Weston County’s history is unique in many sorts, as the land is rich with culture to tell the story of the beginnings of settlement in the Black Hills, from the American Indians to the Lewis and Clark expedition. With the rumors of gold circulated in the Black Hills in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government’s interest in the area grew. It wasn’t however, until the United States fell into a depression in 1873 the ignited the search for gold. With the promise for gold in the hills, similar to the promise which led miners to
California, the area began to swell. The government tried to keep them out, but the economic opportunities were too much to bear, leading the government to head to the Black Hills in 1874. This expedition, under the leadership of General George A. Custer, ultimately shaped Weston County’s future development through the discovery of gold on French Creek in late July 1874.
Homesteading, Coal and the Birth of Weston County
Weston County’s story begins 7.3 miles north of Newcastle, WY, in the grass, canyons and springs of Cambria Creek. Two families by the name of Fuller and Valentine made the decision to homestead in the canyon, to put together a ranching spread of their own. When one of the men discovered a streak of coal in one of the canyon walls, the two families vouched to keep the discovery a secret. Secrets never last, however, as a trapper-prospector Mike Gladhough realized the secret of coal in the canyon. At the same time of the discover of coal deposits in the canyon, the Burlington Railroad Company began expanding its rail from Nebraska to Sheridan, Wyoming, with the route running directly through the area. When news broke to Burlington by Gladhough, the railroad received a sample of the coal to test, revealing the coal was found to be a lignite grade of bituminous coal.
The mining of coal began in October of 1888 under the leadership of Frank Mondell. Mondell was originally sent in 1887 to negiotate the purchase of the land from Fuller and Valentine, and again to set up mining operations when the owners agreed to sell. When construction of the mines began in 1888, two large mines were set up on each side of the canyon, with operations built in the middle. It was here where Weston County was born, in the form of Cambria, Wyoming.
Cambria prospered for the next forty years, mining and shipping coal out of the camp. 150 homes were built for mining families, businesses were established and Cambria was established as a thriving community. However, everything changed in 1928. Dealing with an over exaggeration of the amounts of coal available, the veins ran out and operations came to a halt. Not being able to find any new coal veins, the whistle was blown for the final time on March 15, 1928 at 4:30, signaling the death of Cambria.
Many families and businesses rushed out of Cambria directly after the mine closed, to find new job opportunities as soon as possible. Some left behind personal belongings, businesses left behind products on the shelves to find a new life. For those who stayed, a celebration was held on April 2 for those who worked and lived at the mine. Cambria soon became a ghost town after the closing of the mine. Buildings were either sold, torn down, or left at the camp. After the general population left the camp, clean-up
crews stayed to close up mine operations. Bit by bit, Cambria began to disappear. The rail and ties were removed from the town last, leaving only traces of what used to be a thriving community.
Today, Cambria is a ghost town, engulfed by the beauty of nature. What once was a thriving mining town is no more, but the stories of Cambria live on to tell the past of Weston County and how the discovery of coal shaped the county as we know it.
The Birth of Newcastle
Newcastle came to be around the same time as Cambria, nestled in the foothills of the Black Hills, where the railroad spur to Cambria met the mainline track. Around the same time Cambria came to be, those involved in building the area wanted a permanent city to take shape. The Lincoln Land Company, subsidiary of Burlington & Quincey Railroad secured an oil title to the land in which Newcastle would be built upon. The town, named after Newcastle, the coal mining center in England, took formation in the summer of 1889. The petition to incorporate the town was filed in September and Newcastle’s first election was held that November. Newcastle’s existence and formation can be traced to the Kilpatrick Brothers and Collins Construction Company, who were instrumental in developing the first buildings in
the town. The company constructed numerous structures, including the Antlers Hotel, which still in operation today. The Antlers Hotel played a large role in the development of industry in
Newcastle. When constructed by Kilpatrick Bros. and Collins, it was used as a commissary for the Wyoming National Guard Armory. Those living in the commissary included Frank Mondell, manager of the Cambria Coal Mine, and Newcastle’s first mayor.
The town continued to develop, businesses developed, families moved in, and Newcastle flourished. People flooded the town, some bringing diseases with. In 1900, the smallpox epidemic swept through Newcastle, taking its toll on the community. The need for hospitals in the area arose, to fight the illness that spread. Many hospitals were opened and closed in the early 1900s, but Weston County realized the need for a permanent hospital in 1945. The Weston County Commissioners accepted a petition to fund a new hospital, and officially opened the doors in 1948. While these aspects of Newcastle’s history only tell a small part of the story, these key moments in time have shaped the town into what it is today. Newcastle today is a thriving community, with amenities to suit all generations.
Upton’s Simple Beginnings
Upton’s early beginnings in Weston County history is interesting compared to the likes of Cambria and Newcastle, as Upton was not built upon natural resources. While Newcastle was established as a hub for Cambria, Upton, then known as IronTown, began as a stopping place for cowboys, ranchers and the arrival of homesteaders to get the supplies they needed in the mid 1880s. Just northeast of the original IronTown settlement, was a large series of pens and corrals, used for shearing sheep. Ranchers and settlers shifted to the sheep industry, using the area as a central location for sheep shearing. When the railroad reached the area from Newcastle, a camp was likely established there, named ‘Merino’ after the
popular sheep breed. Merino may have ended up as a ghost town similar to Cambria due to a mysterious
population decrease in the early 1890s, but the railroad established a depot and supply station in the community. Mr. John Nolan of Glenrock located to Merino as the section foreman.
At this time, all the restaurants had closed, leaving those in the area without a supply of food. The Nolan family soon became busy serving food to those who stopped to stay. Around the same time the Nolan family arrived, so did Mr. Robert Pence, who later built a grocery store in 1893. Merino was granted a post office that June, reclaiming its stake in Weston County again. Merino was later re-named to Upton and was given the slogan ‘Best Town on Earth’ in honor of A.Z. “George” Upton.
The Burlington Railroad took an active role in the development of Upton, building a water pipeline to supply water for its trains and the town. Businesses and structures began to populate Upton, giving it the capacity it needed to grow. By 1909, Upton enjoyed a thriving cattle industry and over 20 businesses.