Gillette Days

Roger Funston

© Copyright 2024 by Roger Funston

Photo by Erik den Yngre at Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Erik den Yngre at Wikimedia Commons.

In 1980, I joined Arco Coal in the Denver Corpirate office, where I spend a good deal of time providing permit assistance for the BlackThunder Mine, a large open pit coal mine located near Gillette, Wyoming.

Back then, there were two commuter airlines that flew from Denver to Gillette--Air US and Rocky Mountain Airways. We used to call them Scare US and Rocky Mountain Scareways. They were 16 seater cigar-shaped planes. The cabin was only five feet tall in the center, so you had to bend down to get to your seat. The ticket said “snack”, which was a bag of peanuts and a soda you got from the small refrigerator located at the back of the plane. But you had to be careful about drinking soda early in the flight because there was no bathroom and the trip was 90 minutes long and bumpy.

On one of these trips to Gillette, I was finishing up some work before leaving, so I took the late afternoon flight. The plane flew at around a 5,000 foot elevation through the Powder River Basin. The coal mines were all lined up from south to north. Back in those days, I could walk into the cockpit and tell the pilots the names of each coal mine we flew over.

When flying over the Rocky Mountains in the summer time, occasionally a thermal pocket would be encountered and the plane would lose elevation in a few seconds. This was one of those flights. My stomach went into my throat and my head hit the top of the sloping cabin roof, even though I had my seat belt fastened.

As the plane was approaching the air strip, it suddenly pulled up from landing and circled the airport for several minutes. It turned out there was a Pronghorn Antelope on the runway and the plane had to wait to land until the antelope was shooed off.

When I got to the Holiday Inn, the only room left was the bridal suite. The room had a water bed, red velvet curtains around the bed and a mirror on the wall above the bed. Very kinky!

A co-worker (Jim) accompanied me on this trip. We walked quite a bit that day. When we got back to the hotel, evidently, he had had quite a bit to drink in his room before dinner. Something about an old foot injury from jumping out of the window when the husband came home.

We went off to dinner and ordered. This is when Jim said he had to go to the restroom. He was gone a long time and eventually our food came, but no Jim. So I went to check up on him. Jim was a big guy, about six foot four. When I went into the restroom, I saw the back side of legs sticking out of the toilet stall and Jim retching into the toilet. Later, Jim kept saying, “Don’t tell Don, don’t tell Don”. Don was our boss.

The hotel had a Holidome, common in Holiday Inns in the 70s and 80s. The Holidome had an indoor courtyard surrounded by hotel rooms that had tropical-theme decor, a kidney-shaped pool with a tiki bar, table tennis, billiard tables and shuffleboard. Rather kitschy, but it was nice to go for a swim after dinner.

The next day, one of the engineers at the mine (also Jim) flew back to Denver with us. Our flight was delayed, so we hung out in the airport bar. Jim was drinking a few too many beers. We tried to warn him, to no avail. About halfway through the flight, he had a pained look on his face. He almost killed a few passengers climbing over them to get to the restroom.

I transferred to the Black Thunder Mine in 1982 in the Encironmental Department. When I went there for my house hunting trip in early September, it was snowing sideways and the wind was blowing 40 miles per hour. I transferred there anyway.

The Black Thunder Mine is an open pit operation. Everything at the mine is oversized. The coal seam is 70 feet thick. The haul trucks hold 170 tons of material. Standing next to the haul truck, the top of my head was about halfway up the tire.

The trucks were loaded with 30 yard buckets. All day and night, 365 days a year, loaded haul trucks would climb out of the pit traveling less than 5 miles per hour. The graders and dozers were also huge. The equipment you see on highway projects looks like toys compared to the mine equipment. One hundred car unit trains would pass through a silo to be loaded. Five or six 100 ton unit trains would be loaded every day.

The coal seam and earth above the coal seam had to be fractured to mine it. This involved bulk mixing of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, ignited in a long series of shots by fuses. This was considered explosives manufacturing and was heavily regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The Environmental Department got involved in some pretty crazy wildlife protection projects because the operation was located on Federally owned land. There was a Golden Eagle nest that was in the eventual path of mining. Because they are a protected species, we experimented with relocating the nest when it was occupied by young to see if Mom would go to the new nest location. She did. We were also mining through sage grouse strutting grounds, another protected species. Sage grouse males use strutting grounds to court females. We were trying to find out if sage grouse would use alternative strutting grounds. They did.

The joke at the mine was that there are two seasons in a Wyoming, July 14 and the rest of the year. The winters could be brutal. Mining equipment ran on diesel fuel, so when it got really cold, the equipment was never shut down. All the pickup trucks had engine heaters, and even then sometimes they wouldn’t start in the morning. The roads were surfaced with rock so the trucks wouldn’t bog down in mud. After a significant snowstorm, the mine would shut down until the roads were plowed. You knew it was cold when Pronghorn Antelope would freeze to death standing up.

Occasionally, I had to work outside when it was very cold. I wore thermal underwear, a flannel shirt and heavy jeans, a down vest, insulated coveralls, heavy gloves and a ski hat under my hard hat with only my eyes uncovered. Even so, one could only work outside for about an hour at a time. We used to keep an eye on each other to make sure no one was getting goofy In the cold.

This was my first experience working at a remote, operating facility but not my last. I like on-the-ground work, but after I left Wyoming my blood thinned considerably And so I picked less brutal work climates for my future job odysseys.

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