Deadwood Magazine

Cambria was a company town

 by Earl Cox

 You load 16 tons and what d’ya get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

St. Peter 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 Territory.

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 Newcastle, Wyoming.

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 17,000 acres.

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 of Cambria.

Frank Mondell, the Kilpatrick employee who discovered the coveted coal and supervised the mining operations that founded Cambria, went on to a political career. He served as mayor of Newcastle and was a representative to the first Wyoming State Legislature in 1890. Elected to Congress in 1894, Mondell was a Wyoming congressman for 26 years. He was admitted to the Wyoming bar in 1924 and opened a law office in Washington, D. C., the following year. He died of leukemia in 1938 at the age of 78.

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Deadwood Magazine ©2002