Coal in the Wyoming Powder River Basin

October 31, 2012 Travis Dewitz

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One of my favorite places to be is the expense of Wyoming’s landscape located between Gillette to the north and Douglas to the south. It is in a very busy, middle of nowhere 113 mile stretch. The lonely stretch of highway 59 runs north and south between Gillette and Douglas with the only other town of Wright in the middle. Well, unless you call the shanty store and railroad crew hotel in Bill a town. This is northeastern Wyoming at its finest with long rolling golden grasslands that seem to go on forever. The area is known as the Powder River Basin and it is the largest coal producing area in the United States. The sub-bituminous coal is located near the surface which makes it easier and more cost effective to extract than deeper underground seams. The coal is extracted from large open pits mines by huge draglines. The coal is then transported to crushers that break the coal up into smaller chunks by very large coal haul dump trucks. Conveyors then take the coal from the crushers to tall silos. These large concrete silos are also known as coal loadouts which gravity fills 110 plus car trains. Almost all of the coal is exported by rail to shipping ports and power plants. BNSF and Union Pacific railroads operate on this section of tracks between Gillette and Douglas which serves 10 coal mine loadouts. More coal mines are served to the north of Gillette all the way into Montana. The coal in the Powder River Basin is from prehistoric inland seas that existed here. As the land rose, the seas drained out leaving swampland. The peat in the swampland is what was transformed into the coal they mine today. This coal subbituminous, which is low in ash, and low in sulfur. This is what makes it much cleaner to burn than other types of coal. The drawback is that it has a lower BTU rating which means more has to be burned to create as much energy as higher BTU rated coal.  The Powder River deposit is one of the largest coal deposits in the world but only about 6% of the coal can be mined affordably as the rest of it is buried too deep.  A curious oddity of underground coal seams are the fires. These underground coal fire can burn for years such as one north of Gillette on the Pee Gee Ranch which has been burning for over 70 years. A famous coal fire in the United States is the one in Centralia, Pennsylvania which has been burning since 1962. One fire in New South Wales, Australia has been burning over 2,000 years and is now about 500 feet below the surface of the earth.


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About the Author
Travis Dewitz is a professional photographer located out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He has been published in many books and magazines including many in the railroad industry. He does a lot of photography work and environmental portraitures for many companies and heavy industries in and around Wisconsin. He has grown up with trains and railroads are one of his passions that he pursues. His railroad photography can be seen on his website The Railroad Collection.

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Travis Dewitz

My name is Travis Dewitz and I am from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. My specialty is commercial photography with a love for expressive portraits. My work is Conceptual, Emotive, Editorial, Surreal and Eclectic. I am passionate about fashioning new worlds through photographs as I extend my visions beyond the realm of the camera. I have incredible vision, which you can see in all of my photos.

Comments (19)

  1. It has been around 20 to 25 minutes since I started to discover this amazing photo-essay. And the first thing that comes to my mind: WOW!

    The PRB is famous area for railfans. I’ve never been there but most of the common pictures are done from the same spot (a bit like Cajon I think) and by sunny weather. Here you really bring us around and we really travel with you.

    I love the dirt and the darkness of winter season. My favorite are the one at night.

    Congratulations with this great job and thanks for sharing it with us. Thanks to show how railfaning by not-sunny weather can be creative and fun!

  2. Impressive set of images Travis. You did a great job of capturing the immense scope of this operation (the coal mines and the shippers). You also did a great job of capturing the scale of the trains versus the landscape versus the built environment. We think of coal trains as huge but in comparison to the silos and the wide open spaces of Wyoming they are tiny. I really enjoyed looking through these!

  3. Mac McDonald

    What a beautiful tribute to this mighty display of American
    strength. Have spent many an hour being totally delighted with this display of strength. In Bill, try to avoid drinking the coffee at Bills Store, if there is any option available
    Thanks for this amazing offering.

  4. W. T. REILLY

    What a great picture display of this area! My mind is completely blown how things look now as opposed to my 1st day on the job in Apr. 76 when I was assigned as assistant supt of trans.
    The 1st week i hi-railed the alliance division, and at that time the only mine in opeation was the Bellayr mine. We had just finished construction of the 1st mile beyond it.

    as a matter of fact nothing looks as it did 8 years later when i was assigned to Ft. Worth.

  5. Douglas G. De Berg

    I’ve not seen photo’s like yours. They have soul and feeling within each photo that I can understand and the soul and feeling is jumping and schemeing to escape. Great stuff.

  6. Regan Rickson

    I can’t imagine how much misery you must have endured to capture those great winter shots. I know it’s windy out there, which only compounds the cold.
    I assume those abandoned rail shots are of the Cowboy line. I followed it west on 20 from Crawford to the state line once and could only find roadbed and at least one pleasing historical marker.

  7. Hi Travis,

    This is actually my fourth time back to look at this set, and it is never anything than a thorough privilege and thrill to look at such an inspiring and artful set of images. It’s criminal that we all get to see these for free you know 🙂

    I’ll be driving through this region in a few weeks time, and although my time there will be fleeting, these images will be foremost in my mind whenever I get a chance to lift the camera.

    Thanks so much for sharing!


  8. Travis,

    My thanks for your sharing your passion and livelihood with us. The many trains that I work on as a Union Pacific R.R. conductor shuttle coal across Nebraska and Iowa to fuel the thirsty power plants that dot the landscape of the Midwest. Yes, the trains appear as ants against the backdrop of the vast Wyoming landscape. Millions of jobs and families depend upon these natural resources that the current executive branch seems hell bent on curtailing. Those resources are there to be harvested and used for the good of all mankind in a responsible manner. I’m very thankful for all the men and women who have dedicated themselves to bring these resources to all of us to make us all comfortable and more productive. I see little evidence in D.C. these days of that sort of activity as a whole. Please continue telling America’s story in this grand manner my friend, it’s appreciated!
    Kenny L. Hutcheson,CMSGT,USAF/USN, Ret.(1970-2004)
    Union Pacific R.R., Council Bluffs Service Unit Train Conductor (2005- Present)

  9. Alan Stufflebeam

    Wow !!! Nice pic’s of what I did for over 32 years, Working at Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte Mines and living in Gillette, Wy.

  10. Lynn Sweet

    Thank you for trying to represent NE Wyoming and the coal industry in a positive way. However, I feel the need to express my concerns about your article and photos. The article seems as though it was written in a haphazard way or done very quickly without regard to grammar or all of the correct facts. Your photos while most of them were well done, in most cases do not represent this area very well to anyone that may want to look at our livelihoods in a negative manner. In fact, I work at one of the mines that you photographed and know for a fact that IF these were taken legally, were not approved by the proper personnel. Some of them appear that you are on property that is not allowed public access without a proper representative of the company. Some of your photos were taken on gloomy days, making it seem as though there is more smoke and dust in the photo than there should be. I give tours to folks from all over the world and wish I would have known you were doing something like this. I would have wanted to help. I still would like to help, if you wouldn’t mind.

  11. Nancy Larkin

    Thought your pics and comments were great…not living in Wy, I had no idea about the coal mines…good to know.

  12. Very, very nice shots! I too have been fascinated by the Powder River. Have been there10 times but never in winter. Guess I am a summer Railfan. I recognize most of the locations, mines, directions, etc. i have posted a few images on the Pbase site.
    Thanks for sharing!

  13. David Stevenson

    All of the mines you photographed I have bee to and delivered parts or picked up parts for L&H Industruial from Gillette, WY. The town of Bill alays needs a P.O. , grocery and a bar! Excellent photographs.

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