Carbon County History

Carbon County, Wyo., in the south-central part of the state stretches north about 95 miles from the southern border and roughly 83 miles east to west. In those 7,896 square miles, the county contains rich natural resources, mountains, scenic vistas and rivers and streams. Indians tribes such as the Ute, Shoshone, Crow, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota regularly crossed what is now Carbon County. Trappers working in the Sierra Madres in the early 1830s held a rendezvous at the base of the mountains in the upper North Platte River Valley. This meeting place became known as the Grand Encampment.

bridge-tindersBy the 1860s emigrants headed west through the area, often traveling by stagecoach or wagon on the Overland Trail and because of Indian attacks several Forts were built including Fort Halleck built at the base of Elk Mountain in 1862. It was later closed in 1866. In 1867, General John A. Rawlins, chief of staff of the U.S. Army and a civil engineer, surveyed land with Grenville Dodge, chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. Rawlins Spring, later known as Rawlins, was named for General Rawlins and selected as a division point for the railroad. Fort Fred Steele was established in June 1868 to protect the advancing transcontinental railroad where it crossed the North Platte River.

Towns sprang up as the tracks moved west. Among them was Carbon, Wyoming’s first coal town founded in 1868 and named for the rich reserves mined there. From the 1860s to 1880’s seven nearby coal mines fed the locomotives. Carbon, located about 9 miles south east of present-day Hanna lasted until 1902. Hanna, founded in 1889 was also known for coal production and by 1892 production from the mines made Carbon County the second highest coal-producing county in Wyoming. Some coal production still occurs around Hanna.

On Dec. 16th, 1868 Carbon County, earning its name from coal, became one of the original five counties of Wyoming Territory. Carbon stretched north across the entire territory, from Colorado to the Montana line. In succeeding decades, Sheridan, Johnson and Natrona Counties were carved out of Carbon County’s original extent.

deerIn 1873 mountain man Jim Baker built the first permanent log structure in Wyoming in the Little Snake River Valley on the Wyoming-Colorado border, The cabin still stands today on the grounds of the Little Snake River Museum, in Savery, Wyo. Early day Indians enjoyed the hot springs rising in and along the North Platte River along with the plentiful hunting opportunities near present day Saratoga and declared that area neutral ground.

Encampment, Wyo was known for the large copper deposits found there and had the world’s largest ore-bearing aerial tramway- 16 1/2 miles long.

Hunting was prized in the 1870s and sportsmen came as far away as England and Scotland to pursue elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bear and buffalo. Inventor Thomas Edison visited the area on a hunting and fishing trip in 1878 and is often but incorrectly credited with having conceived the idea for the incandescent light bulb.

In the 1880’s sheep and cattle ranches sprang up throughout the county. A blacksmith in Rawlins, James Candlish, is credited with making the first sheep wagon. At one time, Carbon county was home to 2 million sheep.

In 1886, the Territorial Legislature appropriated $75,000 for the building of a state penitentiary in Rawlins. The cornerstone was laid in 1888 but construction did not start until later and begun housing prisoners in 1901. The pen has been a mainstay of the town of Rawlins economy since,with the original building now a musuem.

Writer Owen Wister, who had visited the area often, published the book “The Virginian,” considered the first western novel in 1902 and set parts of the book in the town of Medicine Bow. Train robbers Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch visited Baggs and vicinity often during the 1890s and early 1900s.

Natural and mineral resources continue to be important economic factors in Carbon County. The Sinclair Oil Refinery, built in what is now Sinclair in the early 1920s, is still one of the counties largest employers. Uranium was discovered in the county in the 1950s.Carbon County was listed as one of the counties in the nation where the most natural gas wells were drilled from 1980 to 2008, around 2,530 wells. Besides coal, oil and gas, wind-power commercial production has occured throughout the county. The Power Company of Wyoming plans to begin construction in late 2016 of the nation’s largest wind farm, a 2,000 to 3,000 megawatt farm with 1,000 turbines.