Editor’s note: This is the second in a weeklong series of articles on the local and regional energy sector titled “Big Bang: The boom and bust energy industry.”
“When we go to Monarch, I can still tell you where people lived and where their houses were,” said Nancy Silla, a Sheridan resident who grew up in the mining town of Monarch, north of Sheridan.
Monarch coal mine operated from 1903 to 1953, but not much remains of the town. A church still stands and has now been renovated into a home.
The large house that was the home of the mine foreman is still there. But at one time, the town was home to more than 1,200 people, the majority of whom worked at the coal mine or in businesses supporting the mine.
Silla’s maternal and paternal grandparents were from the same village in Italy and came to the United States in the early 1900s, eventually taking up residence in Monarch.
“My mom’s mother and my dad’s mother both came over and both had 8-year-old children when they came,” she explained. “The guys came alone and saved money to bring their wives and kids over later.”
Silla’s father and both grandfathers, as well as numerous family members, were employed at the mine. Her father’s job entailed working at the bottom of a chute where coal was dumped for loading on trains.
Homes were provided to miners based on need and family size. The Silla home was comfortable, but lacked many of today’s basic conveniences such as indoor plumbing.
“When we first moved there, my mom’s father and her two brothers lived with us,” Silla said. “It was two bedrooms, so it was tight! We didn’t have any heat source in our house, so we had coal stoves and wood stoves.
“Our electricity was a bulb hanging from the ceiling,” she added. “We didn’t have indoor bathrooms, so we had to go out to outhouses to go to the bathroom. For a bath, we had to get a big tub and my mom would fill it with water and we would take a bath in the kitchen.”
Though working in the mine provided a decent living for Silla’s father, grandfathers and uncles, she does believe the job took a toll on their health.
After the mine closed in the 1950s, Silla’s father eventually went to work at the Veterans Administration — now known as the Veterans Affairs Medical Center — as a cook. One day, a doctor at the facility noticed that Silla’s father did not look well.
“A doctor saw the tip of his nose was black, his fingertips were black and his eyes were blood shot,” Silla said. “They did a test on him and found polycythemia. He could have died at a really young age if the doctor had not found that.”
Polycythemia is a disease in which the level of red blood cells in the blood is abnormally high. It can occur as a result of lung disease which reduces blood oxygen levels.
“When they first discovered it in him he had to have eight pints of blood removed to make his red blood cell count down to normal. It was really amazing,” Silla said. “Then he would have to go every so often and have blood removed, every month or every two months, depending on what his red blood cell count was.”
Due to his almost 12 years underground in the mine, Silla’s father was able to have the cost of his medical care covered under the federal government’s Black Lung Disability Trust.
Silla said her father never talked about his disease or complained about his situation. He just accepted it as part of the hazard of his job. Being in an underground mine, the coal dust was ever present.
“When those guys would come out, all you would see were their eyes and their teeth,” Silla noted. “Everything else was covered in coal dust.”
In addition to physical hazards underground in the mine, Silla noted there were other issues to deal with above ground. She said there was often hostility against the mine workers and immigrants in general, especially from “city folks” in Sheridan.
“Oh yeah, you did,” said Silla, when asked if she and her family experienced prejudice due to their occupation or nationality. “They would call us ‘wops.’ They laughed and thought it was funny, but it kind of hurt sometimes. It wasn’t just the Italians that were singled out. They went after the Polish people and went after everybody.”
She said the prejudice extended beyond nationality and was extended to mine workers in general.
“I know growing up was really difficult for the kids that lived in Monarch because they were treated differently,” she said. “We weren’t quite good enough. It was pretty tough on kids. Even my mom, though she graduated from Sheridan High School, it was like, ‘oh, you are from the mines.’”
She noted that the Catholic church in nearby Kleenburn burned three times, incidents that she attributes to local member of the Ku Klux Klan.
“The KKK was very common in Monarch and Kleenburn,” Silla said. “That is something that my dad would talk about. When he was smaller he and a friend saw fires burning on the hills above Monarch and so they climbed up to look and see what they were. They were 9 or 10. They saw fires with people in white robes. The went back down really quick!”
Despite the prejudice, Silla said her childhood in Monarch was like any other.
“We played cowboys and Indians. We all had dogs and we all played with our animals,” she said. “I had wagons and we would pull the little kids in wagons and go to the school. I can remember my dad would be at the top of the pit, where they shot the coal down and we would be outside playing and he would wave to us.”
Silla had extended family in both Monarch and Kleenburn. The families were able to get together regularly, though a trip into Sheridan was rare, only happening once every few weeks. However, family and neighborhood gatherings for dinners, card games, celebrations and holidays were regular events.
Silla said it all ended almost overnight when the mine was closed in 1953 and workers received layoff notices. Some miners took jobs at surrounding mines and others moved away. Many of the houses in Monarch were moved to Sheridan and some are still in use.
“The thing you remember most is that everything was family oriented,” she said of her strongest memories of her time in Monarch. “It was like that in all those places. There are people that still call me, old neighbors and people that lived in the mines that you have known your whole life. It is pretty amazing. It’s not that way anymore. You don’t find it like that. But they were happy people.”
“People were very close,” she continued. “Monarch was a place where you have a lot of immigrants that came to work there, a lot of Polish, a lot of Italians. I don’t know that the groups got together, but they had their own cliques. Until the time the most of them died, they knew each other and kept in touch with each other. It was very close knit. It is like they shared something really special.”