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Business & Industry

The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920: The law that changed Wyoming's economic destiny

The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 established the modern system by which oil and coal companies may lease federal land. This system has proven enormously beneficial to Wyoming’s state coffers since it was first enacted nearly 100 years ago. How this all came about is a story of early oil producers looking for a way around a presidential order and a highly contentious Supreme Court case, all with lucrative results for the state of Wyoming—and a stabilizing result for the industry.

The Wyoming Cattle Boom, 1868-1886

Grass was free and profits enormous in the cattle business in Wyoming Territory — for a while. The business dates to the 1850s, but the boom came after the Union Pacific Railroad connected Wyoming ranges to eastern markets. For a time it seemed as if every investor got rich. Finally, a weakening market and the overstocked range could not withstand two years of drought followed by a terrible winter. The big boom busted, following an economic pattern repeated many times since in an economy still based heavily on natural resources.

The Wagon Wheel Project

A late-1960s Atomic Energy Commission plan to extract Wyoming natural gas with five underground nuclear explosions won strong initial support from the oil and gas industry and the federal government. Finally, however, the idea stalled, thanks to the emergence of more information on possible dangers, to Washington politics, and especially to intense local opposition in Sublette County, Wyo., where the devices were slated to be detonated.

The Jonah Field and Pinedale Anticline: A natural-gas success story

Natural gas has been flowing from the Jonah Field and Pinedale Anticline in western Wyoming since the early 1990s, bringing with it substantial profits, tax revenues, prosperity, social change, air pollution, and declines in local mule-deer populations. The story goes to the heart of Wyoming’s oil and gas culture, and raises important questions about energy production’s long-term costs and benefits.

The Most Dangerous Occupation: The Quest for Safety in Wyoming's Coal 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.

The Coal Business in Wyoming

In 1843, explorer John C. Frémont reported coal in what’s now southwest Wyoming. In the 1860s, the route of the new transcontinental railroad across Wyoming was chosen partly to access abundant coal deposits for fuel for the locomotives. Coal mining boomed, labor strife increased and Wyoming’s coal industry thrived despite worker strikes and a number of horrific mine accidents. Today, the state produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal, most of it from huge strip mines in the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming, for rail shipment to electric power plants in 34 states.

The Coal Camps of Sheridan County

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.

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Encyclopedia | Rural electrification brought welcome changes to farms and ranches throughout Wyoming in the 1930s and 1940s, despite numerous early challenges—including opposition from existing utilities— that threatened to thwart the effort.
Encyclopedia | Natrona County’s Salt Creek Field is best known of Wyoming’s early oil fields, but five others—two in Park County and one each in Hot Springs, Niobrara and Converse counties—played important roles in the state’s 20th century transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy.
Oral Histories | Harold Van Buskirk, born in 1897, worked in a grocery store in his youth in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin.
Encyclopedia | Since it first entered the state in 1890, the Burlington Railroad has helped connect Wyoming with the world. Burlington officials were drawn here by Wyoming’s marketable natural resources and by its geography: Wyoming offered the best routes for transcontinental lines from the Midwest and South to the Pacific Northwest.
Encyclopedia | The vivid, charismatic J. B. Okie raised sheep near Badwater Creek at the turn of the last century, and was so successful he was called “Sheep King.” A businessman with great vision, he soon owned half a dozen stores in small towns in central Wyoming, and eventually an equal number in Mexico. Lost Cabin, Wyo., named for the legendary Lost Cabin Mine, was his base. Okie built an opulent mansion there, a big bunkhouse for employees, bungalows for guests, an office building, a roller rink, a golf course and an aviary full of birds of paradise (left), cockatoos and macaws.
Encyclopedia | Rock Springs, Wyo. traces its origins to a coal mine established there in 1868 to serve the still-building Union Pacific Railroad. Ever since, the town has been enriched by the people who came from around the world to live and work there—in coal mines, on the railroad and, in recent decades, in trona mines to the west and the oil and natural-gas fields to the north. Rock Springs boasted 56 nationalities by the 1920s. Its political and economic fortunes have closely followed all these industries’ cycles of boom and bust.
Encyclopedia | Early Wyoming was seen as a hardscrabble place. But after 1900, dude ranches showed off Wyoming’s mountain scenery, fishing, hunting and hospitality, and thanks to the elite guests’ taste-making powers, Wyoming and the West became associated less with cold wind and distance and more with romantic glories.
Encyclopedia | Grass was free and profits enormous in the cattle business in Wyoming Territory — for a while. The business dates to the 1850s, but the boom came after the Union Pacific Railroad connected Wyoming ranges to eastern markets. For a time it seemed as if every investor got rich. Finally, a weakening market and the overstocked range could not withstand two years of drought followed by a terrible winter. The big boom busted, following an economic pattern repeated many times since in an economy still based heavily on natural resources.

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