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Published January 26, 2024
Anthropology professors uncover Wyoming’s first coal mining town.
By Micaela Myers
What if you could open a time capsule left by Wyoming’s first coal miners? In a way, that’s exactly what University of Wyoming Department of Anthropology Associate Professors Alexandra Kelly and Jason Toohey are doing in Carbon, Wyoming’s first coal mining town, which was established in 1868 near Medicine Bow.
“Carbon had seven mines that were in operation throughout its occupation,” Kelly says. “There were thousands of people living there by 1890. Then the coal fields started to dry out.”
By the turn of the century, the railroad had been rerouted to Hanna. Aside from the cemetery, which continued to be in use, Carbon became a ghost town.
“We’re really interested in linking this site-specific history with the state at large and showcasing how these historical artifacts and landscapes hold histories that Wyoming communities have been so profoundly shaped by,” Kelly says. “Archaeology is a really powerful way to not only teach history but also engage wider communities with their histories.”
Thus far, they’ve completed two seasons of work. The first involved mapping the site using Sanborn insurance maps made as a result of a fire in 1890 as a base. The city included a number of buildings, neighborhoods and even crude dug-out houses that single or poor minors used for shelter at the time.
“We’ve found a ton of fascinating artifacts so far,” Kelly says. “We plan to continue excavations in future years.”
Excavated items show how residents lived and what they consumed, such as mineral water from Hungary, sardine tins from Finland, shells from shellfish shipped on ice, a pocket watch complete with a dial marking days of the week, and children’s slate boards and marbles. Students in Kelly’s historical archeology class pick an object and complete historical biographies.
However, it’s the cemetery that has proved most meaningful to Wyoming residents.
“One of the coolest aspects has been working with the Carbon Cemetery Association and local history enthusiasts and descendants to think about how to better preserve the coal mining heritage of the site,” Kelly says.
Every Memorial Day, folks gather to hold a ceremony commemorating the veterans buried there as well as the miners who died in mining disasters. Kelly and her colleagues hope to garner funding to create heritage infrastructure at the cemetery so that visitors can learn more.
Kelly enjoys this community-engaged research and appreciates seeing more of these projects popping up around the state.