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.
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.
After the Burlington Railroad reached Sheridan, Wyo. in 1892, coal camps—company towns for miners and their families—were established next to a series of mines north of the town. The mines served local and regional markets as well as the railroad. By 1910, a total of around 10,000 people lived in these camps—Dietz, Kooi, Monarch, Acme and Carneyville, later renamed Kleenburn—more than lived in Sheridan. A busy electric railway ran the 15 miles from town to the camps and back. Most of the miners were immigrants, more than half of them Polish, and their descendants still play vital roles in Sheridan County today.
Coal, railroads and oil have helped make Campbell County, Wyo., the second wealthiest county in the state, and the county’s coal mines are the largest in the world. Though coal production has begun to fall slightly in recent years, mining continues to be the main engine of the Campbell County economy. The county’s history is rich in Paleo-Indian and bison-bone discoveries as well.
The Powder River Basin sports a colorful history. Bones of bison slaughtered by people, found south of Sundance, Wyo., date back 6,000 years, and northeast Wyoming remained a favorite hunting ground for American Indians into the late 19th century. At that time the Powder River Basin was the scene of violent conflicts between the Indians and U.S. military men. Abundant grass made this region a favored spot for cattle and sheep ranchers. Under the grass is coal—so much of it that about 40 percent of the coal mined in the U.S., comes from the Powder River Basin.