a company town
You load 16 tons and what d’ya get?
older and deeper in debt.
don’t you call me cuz I can’t go
I owe my soul
to the company store.
Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons could well have described a coal mining company town on the
western slopes of the Black Hills, although Ford recorded his hit song
nearly 30 years after Cambria became a ghost town. Located just across
the Wyoming border, about eight miles north of Newcastle off U.S.
Highway 85, the Cambria mines produced about 13 million tons of
bituminous coal with a value of $20 million during a 41-year life span.
When the coal seams were exhausted the town was
hastily abandoned. Legend says Cambria was emptied overnight, leaving
dinner plates on the tables. The mass exodus wasn’t really that hasty
although some residents left furniture and possessions behind and
merchandise remained on store shelves. Mining company employees rushed
away to find other jobs after signs posted in February 1928 announced
the camp would close down by April 1.
Cambria was born of the demand for coal generated by
railroads expanding into the west after the Civil War. By the mid-1880s
the Burlington and Missouri River railroad from Lincoln had reached
Alliance, Nebraska, enroute to a transcontinental connection with the
Northern Pacific at Billings, Montana. Because of the prohibitive cost
of eastern coal needed to fuel engines, rail construction was halted at
Alliance until a reliable coal source could be found in Wyoming
Hoping to secure the contract for building the
proposed line, the railroad construction firm of Kilpatrick Brothers and
Collins sent a prospecting party into the western Black Hills to search
for coal deposits. In 1888, after a year of searching, a workable coal
seam was found in Little Oil Creek Canyon, north of what was to become
Some stories credit homesteaders for first
discovering the coal and using it to heat their homes before KB&C
prospectors arrived in the canyon.
Burlington experts found both quantity and quality of
the bituminous coal in the canyon adjacent to Little Oil Creek suitable
for their needs. Awarded contracts to build the proposed line, KB&C
formed the Cambria Fuel Company naming Frank Mondell as manager.
Isolated Little Oil Creek Canyon, renamed Cambria
Canyon, was suddenly a beehive of activity. Job opportunities were
plentiful as mine development began. An initial employment condition
required the applicant to file on a homestead adjacent to the mine
holdings, then sell land and mineral rights to the company when the
homestead title was granted. Eventually the Cambria Fuel Company owned
Mining machinery was hauled by wagon teams from
Nebraska, lowered by block and tackle into the canyon, and construction
began on the company town. One of the first buildings to go up was a
hospital with four beds, x-ray and operating rooms and resident doctor.
Miners were hired from all over the country and
Europe. As families arrived the company built houses for them. A school
on top of the hill gave students physical as well as mental
exercise--they climbed 365 steps to get to class.
A steam power plant provided electricity for both
Cambria and Newcastle. Water was supplied from a well 2,345 feet deep
with a pumping capacity of 325,000 gallons per day. Before long the camp
contained three churches, an opera house, two hotels and a boarding
house for unmarried workers. Recreation was provided with a bowling
alley and billiard tables. Company script could be redeemed at the large
commissary. Saloons weren’t allowed in Cambria, but beer wagons made
daily trips from Newcastle.
When the railroad spur from Newcastle reached Cambria
in late 1889 a coke production plant was built to supply coke to
smelters in the northern Black Hills. Cambria coal was unique in that it
contained a small amount of gold assaying at $2 per ton, $5.60 per ton
on the coke, and smelters paid a bonus for gold contained in the coke.
By 1900, the coal camp reportedly employed 750 people
and the population had swelled to 1,500, although 1900 census figures
reported 966 residents of Cambria. In 1910 KB&C sold Cambria to
eastern investors. The new owners built a memorial museum on Highway 85
east of town, now known as the Flying V Ranch.
The original belief that Wyoming coal deposits were
endless, sufficient to “fuel the fires of hell for eternity,” proved
to be a delusion. By 1928, coal veins were depleted and despite frantic
searching, no new veins could be found. Cambria, like many Black Hills
gold camps, was on its way to becoming a ghost town.
At 4:30 p.m. on March 15, 1928 the mine whistle blew
for the last time. Speeches, music and a free dance marked final closing
ceremonies on April 28. A clean-up crew quickly disassembled the once
thriving company town. Many buildings were sold and moved, others were
torn down for lumber salvage and vandals soon completed the demolition
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