With the first small coal mines opening in 1909 in the Gillette area, the Campbell County summer coal mine tours have been an integral part of local summer tourism for around 30 years now. In 2018, the Campbell County produced 38.6 percent of all U.S. coal, according to the Wyoming State Geological Survey.
The Eagle Butte Mine, even with ownership changes throughout the years, hosted the tours until the mine closed in July of this year. During the three-week gap, while tours were being rescheduled or cancelled, Kiewit’s Buckskin Mine stepped up to keep the tours rolling. The first tour at the facility was July 22.
“The tour guides were really good this summer,” said Russell Krall, general manager of Buckskin. “We enjoy having people out who are curious and want to educate themselves.”
The Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CCCVB) organizes the summer mine tours and shuttles guests, upon signing a waiver and paying a $5 fee, to the mine where skilled guides provide them with a first-hand look at the mining process and a stop at the viewing stand that overlooks the Buckskin pit and two coal seams.
This summer was a conundrum for many local mine employees as well as the mine tours. The majority of visitors are U.S. residents from outside the Cowboy State. In 2018, the total was 1,805 visitors including 53 international guests.
In 2019, with the three-weeks of cancelled tours and a season that was shortened by two weeks due to tour guide schedules, there were only 603 visitors, according to CCCBV Executive Director Mary Silvernell. When Eagle Butte closed the gates, 1,400 people were already signed up for the tour; PGI alone had 400 people scheduled for mine tours.
“The mine tours create additional overnight stays. People will come to the area the night before, spend the night at a hotel, have dinner, get gas, and so forth so the tours really are an economic-impact driver,” said Silvernell.
Several variables must work out for the summer mine tours to continue next year including a continued partnership with Buckskin. Silvernell said the CCCVB is looking at leasing a 24-passenger van since they may or may not have access to the current tour van next year. It’s also difficult to find qualified tour guides with a working knowledge of mining, a Commercial Drivers License (CDL), and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) certification.
The typical summer mine tour season runs the Friday before Memorial Day through the Friday before Labor Day with two daily tours each weekday. With the sudden change to Buckskin, the tours ran once daily.
Should all things work out, the CCCVB “is hoping to potentially extend the season next year,” said Silvernell, adding there is a market for retirees, people who travel without children, and even hunters.