Meet the Historical Women of Carbon County

Did you know that Wyoming wasn't even a state when it decided to grant women the right to vote? That’s right: women have been casting their ballots in Wyoming since 1869, when the ladies in the capital of Cheyenne demanded an equal voice. Explore the stories of some of Carbon County, Wyoming’s most legendary women, below.
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The pioneering spirit of the Equality State persists today, and nowhere is this more true than in Carbon County. We’ve had the pleasure of staying at a number of women-owned and operated businesses, and there are dozens more. But for those who want to step into Wyoming’s past and meet the women who shaped it while you “Get Your West On,” we’ve got you covered with the characters below.

This story was created in partnership with Carbon County, Wyoming. All photos below are from the Laura Webb Nichols collection, courtesy of the Grand Encampment Museum.

Lora Webb Nichols: Carbon County’s Most Prolific Photographer

Photo of Lora Webb Nichols
Lora Oldman with Hospital Bunch, Ginger, and her colt in 1911.

Today, anyone with a cell phone is a photographer. But that wasn’t the case in 1899! Lora Webb Nichols was an iconic Carbon County woman who turned photography into her profession and lifelong passion. The editor and publisher of the Encampment Echo and a dedicated journalist, Nichols added a tremendous amount of color to what life was like in Carbon County in the early 1900s. Over the course of her life she worked as a restaurant owner, a chef at a local ranch, and a superintendent of an orphanage. But she never gave up her love of photography. In fact, during her last few years, she continued to carry two cameras with her at all times.

Nichols’s full collection of images (24,000 negatives in total) are now housed at the Grand Encampment Museum in Encampment, Wyoming. 

Dr. Lillian Heath: Wyoming’s First Female Physician

Photo by Laura Webb Nichols
Sylvia Oldman sitting on the pipeline at ice hill in 1910.

Doctor Lillian Heath didn’t follow the typical mold for women in the west in the 1890s. Instead of minding the house, she pursued a career in medicine, much to the chagrin of some of her patients, and even her own mother. Despite this, Doctor Heath persevered and graduated from medical school in 1893—one of only three women in her class. Her specialty? Anesthesia and plastic surgery, which was a considerable specialty at the time. Doctor Heath has a number of incredible stories from her time as a physician, including using the skull cap of notorious outlaw Big Nose George Parrot as a flower pot. One thing is for certain—Doctor Heath was tough as nails. When required, she would ride her horse up to 40 miles to treat patients while carrying her .32 caliber revolver and dressing as a man for safety. After her medical career wrapped up, she continued working as a model (she was a “perfect 36,” after all). Doctor Heath passed away at the age of 96; a final feat that speaks as much to her character as her good genes.

Discover more about Doctor Heath at the permanent display at Carbon County Museum in Rawlins. 

The Lyre Girls: First Newspaper Women in Wyoming

Group Portrait by Laura Webb Nichols
A group on horses at Encampment in 1899.

The oldest of nine children, sisters Gertrude Huntington Merrill and Laura Huntington Heath left their mark on Carbon County in the 1890s. Together they were the editors and owners of the Platte Valley Lyre, a Saratoga-based newspaper. While female editors weren’t unheard of at the time, the Huntington sisters were the first in Wyoming. Each week, the 20-somethings would set the four-page newspaper by hand. There was no better time to be in the business. After all, this was an exciting time in Carbon County history. The Lyre reported on Wyoming’s statehood, the grand opening of the Hotel Wolf, the copper mining boom in neighboring Grand Encampment, and more. The Huntingtons even engaged in a mostly friendly rivalry with the other local paper, the Saratoga Sun. They even included a column titled “For Women and Home” to highlight a perspective the male-owned Sun didn’t have. Although Gertrude and Laura only published the Lyre until 1902, the paper remains a valuable resource to historians and anyone interested in the early years of Carbon County.

Original issues can be found and enjoyed at the Grand Encampment Museum.

Edith Birchall: One of Carbon County’s Most Resilient Women

Characters of Carbon County by Laura Webb Nichols
Lora Nichols at the of 16 on January 6, 1900 wearing her mother’s hat. Pankey’s dog shaking hands on Encampment’s Freeman Avenue in 1910.

The story of Edith Birchall provides insight into the difficulty of life on the early frontier. An immigrant to Carbon County in 1906, Birchall came from England along with her father and brother when she was only 18 years old. Two uncles joined them in Hanna to work at the coal mines the following year. The only female in the family, it was Birchall’s task to cook for the men and keep the house in order—no easy task, particularly in Union Pacific company housing where space was limited. Then on Saturday March 28, 1908, everything changed. The family was inside playing games when they heard an explosion. The miners went to investigate, and Birchall remained home to prepare dinner for the evening. The men never came home to eat. The mine had exploded again, killing 59 men total and making it one of the most deadly mining disasters in history. Afterwards, Birchall remained in Hanna for the remainder of her life; a testament to her courage to be in a new country alone after suffering such a tragedy. 

You can view Birchall’s mourning attire and learn more about Carbon County’s coal mining history at the Hanna Basin Museum.

Learn more about stories like these and more at the many historic sites around the county. As you plan your travels to Carbon County to walk in the footsteps of women like this, and to carve your own storyline out here, remember to travel safely and responsibly.

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