Sunday, October 18, 2020

Union Pacific: Tie Siding to Hanna Hill


In August 2020, the author spent two weeks in and around Laramie, Wyoming, home of the University of Wyoming, which sits in a broad valley 7,165 feet above sea level.  Only two universities in the United States top Laramie in elevation:

1.  Colorado Mountain College, Leadville, Colorado -- 10,152 feet;

2.  Western State Colorado University, Gunnison, Colorado -- 7,700 feet.

Laramie, in short, is truly a seat of higher education.

The author is not a young man, a fact of which he was repeatedly reminded by the high altitude.  For a 70 year old, hiking and climbing at 7000-plus feet is like walking on the ceiling, possible in imagination but another matter entirely in the real world.

Still, if one plans to explore Wyoming and become acquainted with even a tiny piece of this most majestic state, hiking and climbing are essentials, like novocaine and steady hands to a dentist. 

During those two weeks, both Colorado and California were plagued by the seasonal wildfires that arise every year with as much predictability as the tides and generate an equally predictable hysteria among a press that depends on hysteria for survival.  Also predictable is the smoke that blows east from such fires and deepens the sky to the shade of an inexpensive burgundy.  Some of the following photographs show smoke in the sky.  Others simply look hazy, though the haze was caused by smoke.  But some days were clear, and the observant reader will have no trouble determining which is which.

The sub-title of this article is "Tie Siding to Hanna Hill."  "Tie Siding" sounds like the name of a marginally successful professional golfer.  "Hanna Hill" sounds like the name of a buxom woman who gives weather forecasts on a local television station.  (All weather-women are buxom.  It is a constant of the universe, like the speed of light.)  Neither name will be found on a Union Pacific timetable.

Tie Siding was at one time a small settlement on the road just west of the Union Pacific siding called Hermosa.  I would have used the name "Hermosa," but upon hearing that word, everyone thinks of the twin tunnels just west of the summit at Sherman.  Today, Tie Siding consists of a single building that sells antiques (junk), candy bars and Pepsi (no Coke).

Hanna Hill is my own creation.  Hanna, Wyoming is the seat of Carbon County.  Several large coal mines once operated there, but all are now closed.  Most of the town is constructed on top of what used to be Hanna No. 4.  West of the small village trains in both directions climb a gradient steep enough to slow even Z-trains to about 20 miles per hour.  Your author does not know if the railroad has a name for this location, so he has christened it Hanna Hill.

Tie Siding (Hermosa)

Often in the summer in the American West, thunderstorms will build in the afternoon.  On this day, rain was pouring to the north and east, but to the west the sun partly peaked out from behind high cirrus clouds, enough to illuminate this eastbound manifest at Hermosa, climbing the grade to the Sherman Hill summit.  Sherman Hill itself is off limits these days (October 2020).  If you seek the tunnels or other well-known locations, you will either be on private land or railroad property.  Either way, you can be certain that a sheriff's deputy from Laramie will soon apprehend you.  The above image, however, was taken from Hermosa Road, a public byway that offers several good photographic opportunities.  Every image in this section was taken from Hermosa Road.

An eastbound manifest meets westbound stacks on the eastern approach to Sherman Hill.  Behind the tracks are the Laramie Plains.

An eastbound manifest at Hermosa.  Anyone who has photographed the Union Pacific for more than 20 years laments the deteriorating condition of the railroad's motive power.  Many of the locomotives look as dirty and ill-maintained as the GP35's on the old Rock Island, engines that often caught fire because of oil leaks.  Your author has yet to witness a Union Pacific locomotive bursting into flames, but some of the images in this article will make you understand why flames are a non-trivial concern.

More westbound stacks at Hermosa.

Union Pacific at Hermosa Road.  The elevation of the railroad here is 7875 feet.  The elevation of the photographer is 7910 feet.  Directly in front of the photographer, to the immediate right and left of the gravel, is the roadbed of the original line across Sherman Hill, which was re-routed about 100 years ago.  Erosion and vegetation work so slowly in this dry climate that the old roadbed is still plainly visible.

Potash at Hermosa Road.

The Union Pacific's route across Sherman Hill follows what geologists refer to as the "Gangplank," a narrow strip of erosional detritus left over from the ancestral Rocky Mountains that, unlike everything around it, did not erode away as the modern Rocky Mountains rose along the fault block.  This image shows just how close the mountains are to the Gangplank.  (For a more detailed discussion, and for photographs taken in the areas now off limits at Sherman Hill, see

A westbound movement of U.S. Army equipment.

What all UP motive power should look like.

Sunrise along Hermosa Road.

Track 3

In the 1950's, Union Pacific constructed a third track across Sherman Hill to lessen the grade for westbound traffic.  The original double-track and Track 3 come together for about a half mile at Hermosa, but then Track 3, like the Prodigal Son, wanders off again on its own into the Laramie Plains.  Your author finds most of Track 3 northwest of Hermosa not particularly photogenic, but there are a few locations worthy of effort.  One is shown below.

Westbound on Track 3, headed across the plains to Laramie.

Laramie Plains
The Laramie Plains extend from roughly Tie Siding on the south to Rock Creek on the north, and are bounded on the west by the Medicine Bow Range and by the Laramie Mountains on the east.  This is a typical intermountain valley in the American West, with one profound exception -- elevation.  No portion of the valley is below 7,000 feet, while some areas approach 8,000.  At such altitudes, the growing season is so short (about 90 days) that agriculture of anything other than native grass is impossible.  Thus, the ground either lies fallow or is used for cattle grazing.

The valley and the Union Pacific tracks run southeast to northwest, tilting progressively to the northwest.  During his two weeks' stay, the author visited with the owners of the small apartment that he rented, and they told him that Laramie had seen a heavy snowfall in mid-June of 2020 that brought down many tree limbs, plus about as many power lines.  The owners had been without electricity for almost a week.  Shortly after the author left at the end of August, Laramie received another heavy snowfall in early September that brought down more limbs and power lines.  Two heavy snowfalls within about 70 days during the summer!

In addition to high elevation and cold, the Laramie Plains also exhibit a marked facility for generating ferocious thunderstorms in July and August, storms which regularly produce violent winds and golf-ball-size hail.  The Plains have been home to some of the largest tornadoes in the world.

What is most fascinating about these storms, to your author at least, is how they explode out of the sky like fireworks, dumping huge quantities of rain, then just as quickly disappear.  Then another will explode to the south, then disappear, then another to the north, then another, like fireflies winking on and off in warmer climes.  Sometimes the storms flow into each other like rivers.  When that happens, one should look for shelter -- quickly.

The Laramie River meanders through the valley, though in most portions of the globe it would be called a "creek."  Ranchers owning land along the riverbank are fortunate, for their stock can find nourishment in the dark water that flows even in the driest months.  (I would call every month dry, but some are drier than others.)  The water also sustains the few flying insects in this country.  If one is driving U.S. 30 north of Laramie in August, following the tracks, one will cross the river about 12 miles out of town.  Shortly before the narrow channel of water appears (maybe 10 yards wide) various bugs will begin to impact the windshield, sometimes in such quantities that they sound like rain drops.  Shortly after one has crossed the river, the bugs disappear.

On an evening filled with thunderstorms, a westbound UP manifest races the setting sun.  The tracks run northwest out of Laramie to avoid the Medicine Bow Mountains.  About 45 miles north of town, the tracks turn west and run around the north end of the mountains.  Interstate 80, on the other hand, plows through the rugged terrain, passing slightly north of Elk Mountain.

DPU of same train.

Your author arrived in Laramie late of a Saturday evening.  Sunday dawned sunny but with reddish-brown haze streaking the western sky, courtesy of fires in Colorado.  The haze reminded one of Southern California smog in the 1960's, an almost palpable symbol that something was very seriously wrong with the Golden State, an intuition confirmed by time.  But as I drove northwest, I passed out of the smoke and eventually could stop, turn around and look back to the southwest at the darkened sky.  My first impulse was fear, which always seems to be my first impulse, but I have learned over the years that, as Paul Atredies so nobly stated, fear is the mind-killer.  I remembered that over fifty percent of the pine forests in Colorado had been devastated by the pine bark beetle, and I realized -- a blinding flash of the obvious -- that fire was the necessary cleanser.  Only fire would remove the dead wood to make way for the new forests that were soon to grow.  So my mind was eased.

Until the next morning, which was also hazy.  As I drove northwest out of town, I saw several trains stopped in the yard and heard quite a bit of chatter on the scanner, unusual for the Union Pacific.  In my experience, the radio around Laramie is generally silent.  But that morning was different, though I had no idea why.  I drove to the location I planned to photograph, then sat for three hours without seeing a single train.  Nothing.  The Overland Route is a busy railroad.  Three hours without a train is certainly possible but unlikely.  Perhaps the railroad Gods knew of my presence and had arranged a grand welcoming.  Or perhaps something more sinister had occurred.

I decided to drive further northwest and in about five miles came upon the image below.  A grainer had deposited about thirty cars on the ground, side-by-side like twisted dominoes, as though a huge hand had reached down and compressed the train like bread dough.  Both railroad employees and county sheriff's deputies were already on the scene, directing traffic through a single lane and, with the aid of huge, front-end loaders, beginning to move crumpled cars off the roadway and tracks.  The image below was taken out the window of the author's Jeep as he drove slowly past the wreckage.

Anyone who pursues this hobby for any length of time will have stories of trips encumbered by clouds or illness or lack of trains -- or any number of other impediments to a good time -- but forest fires and a derailment on the same day seemed unfair, a sort of satanic shout from the underworld.  And thunderstorms would likely blanket the sky that afternoon.  A trifecta!

After 70 years, however, your author has developed a certain equanimity born primarily from lethargy, a willingness to just wait and see what happens.  If things become too boring, one can simply recline one's seat in the Jeep and fall asleep, which is what happened to your author, who snoozed for about an hour on the side of the road about a half mile north of the derailment.  No one came to bother me, and when I awoke, I saw even more front-end loaders, a large crane and probably a hundred men scurrying like ants repairing a disrupted ant hill.  Apparently, the Union  Pacific knows how to handle derailments.  Being relatively close to Cheyenne also helped.  Nonetheless, despite heroic effort, the line was not reopened for 48 hours.

The second image below shows the power from the derailed train headed north to Ogden.  Perhaps the first train through the wreckage is shown in the third image. 

On a beautiful, bright, cloudless, August morning, an eastbound Union Pacific grainer is rolling across the Laramie Plains toward the state capital.  If you look closely along the horizon (or perhaps not so closely if your eyesight is better than the author's) you can see the reddish-brown haze from smoke drifting this time from California, where the fires were larger and more powerful than in Colorado.  When the sky turns hazy, the author reverts to wide angle lenses.  The above image was taken at 24 mm and emphasizes the blue sky and yellow engines, some of the cleanest one will see on the 21st century Union Pacific.

DPU's on the same train.

To the north and east of this eastbound manifest, rain is cascading.  To the west, the sun has peaked out for a moment, illuminating the train against the sky.  Shortly after this image was taken, dark clouds appeared in the west and the author ran for his Jeep and rolled up the windows.

From the open window of his Jeep, the author took the following image, made possible by the Vibration Reduction of the Nikon lens and camera.  Rain is pounding like rocks on the Jeep's canvas roof and moving rapidly east to engulf the moving train.

On a clear morning, westbound stacks smoke their way toward Rock River.  Images like this sadly remind one of the Rock Island.

Westbound manifest.  The glow on the left comes from wildfire smoke.

Westbound at Bossler, which once was a tiny community along the railroad, but today appears to have no residents.  An abandoned school sits east of the highway, aligned with neither the highway, the railroad or the magnetic poles, as though the construction crew became disoriented, perhaps through alcohol.  Who knows?  The remainder of the "town" consists of a few abandoned buildings, a yard filled with abandoned and rusted trucks and one large recreational vehicle parked in front of what was once a gasoline station.  The RV does not appear to be occupied, nor for sale.  It just sits beside the road with a small photo-electric cell on the dash that powers a light bulb.  When one drives through Bossler after dark, the bulb glows from the front of the RV, the only light in town.  

North of Bossler.

Another manifest north of Bossler.  This image shows the breadth of the Laramie Plains, with the Medicine Bow Range across the valley.  It is hard to imagine, but at one time, this landmass was home to a tropical swamp which produced the vegetation that, after being compressed below the surface for millions of years, turned into oil and coal.  (The compression occurred following repeated sequences of mountain building and erosion, burying the trees and other plants beneath thousands of feet of detritus.)

The Katy heritage unit north of Bossler, with the Medicine Bow Range in the background.

Because of the wildfires in Colorado, Amtrak re-routed the California Zephyr two different days.  Here the eastbound Zephyr is speeding across the Laramie Plains toward Denver.  Your author wonders if the passengers that day realized that they were traveling across the original transcontinental rail route.

Two manifests meet on the Laramie Plains.

Eastbound grain approaching Laramie.

Westbound stacks.
Westbound at dusk.

Rock River

As the Laramie Plains turn northwestward, they approach the valley of Rock Creek, on the north side of which sits the village of Rock River.  Your author does not know why the town is not named Rock Creek.  Perhaps the founders thought that such a name sounded less impressive than Rock River -- the same reason some people choose Latinate words over Anglo-Saxon.  "Detritus" rather than "rubble," for example.  Your author is sometimes guilty of this fault.  (See, for example, the caption seven images above.)  It seems to be hard-wired into at least some brains, the same instinct that makes one believe that long sentences are superior to short ones.  I think I just demonstrated that.

About one-half mile south of the creek, the railroad passes through a prominent sandstone hogback overlooking the small village.  At one time, Rock Creek was the location of a substantial, though shallow, oil field.  The hogback roughly constituted the field's southern boundary.  Below is the cover of a 1929 publication of the United States Geology Survey, describing the oil field in detail, followed by a postcard image of massed wooden derricks..

In the twenty-first century, no trace of the oil field exists -- no derricks, no pumps, no storage tanks, no roads, nothing.  As the images below demonstrate, unless one knew the history of this area, one would never guess that oil had once been produced here.

This may help explain why Rock River looks once to have maintained a larger population.  The number of empty buildings along the highway about equals the number of occupied dwellings.  It appears that, at one time, the town supported two or more bars, several restaurants, a dry goods store and a hardware store.  Today, there is one restaurant in a new metal building, one modest motel that, when your author drove through, was occupied by construction workers building a windmill farm near Medicine Bow (a sign of the times) and a community church in another metal building.  The town's population was estimated at 252 in 2018.

East of the highway is the school (K through 12), a new brick structure that looks out of place compared to the rest of the town.  Schools are generally funded by ad valorem taxes, and energy producers pay the most, making your author think that there is still a tax base in the area.  One can find, for example, highlights of Rock River High School football games on the internet.  The school plays six-man football, with a roster of perhaps ten players. 

Because Rock River is situated in a valley, its elevation is about 300 feet lower (at 6,800 feet) than the northern end of the Laramie Plains (at about 7,100 feet).  Most of Wyoming is so wide open that the horizon seems as infinite as the universe, but in Rock River about all one can see are the hogback to the south, the railroad tracks to the west, the school building to the east and the gradual incline to the north as the land rises on its way to Medicine Bow. 

Your author does not think that "small town America" is a good description for this place.  Rock River has the feel of a colony on the moon -- a small group of intrepid explorers eaking out a primitive existence in an otherwise hostile environment.

Eastbound stacks are climbing out of the valley of Rock Creek, struggling upgrade through a cut in the prominent sandstone hogback.  The trees behind the train outline Rock Creek.  Beyond the trees is the village of Rock River.  In the upper right, a westbound stack train (including a wisp of smoke from the mid-trains) is passing beneath Wyoming State Highway 13.

A westbound stack train is rolling downgrade, preparing to enter the cut through the sandstone hogback.

More westbound stacks entering the cut.

Westbound manifest coming down off the sandstone hogback, negotiating the big curve into Rock River.

A Z-train on the same curve.

Another manifest.

A westbound manifest has come off the curve and is rolling into Rock River.  In the middle of the image, above the tank cars, is the big cut through the sandstone hogback.

An eastbounder is climbing the grade out of the valley of Rock Creek.

Another eastbound manifest climbing the grade.  Along the horizon is smoke from the California wildfires.

Clean UP power coming downgrade.

Here is the second Amtrak re-route, blasting through Rock River.  Your author does not know if the Overland Route has separate speed limits for passenger trains (since varnish has not regularly run on those rails in many years), but Amtrak was traveling significantly faster than anything else on the line.

A westbound manifest is passing through the valley of Rock Creek.  The village of Rock River and the sandstone hogback are in the background.

Wilcox to Hanna

Beyond Rock River, the Overland Route runs due north for several miles, then turns northwest again and begins to cross territory more desolate than the Laramie Plains.  Average rainfall in Laramie is a little over 11 inches per year.  This average does not decrease significantly as the railroad runs northwest, but cattle ranches disappear as does most of the native grass.  The first image below was taken in the Laramie Plains of a westbound manifest.  Notice the thick native grass.  The second image shows another westbound manifest that has made the turn northwest out of Rock River and is headed to Medicine Bow.  Here the native grass has disappeared, replaced by desert vegetation.  Other than the presence of the Laramie River, which does not provide any irrigation, your author is unaware of any significant difference between the two locations.  Yet the change is striking.

The first cross-over north of Rock River is Wilcox.  Here the native grass makes its last stand.  When your author drove through in August 2020, a local ranch was bailing hay for winter storage.  There was no trace of the old oil field.

Pusher on a westbound grainer approaching Wilcox.

Front end of same train.

Eastbound stacks at Wilcox.
Stacks making the turn west toward Medicine Bow.

The morning of the derailment, westbound trains were stopped in Laramie and Cheyenne.  The author does not know where most eastbounds were stopped, save for two that were parked on the mainline between between Wilcox and Medicine Bow.  Both were visible from the highway, about a mile distant, but the sun angle was wrong.  Always on the lookout for adventure, the author discovered a primitive and un-gated road leading across the desert flora to the tracks.  A heavily graveled maintenance road then led to the two trains stopped cheek-to-jowl on the mainline.

Your author has a history of flat tires on gravel roads, and this trip was no exception.  As his Jeep approached the first train, the tire pressure warning light suddenly flashed on, showing 25 psi (normal is 37), rapidly decreasing.

Your author has taken to yelling "Fudd!" whenever something goes wrong, so he yelled "Fudd!" and stopped the vehicle.  He had run over a railroad spike and gashed a hole in the right rear tire big enough to stick his thumb through.

If you change enough tires, even if you are an old man, you become reasonably skilled.  The deed was accomplished in about ten minutes, then the author took the following images of the two stopped trains. 

After the tire was changed and the photographs taken, I began driving slowly, looking ahead for spikes and other sharp objects, almost as slowly as a tortoise crossing a highway.  I was far from anywhere; a second flat would have ruined my day.  I had run out of spares.  The problem was, the highway was still about a mile away.  I stayed on the gravel beside the tracks and breathed and drove very slowly.

It seemed that highway and railroad might be growing closer, but then I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a Union Pacific truck rapidly overtaking me.  I doubted that anyone had called me in to the dispatcher.  Both trains on the mainline were crewless, and there did not appear to be a soul within twenty miles.  Yet here came the UP truck.

I pulled to the side of the gravel road and stopped.  The UP truck pulled beside me and also stopped.  A middle-aged man peered out, with a long, slender, cucumber-like face and a pair of black, horn-rimmed glasses, the likes of which I had not seen in about 30 years.

Over time, your author has acquired several different approaches when talking to railroad employees.  This fellow did not look friendly, so I adopted the "idiot" strategy.

"I'm lost," I said.  "Can you tell me how to get to Laramie."

He gave me an expression that said, "If you're headed to Laramie, why are you driving the wrong direction down the railroad tracks?"

I thought of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby.  I don't compare myself to Cary Grant, but when necessary I am capable of acting as idiotically as his character in that movie.

"I had a flat tire," I said.  "I just finished changing it."  I shrugged.

Because he could see that the spare tire on the back of the Jeep was missing (the flat tire was in the cargo area), he knew that that part of the story, at least, was true.

"Look, I'm really lost.  I'm not from around here."

"Well, I can tell that."

I shrugged again.

"You probably hit a spike," he said.  "Follow me, and I'll show you how to get to the highway."

"I need to drive real slow.  I don't want another flat."

"I've got all day."

He led me patiently down the tracks, and the main road grew closer and closer.  Eventually we came to a maintenance trail that led to the highway.

"Turn right," he said.


He shook his head.  To this day, I'm unsure if he believed me or not.

Westbound manifest approaching Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

Medicine Bow, originally a station stop on the Overland Route, today is a village of about 200 people and looks like all the other small communities in this high and arid country -- with one exception.  As one approaches on the highway from either east or west, on the horizon looms a structure totally out of proportion to the surroundings, like an airplane parked in your driveway.  This is the Virginian Hotel, a four story structure that appears to have been air-lifted onto the Wyoming landscape from somewhere "back east."  Constructed of native cream-colored sandstone, the building attracts citizens from throughout Carbon County.  

Every time your author drove through, the parking lot was populated, and country music drifted outside from the bar.  I heard George Straight lamenting that "All my Ex's Live in Texas."  If I had stopped for a while, I Iikely would have heard Merle Haggard complaining about "White Line Fever."  This was real country music, folks, with steel guitars and fiddles -- no strings or saxophones or French horns.

The hotel is named after the novel written by Owen Wister in 1904, one of America's first "Westerns," subsequently made into several movies and a television series.  Part of the story is set in Medicine Bow, described as:

"They [the houses] seemed to have been strewn there by the wind and to be waiting till the wind should come again and blow them away. Yet serene above their foulness swam a pure and quiet light, such as the East never sees; they might be bathing in the air of creation’s first morning. . . . There they stood, rearing their pitiful masquerade amid a fringe of old tin cans, while at their very doors began a world of crystal light, a land without end, a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from Genesis.”

The description is as applicable today as in the early 20th century.  

Most of the book, however, is quite dated.  The author was a horrible racist, but then so was almost everyone else at that time.  Following is a quotation from an article he wrote for Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1895:

You will not find many Poles or Huns or Russian Jews in that district [the American West]; it stands as yet untainted by the benevolence of Baron Hirsch. Even in the cattle country the respectable Swedes settle chiefly to farming, and are seldom horsemen. The community of which the aristocrat appropriately made one speaks English. The Frenchman today is seen at his best inside a house; he can paint and he can play comedy, but he seldom climbs a new mountain. The Italian has forgotten Columbus and sells fruit. Among the Spaniards and the Portuguese no Cortez or Magellan is found today. Except in Prussia the Teuton is too often a tame, slippered animal, with his pedantic mind swaddled in a dressing-gown.  But the Anglo-Saxon is still forever homesick for out-of-doors.

And here is a quotation from the novel:

There can be no doubt of this: —
All America is divided into two classes,—the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until women bear nothing but kings.
It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequaiity of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred the violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man would henceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight.

This sort of sentiment was not unusual for the period.  If you don't believe me, read a little Mark Twain or Joseph Conrad.  

In addition, the novel seems to believe that big ranches will inevitably swallow small ones, and further that such a procession is a natural law -- a sort of Social Darwinism of cattle ranching.  Bigger is better.

In the late 19th century, Social Darwinism was all the rage.  Its chief prophet, English philosopher Herbert Spencer, insisted that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution -- survival of the fittest -- applied not only to biology but also to society.  The rich thus deserved to be rich, and the poor poor. William Graham Sumner, a leading Spencer disciple in America, stated:  "Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, in-equality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downward and favors all its worst." 

So there you have it.  Standing tall on the high country of south-central Wyoming is a monument to racism, xenophobia and imperiousness, the existence of which gives new meaning to life in the 19th century American West.  Your author is not suggesting that everyone in that period was racist, xenophobic and imperious, but many were.  Had your author lived then, he might have been, too.  So might the reader.  And who knows what sins of the current era will be looked down upon with scorn 100 years from now?

UP 7965 West prepares to duck under U.S. Highway 30/287 on the way to Hanna, Wyoming.  In the upper left, a wind farm is being constructed.  As oil and coal production wither and die, gigantic white windmills have begun to sprout like beans on the Wyoming horizon.  Whether these windmills are more attractive than the oil derricks that preceded them is left to the judgment of the reader.

At sundown, an eastbound leaves Hanna, Wyoming.

Pusher on a westbound approaching Hanna.

Westbound stacks entering Hanna.  The multiple tracks are left over from once active coal mines.

Hanna Hill

So at last we arrive at Hanna, Wyoming, a town that reminds me of a Tennessee Williams play.  All the essentials are present -- a storied past, wealth, grandeur, larger-than-life characters, mystery, intrigue, lost now, degradation, a gothic mystery to those from the outside.  What happened?  How could things go so wrong?  Think Suddenly Last Summer, the one act play later cannibalized by Hollywood.  (If you know the story, you recognize the pun.)

Hanna is the county seat of Carbon County, Wyoming.  As the name implies, this was once the center of vast coal production.  The town is built on top of Hanna No. 4.  The mines are closed now, but the place still feels like a mining town.  I'm not certain what that means, except when you drive down Main Street, you don't feel as though you are in a "normal" place, whatever that means.  How can I describe it?  If you were on Neptune, this is the sort of settlement you would find, a place where minerals are extracted from below ground by men who seem impossibly strong, impossibly impassive and determined.  This place feels like part of the ground itself, like something alive coming up through a crack in granite.

But today Hanna is also like an old tree with dead branches, more dead than living.  Whole sections of the tree are without leaves; entire streets in Hanna are deserted, as though the population was eviscerated by a virus that no one understood until too late.  Only at the end do we realize what has happened to us.  In 1980, the official U.S. Census Bureau population was 2,280.  In 2020, the estimated population is 500.

The town was originally called Chimney Springs, and the mines were owned and operated by the Union Pacific -- a company town providing fuel for the railroad's mammoth steam locomotives.  The first mine opened in 1889.  Soon thereafter, the town's name was changed to Hanna, after Mark Hanna, the Cleveland coal baron who convinced the UP to develop its coal fields.  From the opening of the first to the closing of the last in 1954, the Union Pacific Coal Company operated six mines.  But the rapid death of the steam locomotive in the 1950's inevitably led to the demise of the railroad's appetite for coal.

“What fools we were," one Hanna resident said, as quoted in a local newspaper.  "When the first diesel locomotives came through town, there we were by the tracks and cheering our heads off. We never thought for a moment what it meant for us.”  Another resident said, “Many tears were shed as most people had been born and raised here.  A big number moved away—house and all.” 

Hanna was a planned community, with rows of identical houses punctuated by privies, like black between white keys on a piano.  As new mines opened, new streets and dwellings were constructed.  Various nationalities were integrated, with two exceptions.  One was called Jap Town, near Hanna No. 2, with room for expansive gardens.  The other was Elmo, a Finnish village established outside the boundaries of Hanna and therefore beyond the control of the Union Pacific.  Saloons flourished in Elmo, as well as other types of "free enterprise."  On maps today, Hanna and Elmo are still labeled separately.

Hanna, Wyoming (1900)

Elmo is in the upper right.  Notice the reference to the Nugget Bar.  In the center notice the Hanna Mine Memorial, which commemorates two disasters that took the lives of hundreds.

All the mines were underground, with rooms leading off the main tunnel.  Each room contained walls of solid coal.  The only illumination came from the small, open flame on the front of each miner's hat.  Claustrophobics need not apply.

With a hand-cranked steel drill, a miner would puncture a small hole into the coal, then fill it (the hole) with blasting powder, light a fuse and leave the room.  The blast would bring down coal, which was loaded on small cars running on tracks to the surface.  Some cars were pulled by mules who spent each day walking back and forth, back and forth, like metronomes.  Other cars were connected by cables to steam engines outside.

Fires were routine.  They usually burned out quickly, but in March 1908 one in Hanna No. 1 burned for weeks.  The Union Pacific walled off the fire in one portion of the mine while workers continued hauling coal in others.  The fire continued burning.  Eventually, someone decided to call in "experts."  

Before the experts arrived, Hanna No. 1 exploded, and 18 men were trapped underground.  Off-duty miners rushed to help.  Then a second blast rocked the ground.  Those on the surface described it as "underground thunder."  Forty-one more were now trapped.  Thirty-one in total perished.

This, however, was not the worst disaster to occur in Hanna.  On June 30, 1903, Hanna No. 1 exploded at approximately 10:30 in the morning, killing 169 men and leaving about 150 women widowed and 600 children fatherless. 

The accounts from the burning coal mine at Hanna are most distressing. The fire has driven out the rescuing parties, who penetrated, at the imminent risk of their lives, close to the scene of the late explosion, but were driven back.
There is nothing more heroic in the annals of men than the efforts of miners to rescue their comrades who have met with accidents underground, whether by cavings, floorings or explosions. No matter what the peril, more than enough great souls are ready to undertake the rescue, and to carry it out, too, if the task is within the possible power of mortal man.
This disaster at Hanna has but proved again that splendid truth. And there is one thing more to add. None are more quick or generous to respond to the call of distress for relief in such emergencies as are mining communities.


Rawlins Republican, July 11, 1903.

(Headline from Laramie Boomerang, July 1, 1903.) 

Not only did the mines extract a huge human toll, they also left the land looking as though it had contracted smallpox.  Above is an aerial photograph of an abandoned Wyoming underground coal mine.  The holes are caused by subsidence, as the overburden sinks into the cavities excavated in the mine below.

As a result of the problems with underground mining, companies switched to surface mining.  In 1937, Monolith Portland Midwest Company opened the first strip mine in the Hanna field. Road builders Peter Kiewit and Sons of Omaha, in 1959, began operations for Rosebud, a surface mine that lasted forty years.  Energy Development Company opened a strip mine in 1970.  By 1979 Arch Mineral was the largest strip operator in Hanna.  This boom resulted in a population increase from 460 in 1970 to 2,280 in 1980.

Just as quickly as Hanna was resurrected in the 1970's, it was crucified again in the 1980's, primarily by the passage of the federal legislation requiring the burning of "clean" coal.  Hanna's coal did not meet the new standards, and so demand quickly fell.  Coal mining stayed in Wyoming, however, as new surface mines were opening like canker sores in the Power River Basin.  Once again, Hanna's mines closed.  The editorial in the final issue of the Hanna Herald, published January 23, 1985, was entitled “The Boom Was Great But….”

The remains of Hanna sit quietly in a valley north of the Medicine Bow Range.  The county courthouse is tiny.  When your author drove through in the middle of the week, it appeared to be closed.  Some rural courthouses only open a few days per month.  Hanna's may be one.

West of town is a gradient that challenges trains in both directions.  As mentioned at the beginning of this article, your author has christened this landmark "Hanna Hill."  Following are captionless images of the hill, an appropriate memorial to Hanna.

I said earlier than Hanna, Wyoming, reminds me of a Tennessee Williams' play.  Perhaps a better analogy is Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.  Hanna is like the Compson family, once well-to-do and proud, now struggling with diminished fortunes.  One son commits suicide; another is an idiot -- literally.  The third spends all day studying the local ticker-tape to see if the family has become wealthy again.  

The only character with any sense is Dilsey, the matriarch of the African-American family that has served the Compsons through wealth and now through degradation.  Dilsey and her grandson Luster take care of Benjy, the idiot, even take him to the Black Baptist Church for salvation, where the preacher's sermon causes Dilsey to weep for the Compsons, who have never, not once, returned her care and devotion. 

In the saga of Hanna, Wyoming, who is Dilsey?  Not the railroad, because the Union Pacific has never taken any steps to care for Hanna as it disintegrates.  Rather, I think it is the land itself as it sits patiently day-after-day, through sunshine and clouds, through heat and snow, never wavering, completely forgiving without expectation of recompense for the damage done to it.  The land will be there as long as anyone cares to live in Hanna, and after the last resident is gone, the land will still be there, waiting patiently, day-after-day, like Dilsey, enduring. 


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