So You Want to Mine Coal: Gebo, Wyoming
Gebo’s graveyard reveals the miners’ struggle.
He was exploited, worked long dangerous hours underground; meager pay fed his family; social security didn’t exist; labor laws were practically non-existent and a canary provided life insurance.
Think of him when modern office politics dog you. Yes, there are severe Maalox moments today. But on the whole these pale in comparison to an early 20th-century coal miner’s struggles.
So, console yourself. Life was worse for the working Joe back then. And compared to that we’re wimps.
Imagine toiling 12 or more hours daily for 90 cents. Alone, you hack nine tons of coal to collect a check based on product mined, not hours worked. Now, do the math 10 cents per ton, with each ton equivalent to three cans of soup at the company store.
1940s Gebo mine safety team with caged canary. Courtesy of Hot Springs County Historical Museum.
That’s according to retired coal miner John Wild, who now volunteers at Wyoming’s Hot Springs County Historical Museum, located near the once thriving but now abandoned turn-of-the-century coal town of Gebo.
“Miners back then had it rough,” he says with respect. “People just don’t work like that anymore.”
Wild recalls such stories from old timers he knew while working underground in Hanna, Wyoming, about 200 miles from where he lives now in Thermopolis. And as we chatted one October weekend in a pleasant sunlit room, the old ways of dark tunnels came to life.
“Working in the 1970s and 1980s we had it pretty good,” he recalls. “There was 100% medical and dental with good pay. But it wasn’t always like that. In the 1920s it was 90 cents a ton and Hanna’s company store wouldn’t sell you anything if you owed them even a little money.”
Luckily, John entered the labor force after those days.
Mine administrator’s dwelling on Gebo’s Silk Stocking Row.
Nevertheless, memories of harder times surround him, and as the museum’s Saturday greeter he can show you the pictures: of early Gebo, its drafty tar paper homes, smoky chimneys, monstrous machinery and, above it all, cozy well-constructed administrator’s dwellings high on Silk Stocking Row.
Then of course there are the canaries.
These bright yellow birds were an early coal miner’s life insurance policy. Carried below ground in cages, the animals’ highly sensitive metabolism detected methane and carbon monoxide gas traces that signaled potential explosions, poisoned air or both.
The museum has a good 1940s image of their use in Gebo, and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also provides an excellent description.
On their web site MSHA says “Canaries were preferred over mice to alert coal miners to the presence of carbon monoxide underground…. For instance, when consumed by the effects of carbon monoxide, a canary would sway noticeably on his perch before falling.”
Thus, a canary’s life in the Old West. Granted, it’s a little gruesome, but before electronic environmental sniffers and adequate workers’ compensation laws, a necessity.
Such was daily existence at early mining camps. And while exploring Gebo’s town site after talking with John, I began to realize how rough it all was, particularly while viewing the graveyard.
What may be a poor miner’s dugout.
Located about half a mile from Silk Stocking Row’s gaunt ruins, the yard has approximately 40 markers. Most represent children; many of whom died the day of their birth.
As for the Row itself, it’s more than worthwhile if your goal is a classic ghost town. Eight stone buildings line a slightly curved street. The look is pure Butch Cassidy, who frequented Thermopolis a few miles south.
Other ruins also abound, and as mentioned, the Row overlooks most of them so they’re easy to spot. Just follow Silk Stocking Ridge southeast or northwest, and you’ll find them.
Some of these are mine superstructure remains, but more mysterious are holes in the ridge wall, which may be dugouts or crude shelters cut by lower economic class colliers. Many sit close to coal tailings and trash heaps that probably arose with the shelters and town in 1906.
From these remains you get a good sense of Gebo life. But unfortunately most buildings that could tell the town’s lighter side are gone. Recreational facilities such as the pool hall, union hall, high school and tennis courts were torn down when mining ceased in the 1950s.
In the end it was mostly the railroad’s switch from coal to diesel locomotive fuel that killed the community. Today only dust devils on tailings piles transport the black mineral that meant life, no matter how harsh, to a miner.
Last standing house at Crosby. 1950s era hamburger sign in foreground.
To find Gebo or it’s sister community Crosby, which has several coal-related ruins, call up www.topozone.com and punch in “Gebo”, “Hot Springs”, and “WY” in indicated spaces.
Crosby is located in “Coal Draw” just south of Gebo, but not marked on the map. A house, mine superstructure and tailings piles remain.
To locate the museum, click this link for www.thermopolis.com/hsmuseum.html. Related pages contain many Gebo and Crosby images starting at http://w3trib.com/~history/. For the map, type in “Thermopolis” at Topozone.
MSHA’s site is www.msha.gov.
Have fun, but please tread lightly to leave stuff for the rest of us. And take my advice: hike hard all day, then soak in Thermop’s free state-operated bath house. It’s hot spring-generated, and you can’t beat a brew afterward. Enjoy.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.