Saturday, February 11, 2012

Southwest Wyoming: A Tough Place to Live

The story of southwest Wyoming is the history of the Union Pacific Railroad.  Civil War veterans and Irish immigrants built the road.  Card sharps, ladies of the evening, and entrepreneurs headed west to seek their fortunes as the road opened.  European immigrants rode the rails west to farm or build new lives. 

My maternal grandparents were immigrants after the devastation of World War I on the Tyrol region of the Dolomite Mountains on the Austrian/Italian border.  They landed in Wyoming, my grandfather going to work in the Union Pacific coal mine in Superior.  Coming from a high green alpine land of white chalk cliffs and remote monasteries clinging to the cliffs, the women fled hunger and poverty in their homeland to seek passage on refurbished troopships to come to America as coal camp brides.  A large contingent of the Tyroleans settled in Pennsylvania, some in Colorado; some went to Mexico and South America.

It was a tough life for my grandmother in Wyoming’s high desert.  Cold and windy, the treeless, rocky landscape offered little except solitude and hard work. Only a special kind of woman could survive and thrive and raise a family in that tough landscape. 

The picture below shows the house my dad’s family occupied in Superior, from the 1950s rather than the 1920s, but you get the idea. 


Here’s an excerpt from my novel Willow Vale, describing what my heroine, Francesca Sittoni, found upon alighting from the train:

They halted in front of a tiny clapboard house sprouting from the powdery dust.  Cheek-by-jowl with its mirror-image neighbor, the collection of little houses formed a tiny, dirty neighborhood set flush atop a coal mine. 

Every couple of houses shared a water pump in the dirt yard.  Francesca was soon to find if she wanted to cook or heat the house, she hauled her own coal in all kinds of weather from a shed in the back yard next to the outhouse.  Everything, the floor and the rude table and chairs, the painted countertop in the minuscule kitchen, the bed, the walls, and the windows, bore a fine coating of coal dust.

Despite her constant effort to abolish it, life in Hawk Point, Wyoming, meant everything always would be covered in coal dust.  Elena’s clothes were filthy, whether she played inside or out; Cesare’s, of course, were permanently saturated with fine black powder.

This is a picture of part of the coal tipple at D.O. Clark mine in Superior, again probably from the early 1950s.  My paternal grandfather worked in this mine.  The picture came to me as part of my dad’s estate from his grandmother.  My dad’s mother had probably sent it to her mother in Kansas, trying to illustrate where and how the family lived in Wyoming.  Her mother, even after living through the Dustbowl years of the 1930s, was probably disturbed by these images of the stark daily lives of her daughter and her grandchildren.

As the railroads transitioned to diesel engines from steam, the Union Pacific no longer needed coal.  The younger generation raised in the coal camps sought jobs elsewhere as the mines began to shut down in the 1950s, and Superior became almost a ghost town.


Alethea Williams said...

Hi Chris,
I just tried to leave a comment on your blog but had trouble with the capsha so gave up. It was interesting reading about the history of southwest Wyoming, and I enjoyed reading the excerpt from Willow Vale. I shared your post to my facebook page since some of my friends used to live in Wyoming. I'm looking forward to reading more.

Billy20 said...

Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really eyed reading your blog posts.

Southwest Engines

Alethea Williams said...

Hey, Billy20, thanks for commenting. Welcome! I'm glad you like my blog. You can pass on the URL to anyone you think might be interested, and add your profile to my followers if you like.