette History.” Accessed Jan. 7, 2013, at
  • http://www.ccgov.net/departments/museum/history/gillette_history/index.html
  • Center for Media and Democracy. “Sulfur Dioxide and Coal.” Sourcewatch.org, accessed Feb. 14, 2013 at http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Sulfur_dioxide_and_coal.
  • "Coal decline hits fuel's Western stronghold." Editorial, Casper Star-Tribune, Jan. 25, 2013, accessed Jan. 30, 2013 at http://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/coal-decline-hits-fuel-s-western-stronghold/article_1c023fb9-8af2-5150-88a5-402ae3eba9f5.html.
  • Donahue, James, ed. Wyoming Blue Book: Guide to the County Archives of Wyoming. Vol. 5, Part 1, Centennial Edition. Cheyenne, Wyo.: Wyoming State Archives, Department of Commerce, 1991, 132-135.
  • Gardiner, Steve. Rumblings From Razor City: The Oral History of Gillette, Wyoming, An Energy Boom Town. Self-published, 1985, 3-9, 33-51, 80-81.
  • Henning, Robert. Personal email to the author, Feb. 6, 2013.
  • Johnson, Emily, Financial/Statistical Technician, Wyoming Department of Administration and Information, Economic Analysis Division. Personal email to the author, Feb. 12, 2013.
  • Kelley, Mary. Images of America: Gillette. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2010, 8, 61, 68.
  • Kohrs, ElDean V. "Social Consequences of Boom Growth in Wyoming." Paper presented at the Rocky Mountain Association of the Advancement of Science meeting, April 24-26, 1974; Laramie, Wyo. Accessed Jan. 30, 2013 at http://www.sublettewyo.com/archives/42/Social_Consequences_of_Boom_Growth_In_Wyoming_-_Kohrs[1].pdf.
  • Kornfeld, Marcel, George C. Frison and Mary Lou Larson. Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers of the High Plains and Rockies. 3rd. ed. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2010, 78, 260.
  • Righter, Robert W. The Making of a Town: Wright, Wyoming. Boulder, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, Inc., 1985, 62-63, 58-59, 86, 90.
  • Roberts, Phil. A New History of Wyoming. Chapter 19, Boom and Bust Again: Wyoming in the 1970s. Accessed Jan. 30, 2013 at http://uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/robertshistory/New_History_of_Wyoming_chapter_19.htm.
  • Voge, Adam. "Wyoming coal production, jobs cut in 2012." Casper Star-Tribune, Jan. 28, 2013, accessed Jan. 30, 2013 at http://trib.com/business/energy/wyoming-coal-production-jobs-cut-in/article_85eedeb6-ed92-594b-95f8-756299244b88.html.
  • Wright Centennial Museum. From Belle Fourche to Antelope: History of Southern Campbell County. Gillette, Wyo.: Action Printing, 1991, 176, 184-185.
  • Wyodak Resources. “History of the Mine,” accessed Feb. 17, 2013 at http://www.wyodak.com/history.html.
  • Wyoming 2013 Business Directory. Papillion, Neb.: Reference USA, 2012, 182, 242-43.
  • Wyoming Environmental Institute. Social Impact Analysis of Campbell County, Wyoming, Audie L. Blevins, Jr., and James G. Thompson. Laramie, Wyo.: Atlantic Richfield Company, 1974, 8-9.

Illustrations

All but two of the photos are from the collections of the Campbell County Rockpile Museum in Gillette, and used with permission and thanks.

The photo of Wright is from city-data.com. Used with thanks.

The aerial photo of the Black Thunder Mine is from Ecoflight. Used with thanks.

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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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