Lessons From A Former Coal Capital

Jan 31, 2020

The coal capital of the U.S. is taking a harder look at diversifying its economy. The city of Gillette and Campbell County are being forced to adjust to a world with less demand for its resource. But a former coal capital could help provide wisdom.

In the early 20th century, Rock Springs was a critical provider of coal for the railroad company Union Pacific. The power-producing resource brought the town's population from 40 people to over 10,000.

"Everybody was working. The mines were running full blast," said Jay Lyon, who grew up there during the good times.

Downtown Rock Springs with the famous coal sign in the 1930s.
Credit Courtesy the Sweetwater County Historical Museum

He said most of the locals were immigrants from all over the world who came there for the job. Lyon remembers a bustling community, big celebratory wine festivals and folks cooking out on their lawns. But by the 1950s, Union Pacific began to switch from coal to diesel.

"They were using less and less coal. And so [coal workers] were only working sometimes one day a week, sometimes three days a week," said Lyon. "It's hard to get by on that amount of money."

Soon enough, the mines closed and employment dropped off. Lyon said it was brutal for a lot of families who had nowhere else to go. The federal government had to provide food. He remembers kids in his class going hungry.

"There was an expression then, 'You could shoot a cannon down Broadway or the Main Street in Rock Springs and not hit anybody,'" he said.

And soon, Sweetwater County was littered with ghost towns.

Mark Haggerty with the research group Headwaters Economics said one-industry towns are inherently vulnerable.

"The real effort that needs to take place is trying to diversify and reach out and branch out into new sectors, into new ideas that will sustain the community going forward," he said.

Diversification is far from a new concept in Wyoming, but it's easier said than done. Haggerty explained it's especially tough in Wyoming, where the state relies on taxes derived from minerals like coal.

He said most of the successful rural transitions happen when big towns become more like a small city: they have the major assets that attract people to the community and are close to metropolitan areas or recreational opportunities.

"For those places that don't have those other assets - an airport, a university or a national park - we really don't have a lot of lessons for them because there have not been a lot of successful transitions," said Haggerty.

Rock Springs actually did avoid becoming a ghost-town, though not through diversification in the traditional sense. Many coal miners went on to work in trona, the gritty component of toothpaste and baking soda, which happened to be in the region. Oil and gas then became very profitable, too, which all led to a huge growth in population, development of a college, restaurants, and other businesses.

"If we wouldn't have been located in an area that was blessed with such a vast amount of marketable resources, it would be a different story for sure," said Tim Kaumo, the current mayor of Rock Springs.

Rusty Bell
Credit Campbell County Website

He said good paying jobs did a lot for the community. But it hasn't escaped them from the boom-bust economy quite yet. Kaumo said the town is looking into diversification itself because of the early closure of its coal plant.

That takes us to Gillette. Like Rock Springs once did, the area is pushing hard to figure out a path forward while continuing to lean on natural resources like coal and natural gas. Employment in coal mining has dropped by a fifth since 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Next year, coal production is expected to drop to 25 percent of 2018 levels.

Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said while it's necessary to diversify the local economy, it's not easy.

"Because we didn't start this, or an industry didn't start this, honestly, 20 to 25 years ago, thinking about, 'Hey, what else can we do with this besides just ship it out of here and burn it?'"

Bell said there are many projects in the works to look into new ways to use that coal. That ideally will create an innovation hub that will attract new businesses and be part of the solution.

But in the meantime, Bell said Wyoming needs to take a look at reforming its tax structure because the reliance on fossil fuels makes it hard for towns like Gillette or Rock Springs to just diversify.

"I think it's pressing because Wyoming's tax structure is set up that if we're not taking minerals out of the ground, Wyoming state tax structure fails," Bell said

Like the coal capital before it though that faced a tough road and thrived, Bell said he's confident Gillette can do the same.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.