The Taboo & Tragic Past of Kemmerer, WY
By Wolf Johnson
Right off the interstate in southwestern Wyoming is the small town of Kemmerer. It’s one of those “blink-and-you-might-miss-it” towns. But, underneath millenniums of sediment, centuries of history and years of stories, you’ll not only see a small Wyoming town, but a true pinnacle of the Wild West.
Kemmerer was established in 1897 as a coal town by Patrick Quealy and Mahlon Kemmerer. Unlike many nearby communities at the time, Kemmerer was one of the only towns that was not owned by a coal company. Instead, they opted to have individual landowners buy private plots of land and “work their own hand” in both the coal industry and in raising livestock. It was a successful set of ventures, and Kemmerer’s residents excelled with the fruits of their labor. With their successes also came great hardships, struggles and tragedies which not only put the town on the map, but put Kemmerer in the history books.
Of the town’s notable history, one can check out the first ever J.C. Penney store in Kemmerer, founded by James Cash Penney in 1902. This store is often referred to as the “Mother Store” for J.C. Penney, and is a time-enduring testament to one man’s vision for “golden rule shopping” in the early 20th century. Nearby, the home that Penney and his wife owned is currently a walk-in museum, where visitors can learn more about the history of the Penney family, the first store and get a glimpse of what it was like living in Kemmerer back in the day.
However, apart from some of the more light-hearted footnotes in the town’s history, there have also been some tragedies in Kemmerer’s timeline. Although a successful mining town, the area has experienced some of the state’s worst mining disasters of all time. Of the mining accidents that have occurred near Kemmerer, none is more infamous than what is referred to as “the 99.”
On August 14, 1923, the towns of Kemmerer and Frontier were rocked when 99 miners died in a mine explosion. People from all over the area lost somebody they knew, and to this day it’s the second-deadliest coal mining accident in Wyoming history. Even today, the residents remember the tragedy.
“We had relatives who died in the accident,” Sue Giorgis, a local resident explained. “Even now, as we approach 99 years of ‘the 99’, the event is near and dear to everyone’s hearts. It was devastating. However, it did bring us all together, which was important.”
Following the tragic explosion, the towns of Kemmerer and Frontier held a three-day joint funeral service for the 99 miners who had died. They were all buried the weekend after the incident.
“When accidents like ‘the 99’ happened, morticians from all over the state would come to Kemmerer to fight for their business,” said Giorgis about the tragedies in the community. “Back in the day, if a body fell off a wagon, it was like calling dibs on who got to handle it.”
Bootlegging & Prostitution
In addition to the mining accidents in the area, Kemmerer earned quite a reputation when it came to controversy. The bootlegging and prostitution within the communities helped make Kemmerer and Lincoln County an area notorious for cowboy vices.
During Prohibition in the 20th century, the people of Lincoln County got crafty. Between the communities of Kemmerer, Diamondville, and Frontier, people would have bootlegging tunnels underneath their houses, so they could hide and share booze on the down-low. Additionally, they’d also hollow out the bottoms of wagons and vehicles for transporting alcohol. This, along with the secret moonshine labs they’d hidden around the county, helped the people to enjoy their liquor discreetly, away from prying eyes.
Apart from the bootlegging, the prostitution in the area also made Kemmerer a must-stop destination for many weary cowboys. Places like the old Southern Hotel in Kemmerer helped the prostitution business briefly thrive in the the early to mid-1900s. The brothel saw various patrons from all around the area, from cowboys to cattle hands, travelers to residents and even mountain men who would journey into town barefoot just to have a visit with a mistress in the hotel. Both the prostitution and bootlegging in Kemmerer’s history make the town a very colorful place to learn about.
Today, most of this history can be learned first hand upon visiting this wonderful town. The museums and businesses scattered all across Kemmerer, Frontier, and Diamondville tell a story of not only the controversial parts of being in the Wild West, but it also exemplifies the perseverance and authenticity of a community that has withheld the turning of time. The coals and million-year-old fossils are fascinating to learn about, but what makes Kemmerer and the surrounding communities so meaningful is their stories. Lincoln County glows with the rich encapsulation of a different time in American history, one where the cattle ranches and hunting weren’t just for fun, but were practiced as a way of life. Similar to the coal they’ve mined for years, the residents of Lincoln County are a testament that with the pressures of time comes the formation of something beautiful; Kemmerer and its stories are certainly a gem in the Wild West.
Make sure to check it out on your next vacation or adventure, you’ll be sure to leave with some incredible stories of your own.