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.
On September 2, 1885, long-simmering tensions between white and Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyo. boiled over into a massacre in which whites murdered 28 Chinese, wounded 15 more, and looted and burned all 79 shacks and houses in Rock Springs’ Chinatown. Though the remaining Chinese miners wanted desperately to leave Wyoming, the Union Pacific Railroad, which owned the mines, refused to grant them railroad passes or the back pay owed them. The Chinese finally had no choice but to return to work, which kept wages low and the coal flowing from the mines.
Accidents and disasters have plagued Wyoming coal mines since territorial times. In 1886, legislators created the office of the state mine inspector to help improve safety. Still, explosions and cave-ins killed hundreds of miners in the following decades. The worst accidents happened in Hanna in 1903 and near Kemmerer in 1923. Lawmakers continued to increase safety measures and eventually expanded the duties of the state mine inspector. Modern strip mining is far safer.
Hanna, Wyo., best known for its coal mines, was founded in 1889 by the Union Pacific Coal Co. as a company town. It has survived mining disasters and a long cycle of booms and busts. The last mines around Hanna closed in the mid-2000s. The town survives today as a bedroom community, with hopes of future mineral development.
The JC Penney Company, long among the world’s largest department store chains, traces its roots to a one-room shop in a small Wyoming coal-mining town at the turn of the last century. Penney’s career in Wyoming lasted just a decade, but in 1902, Wyoming provided exactly what young Penney needed to found a chain that has survived, as of 2011, for 109 years.