A day when 169 Wyomingites perished


Railroads and coal. Together they made history in Wyoming. Some of it quite tragic.

         Wyomingites tend to celebrate our cowboy heritage and we use the bucking bronco on our license plates and as the state logo. But the reality is it might be more fitting to use a hard-charging steam locomotive, which caused Wyoming to come into being.

         This year during our 125th anniversary of statehood, it is perhaps fitting to try to decipher the origins of what really built Wyoming.  The Union Pacific Railroad crossing the state was pivotal.  And one of the reasons for its exact route was the proximity to coal mines in places like Carbon (near present day Medicine Bow), Rock Springs and a little burg then called Almy, near present-day Evanston.  Evanston was also known as Bear River City back in the early days.

         When I think of disasters in Wyoming’s history, it is easy to write about the 1949 blizzard or the 1985 Cheyenne flood. But it was early coal mine disasters that really took a toll. When you look up big disasters they always seem to involve mining.

         Tom Rea’s excellent history of the Hanna mine disasters revealed that 169 men were killed in an explosion at Number One Mine on June 30, 1903. Another mine disaster in Kemmerer killed 99 men in 1923.

         These tragic facts are jumping off the pages of old historical documents lately as I have been diving into Wyoming history as part of a 2015 book project. And sometimes things are just as you recalled once reading about them. But others are somewhat different. Here are some thoughts about disasters in Wyoming history:

         • An example is the Johnson County War, which the late T. A. Larson (the state’s most eminent historian) reportedly called “the defining moment of the 19th Century for Wyoming.”

         Yet, just a few people were killed in that event despite the potential of great loss based on a plan to wipe out dozens of farmers and homesteaders.

         • Rob Black reminds me that in 1955, a United Airlines plane crashed on Medicine Bow Peak killing 66.  Worst disaster in airline history in the USA up to that time.  Earlier in 1950, another plane crash killed 21 missionaries when their plane smashed into Mount Moran in Jackson Hole.

• In Evanston, there was a riot where 16 people were killed back in that town’s Hell on Wheels days in November, 1868.  That was the nickname given to the temporary towns set up when the Union Pacific Railroad was being built across Wyoming and the USA.

• In Rock Springs, much attention is given to the Chinese massacre in 1885, when imported Chinese workers were murdered by imported British coal mine workers. The total killed was 28, an embarrassing blot on the history of the state.

• The famous Blackwater fire west of Cody killed 15 firefighters in 1937.

• Farther back in history were the Grattan and Fetterman massacres plus the Willie Handcart Mormon disaster in 1856 around Devils Gate.

• Those two disasters, which seem to be more on top of my mind, included the great blizzard of 1949, which killed 12 people in Wyoming and 28 in surrounding states.  It also killed an estimated 20,000 cattle and 100,000 sheep. Numerous airlifts of bales of hay saved thousands of animals from dying.

• That Cheyenne flood in 1985 killed 12 people and left the capital city in shambles.  Rain poured down at a record rate as a storm cell would not move. It just keep raining, blowing and throwing out lightning strikes. Surely there was some wind (in Cheyenne!) but not enough to blow the storm system out of there before all the damage was done.

Wyoming is indeed fortunate to have amazing historians and historical reference points.

Phil Roberts, Mary Hopkins, Judy K. Wolf, Tom Rea, Rick Ewig, Todd Guenther, Richard Collier, Vince Crolla and others have been very helpful in compiling spectacular material.

We are also tapping into old friends to write stories for the new book like Gene Bryan, Pat Schmidt, Randy Wagner, Ray Hunkins, Rodger McDaniel and others.

Places like the American Heritage Center in Laramie, the state archives and museum in Cheyenne, Western History Center in Casper, Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody plus various local museums have all been amazing repositories of interesting and vital information about our past.

It is unimaginably easy to just get lost going through all this great history. The hours fly by!

Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at http://www.billsniffin.com.  He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written five books. His most recent book is “MY WYOMING 101 Special Places,” is now available for purchase.


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