#Lookback: Gebo – A True Wyoming Ghost Town

    Wyoming is a land of boom and bust. Since the early days of the fur trade, the Oregon Trail, and now in the economic rollercoaster that is the 21st-century energy industry, it is always feast or famine in the Cowboy State. Wyoming historian T.A. Larson described Wyoming as a place on the way to somewhere else.

    That theme permeates the history of the tiny Hot Springs County ghost town of Gebo.

    Thermopolis sits at the northern entrance of one of America’s most picturesque canyons, but it was ideas, people, and outside forces that gave this county its unique place.

    Wood decays but rock and concrete remain – h/t Randy Tucker

    Perhaps no other area is more expressive of the coming together of myriad dreams than Gebo, just 11 miles northwest of Thermopolis.

    Wyoming, specifically the central part of Wyoming, was a mixture of vibrant, expansive industries driven by dreamers, engineers, and businessmen in the early days of the 20th century.

    Putting all these ideas together created an eclectic couple of decades.

    The Chicago Burlington and Quincy railroad, along with a dream by a hydroelectric pioneer were the driving force for the expansion of Hot Springs County.

    The modern area below the original Boysen Dam – h/t Randy Tucker

    In 1908, Asmus Boysen completed a dam on the Wind River just across the Hot Springs County line in Fremont County that supplied 710kw of power to Thermopolis, Shoshoni, and faraway Lander. This isolated illumination of the plains was far ahead of its time.

    Speculation on the rail route through the Owl Creek Mountains boiled down to the present location or another route 25 miles east along the Nowood River.  The Nowood route was campaigned for by eccentric businessman J.B. Oakey.  Oakey built a mansion, a golf course, and his own town, along with a coal mine at Lost Cabin, and hoped to be the southern entrance through Nowood Canyon to Ten Sleep. Chicago Burlington and Quincy management had other ideas, and constructed their rail line three miles north of Lost Cabin on a westward trek through Lysite, before turning north near Shoshoni into the Wind River Canyon.

    As Boysen and his crews pounded away at the rock of the Wind River Canyon, construction crews of the Chicago Burlington and Quincy railroad carved a winding rock ledge on the narrow walls to the west of the river. 

    The original Boysen Dam – h/t

    Once this construction was complete, the railroad continued to Billings, Montana. Eastern terminuses in Chicago, Denver, Galveston, and St. Louis connected isolated Wyoming with major cities across the Midwest.

    That rail line needed fuel. The fuel of the railroad until the arrival of the diesel-electric engine in the 1930s was coal.

    Mines in Hartville, Wyoming provided coal for the Union Pacific to the south in Laramie and the Chicago Burlington and Quincy railroads to the north, but it was 300 miles from those mines to Thermopolis, and another 200+ miles on to Billings.

    Steam locomotives burned coal at an incredible rate. Water stations were easy to find, coal was a different commodity entirely.

    Gebo a true ghost town – h/t Randy Tucker

    Coal mining was well established in the future Hot Springs County, long before the railroad arrived. In the late 1880s Henry Cottle, John Jones, and “Dad” Eades located promising veins of coal in the area. By the summer of 1889, the Jones Mine began actively mining coal 11 miles northwest of Thermopolis.

    Enter New York entrepreneur Samuel Wilford Gebo. Gebo represented a group of New York City investors who hoped to ride the wave of prosperity in an unprecedented coal boom.

    Samuel Wilford Gebo – US Passport Photo

    The Owl Creek Coal Company was formed in 1906 and mining activity soon escalated in Hot Springs County.

    The Jones Mine became known as Gebo #1. Gebo developed other interests along the Chicago Burlington and Quincy line in Kansas, and a much closer operation just across the Montana border in a town with the same name, Gebo.  It was later renamed Fromberg.

    Coal mining brought a lot of people to Gebo. In its heyday, it was the largest town in Hot Springs County and boasted over 2,000 residents.

    Timing is everything in business, and Gebo’s timing was impeccable when it came to coal and railroads.

    When the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad was completed in 1914, Gebo was ready to supply coal for the railroad and to have that same coal shipped east to energy-hungry customers.

    Tipple Owl Creek Coal Mine – Circa 1920 –

    World War I arrived in August 1914 and the demand for coal skyrocketed nationwide. Ships and locomotives both burned the high-priced commodity and life was good in the foothills of the Owl Creek Mountains.

    Nearby communities sprang up in Kirby and Crosby to dig coal as well.

    This timely boom was nearly crushed before it began by claims of corruption, bribery, and illegal business practices brought by the federal government against Gebo and his partners. The federal investigation began in 1912 and it was apparent that Washington D.C.’s motive was to shut down coal operations in Gebo and other company towns.

    An unexpected twist came from the miners themselves.  A. H. Peterson, secretary of Local Union 2671, a member of the United Mine Workers of America wrote a letter in support of the company to Wyoming senator Francis E. Warren.

    In the letter, Peterson persuasively wrote,

    ”We are mining coal for the Owl Creek Coal Co. at Gebo, Wyo. I understand they are having some trouble with the Government in getting the patents; in fact, from what we hear, they cannot get them on account of making their first filings illegally. I have no doubt but such is the case, but it is not for us to say. All we have to say is that we are glad to work for them, and would like to see them get their patents or a lease or something that would allow them to continue work. We understand Secretary Fisher is about to make a decision on their filings, and have heard it said that they will lose out. In this event we will suffer the most, for if he decides against them, they will be shut down, and we will be thrown out of employment in the dead of winter. There are several hundred people depending entirely upon this mine for a living, and most of them are men of families. It will be a serious thing if the mine shuts down, for the work has been very poor for several months and we are barely making a living now. But we don’t know where to go, because other places are worse, and besides we have not enough money to move away.”

    A U.S. Senator can be quite persuasive and Warren contacted Secretary of the Interior Fisher, before proposing legislation that allowed the Owl Creek Coal Company to continue operations. It was a victory for both sides since the federal government received royalties on the coal produced from the mine.

    Remnants of the main processing plant – h/t Randy Tucker

    Mining boomed as the war continued. The town grew and a school district was formed. The Gebo Miners became the high school mascot.

    Gebo became the largest town in Hot Springs County, one of the largest in Wyoming.  In addition to the school, the town had a bank, a pool hall, boarding houses, a town band, and a couple of after-hours establishments when prohibition came. Just outside of the city limits, a thriving gentlemen’s club provided evening entertainment for Miners, complete with a madam that ran the operation.

    One of the original inhabitants of Gebo – h/t Randy Tucker

    The pool hall had a reputation as a frontier, “Bucket of Blood” with frequent fistfights. In 1931 two Serbian miners took it a step further with one ending up in the Wyoming state penitentiary in Rawlins after shooting and killing the other man with a handgun.

    In the wake of the Allied victory in World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic swept the planet.  Even isolated Gebo was not spared from the ravages of a virus that took an estimated 60 million lives worldwide.

    The Spanish Flu Epidemic had no respect for age – h/t Randy Tucker

    At the height of the epidemic, it was estimated that a funeral a week occurred in Gebo as a result of the flu.

    A visit to the quiet, windswept cemetery on Gebo Road just two miles west of Kirby serves vigil to the forgotten town telling a very sad tale of children and infants who died during those years, many on the day they were born.

    1920 was a rough year at Gebo – h/t Randy Tucker

    Gebo survived the pandemic and continued coal production, but no industry can survive an idea whose time has come when it offers another technology that supersedes their own.

    Coal-powered steam locomotives were vastly more powerful than their early diesel-electric competitors.  The record for the greatest horsepower by a locomotive still belongs to a steam-powered machine.

    By 1934 diesel-electric technology began to compete with steam power in only one area, non-stop travel.

    Diesel-electric engines began to replace steam locomotives in the 1940s – h/t Pinterest

    On May 26, 1934, the Chicago Burlington and Quincy railroad pulled a publicity stunt that would eventually lead to the demise of coal towns along the tracks across America.

    The Zephyr, a non-stop passenger train from Denver to Chicago made its first run in coordination with the “Century of Progress Fair” in Chicago.

    The rail company pulled out all the stops to ensure the success of this first non-stop train across the American prairie.

    They closely inspected the entire route, marked curves conspicuously so engineers would know when to slow down, put flagmen on every crossing, and even enlisted local law enforcement, the American Legion, and the Boy Scouts of America to aid in protecting those crossings.

    The view of the homes above the mine from the reservoir – h/t Randy Tucker

    The stunt was a success. The biggest complaint passengers had with coal-powered locomotives was the constant stopping to add more water and load more coal. Diesel-electric engines didn’t have hot cinders blowing back through open windows of passenger cars either.

    While technology quietly planned the doom of Gebo, the town grew into a well-respected Wyoming community, they even had a high school football team.

    Spectacular views of the mountains greeted miners each morning – h/t Randy Tucker

    The Miners played football from 1930 to 1937, compiling a record of 11-35-3.

    In a study of how some towns grew and others shrank away, Gebo played Riverton, Lander, Cody, and Worland, towns that still thrive with populations from 6,000 to 11,000 people. They also played Ten Sleep, Burlington, and Cowley, schools that are barely able to field a 6-man football team or that have been consolidated and no longer exist.

    Gebo fell to the Riverton Wolverines 32-7 in their final game on November 5, 1937. 

    It was an omen to the future of the town as coal production shut down for good just a few months later.

    A steel fence post, now a grass planter full of bullet holes – h/t Randy Tucker

    Samuel Gebo moved to Seattle after his mining venture collapsed. Despondent, he committed suicide by filling his house with gas from the kitchen stove on July 10, 1940. 

    The mine continued to produce coal until the early 1960s for local use. Riverton residents often made the trip to Gebo instead of a much closer coal mine at Hudson since the Gebo coal was harder and produced more heat.

    A windswept cemetery is one of few reminders of Gebo – h/t Randy Tucker

    A few crumbling buildings, along with the dry, windswept cemetery, are all that remain of a booming town that once existed on the high plains of Wyoming, a grim reminder of the fickle nature of Wyoming economics.

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated that the penitentiary was in Laramie, not Rawlins.

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