Billy Owen never saw a railroad until he was eight years old. His mother had told him about railroads. But in his mind as he traveled east by wagon train across Wyoming in the spring of 1868, he had imagined railroad wheels that looked something like wagon wheels. They rolled in grooves. Each groove was made by two rails. That meant it took four rails, as he imagined it, to make a track.
The Tongue River in northern Wyoming must have been as beautiful as it is now when George Bent saw it in 1865, with big, lazy curves under cottonwoods, the grass thickening on its banks and the trees sending out their first green shoots in early May. Nowadays, irrigated hay fields and the tiny towns of Dayton and Ranchester lie along the river. In May of 1865, however, one stretch of it was packed with human beings. That month, there was as large a town on the Tongue as that river has ever seen.
As soon as Europeans came to the coasts of North America, they began trading for furs with the people who already lived here. On the first of June 1834, about 60 men and a caravan of horses and pack mules splashed across the Laramie River. They were headed for rendezvous in the mountains — the big summer fur-trading fair — and they were late.
The earliest people appear to have come to Wyoming from Asia about 11,000 years ago and archaeologists now think there’s a good chance the people were direct ancestors of Shoshone people who live in Wyoming now. In recent years, the mostly white archaeologists have realized it makes sense to ask Shoshone people for help understanding the pictures and carvings their ancestors left on the rocks.
Mary Hughes was just 17 years old in 1908 when the No. 1 Mine exploded twice in one day—and for the second time in five years—in Hanna, Wyo. Her story shows the devastating impact that coal mine accidents had on families like the Hugheses across Wyoming’s mining communities, and reveals her determination to survive disaster.