Collections - Mining

History of coal mining in Wyoming.  To  see a summary of the history of coal mining in Wyoming, visit the "Wyoming Tales and Trails" website.

Historic American Engineering Record, Sublet Mine No. 6.
By Michael Cassity, High Country Historians, 1993, National Park Service.

Sublet Mine No. 6 was representative of coal mines in southwest Wyoming in the early years of the twentieth century in its construction and technology,  in its economic performance, and in the ethnic composition of its work force.  It was but one of a cluster of coal mines in the area surrounding modern Kemmerer.  Most of the mines and the camps and towns that served them have faded and their names are only to be found in local memories and old, obscure documents.  They included Susie, Gomer, Frontier, Elkol, Cumberland, Conroy, Blazon, Diamondville, Oakley and others.  The boom passed for most of these mines when depression hit in the twenties and thirties and even more when the technology of mining shifted from those of underground mines to open pit mining.  Well after production ceased in those mines and the portals and hoists and tipples began their process of decay, their presence receded more and more into obsolescence.  Their remains now constitute odd reminders of a day more removed by social change than the years would hint but also as important artifacts from which a closer understanding of the forces shaping the history of this region, and indeed of the state can be gathered.

Coal mining in southwestern Wyoming came early in the relative terms of the development of the territory.  With the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868 and 1869, the railroad company vigorously sought local supplies of fuel.  White trappers, explorers, and emigrants for some time previous to this had observed and sometimes used coal deposits but the systematic production of the resource for more than local consumption was not possible until transportation and markets afforded different circumstances.  The railroad provided that opportunity.  Immediately a series of mines in the Rock Springs area opened, with their construction and operation in the hands of the Union Pacific Coal Company.  While exploitation of the coal deposits along the railroad increased in the remaining third of the nineteenth century, and while virtually every part of the state could boast at least some coal mining, that activity was most intense in the area adjacent to the railroad.

North of the railroad in the southwest corner of Wyoming, the coal in the Hams Fork River area had been noted as early as 1842 by John C. Fremont, but it was not being mined in a systematic manner.  Small mines, called "wagon mines", were operated intermittently by individuals for local consumption and, as historian Dudley Gardner concluded, "were a common sight wherever coal was available".  Because of the minimal capital investment, these wagon mines sometimes endured well into the twentieth century, but the large corporations quickly overshadowed them and introduced very much different mining technology for massive extraction of the coal.

In 1897, after several years of planning and negotiation, veteran mine operator Patrick J. Quealy formed an economic arrangement with Pennsylvania financier Mahlon S. Kemmerer that led to the development of the Kemmerer mines.  The Kemmerer Coal Company began in 1897 with the development of the Frontier mine and the company town of Frontier just north of Kemmerer, a town where individuals could own real property.  The extension of the Oregon Short Line Railroad to Frontier at the beginning of the mine's production also meant an outlet for the coal extracted.  The Kemmerer Coal Company, one of three major companies in the vicinity (the others being the Union Pacific Coal Company and the Diamond Coal and Coke Company) easily established its substantial operations and began to expand from its base No. 1 mine at Frontier.  In 1901 it had opened its No. 3 mine also at Frontier.  But it particularly began to view the coal beds to the north in Willow Creek valley.  And there in 1908 the No. 4 Mine (Susie) began to operate, and No. 5 (Sublet) opened also in 1908.  Demand for coal seemed to be increasing inexorably.  Clearly the Kemmerer Coal Company had launched its expansion in a period of boom for the coal industry.  That boom would last until Worlds War I, but in the early 1920s, a downward movement set in.