Wright Area Chamber of Commerce
Powder River Basin History
The first settlers in Campbell County date back to pre-recorded history. Archeological excavations have revealed the presence of Palero Indian tribes, who used clubs, hammer stones, and spears to hunt for food over 10,000 years ago.
The first written account of white men coming to this area dates back to 1743 when three French Canadians wrote of the Big Horn range to the west. The Shoshone Indians and the mountains looked unfriendly to the Canadian expedition and they re-traced their trail to the east.
The entire region was under the control of the Crow Indians who, at that time, named most of the streams and dubbed the Powder River the CHAKADEE WAKOA or dusty river. Later, the Crow Indians were replaced by Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe. Many famous Indian chiefs traveled and fought in Campbell County, including Crazy Horse, Rain-in-the-Face, Dull Knife and Sitting Bull.
In the early 1800's, American mountain men began to traverse Campbell County as they crossed the area on their way to beaver country west of the Big Horn and Wind River Mountains. One of these men, Jim Bridger, led a hunting expedition sponsored by an Englishman, Sir St. George Gore. The United States Government followed with a topographical reconnaissance team lead by W. F. Reynolds.
In the spring of 1856, the Campbell County area was ceded to the Sioux Indians along with all the Powder River Basin and the Black Hills. In return, the C. B. & Q. was permitted to build its railroad.
Gold was discovered in Montana in 1863, but there was no route for supplies to the Oregon Trail other than the Missouri River. A Montana pioneer named John Bozeman decided to find a better route. The route, which crossed Campbell County, was named the Bozeman Trail.
The treaty with the Sioux Indians was violated in 1875 when the discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought a stampede of hopeful miners. Immediately, the Indians began raiding the surrounding area. All spring, summer and fall, the U. S. Calvary fought battle after battle, losing most to superior Indian forces.
Custer was annihilated June 25, 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. However, General Crook pursued the Sioux throughout the Powder River Basin and defeated Dull Knife on November 19, 1876 ending the warfare.
The buffalo were nearly gone, and the grass came up strong and nutritious. Next came the cattlemen - some from Europe, escaping the anthrax disease which had destroyed the beef herds in Europe, and some were rich Americans from the east.
In 1876, the closest shipping yards were 300 miles south on the Union Pacific. The C. B. & Q. Railroad came to Casper in 1888, but the cattle drive was still in excess of 150 miles.
In 1889 the C. B. & Q. prepared a survey route to Sheridan and on to Montana. Edward Gillette came to the Powder River area in 1890 and re-surveyed the route, resulting in significant changes. The railhead was named Gillette in honor of the surveyor.
The railroad into Gillette was completed on August 10, 1891. Herds of cattle were ready to ship, and a general carnival atmosphere was the order of the day. The cattle herds flourished. Gillette shipped more cattle than any other railroad shipping point in the world.
Sheep began to dot the county in the early 1900's and ranchers soon learned that sheep and cattle could share the same grassland. The wool and meat helped keep many ranchers in business when the cattle market dropped from time to time.
Frank Mondell first discovered anthracite coal in Newcastle in 1889. Discoveries throughout the area followed, and by 1924, the public power people in the Black Hills saw the answer to their power needs in the huge bold faces of coal east of Gillette which could be stripped from the surface. Four years later, the Wyodak Mine was built, and continues to produce coal to the present time. The Wyodak mine was the largest coal strip mine in the world for many years.
The area's first oil well was drilled in 1941 by Texas Gulf. It was a dry hole. Yet, 20 miles north of Gillette, Texas Gulf drilled and found oil. A refinery was built in Gillette but was short lived for lack of product.
The huge Belle Creek oil strike was made north of Gillette in 1955, followed by the Hi-Lite discovery in 1967 and the Hartzog Draw field near Pumpkin Butte in 1977.
In 1975, coal activities began in earnest in the Powder River Basin and continued to grow until reaching a peak in 1981. Today, numerous coal mines are found throughout the Basin.
The stepped up activity, combined with flourishing oil and tourist industries, has resulted in a population explosion. In 1940, there were 6,048 people residing in Campbell County. In 1975, that figure doubled to 13,100. The sluggish economy affecting most of the country slowed the population explosion. Today, Campbell County has a stable population of more then 24,000 people. A moderate growth rate of 10% is forecast for the future.