In 1908, around one thousand people lived in the Sheridan County town of Monarch. Four hundred and fifty men worked in the nearby Monarch Mine, collecting a total payroll of $30,000 every month. That was in 1908. Monarch was among the giants of Sheridan County's booming coal industry, one of the coal camps that flourished in the Tongue River Valley between the city of Sheridan and Ranchester from 1893 until 1953 when the last of the underground mines closed.
Monarch and four other mining communities – Dietz, Kleenburn, Acme and Kooi – are destination points in a new self-guided tour in Sheridan County: the Black Diamond Trail. CDs for the tour are available at the Sheridan County Museum off Fifth Street for residents and visitors to the community, and are $3 each.
The trail is part of the Wyoming Historic Mine Trail and Byway Program created by the Wyoming legislature in 2005 to identify and designate historic mine locations and trails within the state. The Black Diamond Tour, just completed this year, was developed through a partnership with the Sheridan Community Land Trust.
Anyone planning to take the tour is advised that it includes unpaved county roads. Drivers should consider recent weather conditions and vehicle size when deciding whether to follow the tour in some areas, and there is no turn-around space for large recreational vehicles at Dietz and Monarch.
Monarch was born in 1903. That year's Oct. 22 edition of the Sheridan Post noted that Stewart Kennedy and friends were building “a real mining camp” at the site of their mine – which also was called Monarch.
The company, the Post reported, was constructing 36 dwellings, a blacksmith shop, general store, carpenter shop and school house.
A later – Dec. 17 – issue of the Post noted that the venture of Kennedy and friends had incorporated earlier in the year as the Wyoming Coal Mining Company, capitalized for $1 million and headquartered in Omaha, Neb. E.M. Holbrook was president, E.T. McCarthy vice president and general manager, W.G. Birkhaeuser treasurer, and L.H. Watts secretary.
Kennedy was mine superintendent. The underground mine was in active operation by around July 7, the town – sited on the south bank of the Tongue River at the mouth of Dry Creek – named and planned by the end of that month. By December, according to the Post, 100 men were employed at the mine, a work force expected to double within a few weeks.
Mine payroll was reported at around $7,500 a month, and the miners, aided by horse-drawn two-ton cars, hauled out around 500 tons of coal a day. Monarch coal supplied homes and businesses not only in Sheridan County and elsewhere in northern Wyoming but North and South Dakato, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska – and farther away to Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.
In the meantime, according to the December Post, the town of Monarch boasted 40 residences, four boarding houses and the Monarch Trading Company, then managed by W.F. Patterson. The residences, the Post noted, came from American Portable House Co. of Seattle, which built them in sections and shipped them to the purchase site to be assembled by a local representative of the Washington-based company.
The early 1900s saw the first great coal boom for Sheridan County. Monarch was just one of a dozen or so communities that flourished chiefly in the area of the Tongue River Valley between Sheridan to the south and the towns of Ranchester and Dayton to the north.
Monarch and its sister-communities were established by the companies that owned the mines and were owned by those companies, lock, stock and company store.
Accounts varied as to Monarch's exact location. The December 1903 newspaper put the site at about seven miles north and three miles west of Sheridan. In 1908, a writer for the Sheridan Enterprise put the distance from Sheridan at about nine and a half miles. In that year, Monarch boasted a population of around 1,000, and the mine enjoyed a reputation as the best producer in the district – up to 2,250 tons of coal going over the tipple in a single day.
Some 450 men worked in the mine at that time, and the monthly payroll ran around $30,000.
The best years for all of Sheridan County's coal mines were the “teens” and early 1920s, when World War I and its immediate aftermath created a demand for domestic coal. The Monarch mine hit its peak year in 1918 with just under 1.9 million tons of coal extracted and shipped out. In its heyday, the town counted 168 residences, and an electrified trolley car connected Monarch and the other mining communities with the city of Sheridan.
Although the market for coal did not die immediately, company officials would never see a year as good for coal as 1918.
Still, the mine at Monarch outlasted its contemporaries in the Tongue River Valley, mine and town surviving the Great Depression and hanging on despite a diminishing demand for coal. A Catholic Church was built in the late 1920s to serve the community's needs, and at one time, a movie house reportedly did a thriving business.
In the 1940s, World War II created a fresh demand for domestic coal, and the Monarch mine again saw production rise, though never to the levels of its glory years.
And methods for mining coal were changing, the old underground “slope” and “tunnel” mines – labor-intensive – giving way to strip mining in which the top layers of soil - “overburden” - are peeled away to expose the veins of coal beneath. Big Horn Coal Company brought the new method into Sheridan County. Sheridan-Wyoming Coal Company, which then owned Monarch, merged with Big Horn in 1953.
In May of that year, the company announced that Monarch – the last operating underground mine in Sheridan County – would close. On May 1, the company sent notices to the estimated 500 remaining residents of the town of Monarch that they had until Sept. 1 to move.
Most of the residents obeyed the company's directive. A few did not. An Oct. 21, 1953, article in The Sheridan Press noted that five families still lived in the Monarch townsite while children finished out their final year at the community's school.
Many of Monarch's residents moved to Sheridan. Some of the mine's employees took jobs with Big Horn Coal. The townsite was later acquired by the Padlock Ranch. All that remains today are a few livestock structures, the town water tower, St. Thomas Catholic Church and the mine foreman's house.