You Load Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get? – Coal Records in the National Register

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

poster of coal miner
“Mine America’s Coal” (National Archives Identifier 515013)

Tomorrow, Friday March 16, the exhibit “Power & Light: Russel Lee’s Coal Survey” opens at the National Archives Building in Washington DC.  It features “photographs of coal communities by American documentary photographer Russell Lee. These images tell the story of laborers who helped build the nation, of a moment when the government took stock of their health and safety, and of a photographer who recognized their humanity.”  Within the records of the National Register of Historic Places, there are more than six thousand properties that contain “coal” in the title, including the Peerless Coal Company Store in Vivian, West Virginia, “a community built on a level area off highway 52. The building was designed in 1921 by A.B. Mahood, a Bluefield architect who was responsible for many of southern West Virginia’s most notable buildings. The store’s distinctive characteristics are its size, modern design, irregular plan, stone foundation, and simple decoration. Although the building has been vacant for several years except for storage, it has deteriorated little and it retains the characteristics that clearly define its role as a coal company store and office building.”

“Before the coal industry boomed in southern West Virginia at the end of the nineteenth century, the area consisted of scattered, self-sufficient farms and communities. Because of the absence of railroads and good roads, the southern counties had little interaction with the rest of the nation. After the Civil War, however, the nation’s Industrial market expanded and outsiders began to turn their attention to West Virginia’s vast coal reserve to meet growing demands.

“The major railroads extended their lines into southern West Virginia allowing the area to be developed. Without a sufficient labor force, however, coal mining could not be productive. Companies recruited thousands of workers first from the older coalfields in Pennsylvania, and then from Eastern Europe and the American South. To accommodate these new arrivals, coal companies built self-sufficient communities to house and provide for their workers. The construction of company towns was absolutely necessary in southern West Virginia. Unlike the northern coalfields of Pennsylvania, where mining operations began in regions that were already settled, southern mines opened in sparsely settled areas with few organized communities. The company town was the most logical solution because it provided efficient and inexpensive housing for a large labor force.

“Central to each of these communities was the company store. The store was usually the town’s most prominent building and was typically placed in an easily accessible location. The building often housed not only a store but also the company’s business office, a post office, and sometimes, a doctor’s office. Because of its location and multiple functions, the store provided each community with a center for social gathering . . . Company stores were typically the center of commercial and social activity in the busy mining community and the Vivian store was no exception. Miners and their families typically visited the store daily to shop and to handle business matters. Because of its various functions and its location near the mine and residential areas, the company store was the center of commercial, business, and social activity in the Industrial community.”

coal tipple, cars, company store, WV
Loading tipple, coal cars and store. Kingston Pocahontas Coal Company, Warwick Mine, Welch, McDowell County, West Virginia (National Archives Identifier 540776)

The Pocahontas Coal Company was a large coal company than ran several mining operations across Virginia and West Virginia, including the Virginia NHL Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine (National Archives Identifier 41679163) in Pocahontas, “an inactive semi-bituminous coal mine located on the west side of Tazewell County Route 659 near where it intersects with Tazewell County Route 644 within the town of Pocahontas, Virginia. It is situated in an area of low mountain ridges and hills in northeastern Tazewell County less than one mile from the West Virginia state line. The mine opening is at an elevation of about 2400 feet above sea level, with adjacent hills cresting at 2700 feet. It is located at the southern terminus of Reedsville Hollow, historically known as Coal Branch Valley.”

“Mine Number 1, so named because of its being the first commercial mine opened in the Pocahontas coal field, achieved another “first” in 1938 when it became the first exhibition coal mine to be opened in the United States. At that time, active mining ceased in part of the mine and passages connecting that section with the West Mine were sealed allowing mining to continue in the remainder of the original mine. The fan house opening became the entrance and the original mine opening became the exit for people touring the mine by way of automobile or walking. Visitors touring the mine today still enter through the fan house opening and exit through the original entrance, but cover the one-quarter mile tour by walking rather than driving. Automobiles were discontinued about 1970 because of the damage auto emissions were causing to the roof of the mine.”

“Since the Exhibition Mine first opened in 1938 more than one million people have visited it. The mine is very popular with local schools extending as far away as Roanoke, Virginia. In fact, a tour through the Exhibition Mine is a requirement all students of the Tazewell County schools must meet before they graduate from high school. Tours for school groups are designed primarily for grades 5 & 6. The 45-minute escorted tour of the mine acquaints visitors with an account of the geologic history of coal formation using outstanding examples of fossilized ferns and large trees to illustrate that story, tells the history of coal mining and coke production at Pocahontas, and provides an opportunity for visitors to see various pieces of mining equipment and exhibits which explain the evolution of the extraction process. On display are tools ranging from basic hand held tools to the powerful electric coal cutting machines. All aspects of work in the mines are covered including discussions on safety, with reference to mine tragedies such as that which occurred in 1884 when 114 miners were killed by an explosion. The tour also covers the moving of the coal through the mine beginning with the early years when mules hauled the coal to the tipple where it was loaded into rail cars. By the mid-1890s, the mine was using a combination of mules and electric motor driven cars to move the coal. By the time the tour ends visitors have acquired a fairly comprehensive understanding of Pocahontas coal from its formation to its mining and its importance in the industrial development of this country.”

coal mining
SCOOPING COAL (National Archives Identifier 544379)

In Chickamauga, Georgia, the Georgia SP Chickamauga Coal and Iron Company Coke Ovens (National Archives Identifier 93209810) “are a battery of 36 beehive ovens located in a small city park north of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia . . . The coke ovens are located in a small park on Georgia Highway 341 approximately one mile north of downtown Chickamauga. . . The battery of coke ovens is aligned north to south along Coke Oven Creek and an abandoned railroad right-of-way to the west. The massive Burtco Tufing Carpeting Factory and warehouse is located to the south.”

“The Chickamauga Coal and Iron Company coke ovens are significant . . . because they are associated with the iron and steel industry in north Georgia, northern Alabama, and southeast Tennessee during the New South period between 1870 and 1929. The battery of 36 beehive coke ovens in Chickamauga is typical of the coke ovens that were built throughout the southern Appalachians. The Chickamauga coke ovens are among the few known to exist in Georgia. These coke ovens incorporated factory-like efficiency and railroad transportation to process vast amounts of coke and ship it to the iron and steel foundries of Chattanooga, Tennessee.”

“The Chickamauga Coal and Iron Company Coke Ovens are significant . . . because they are typical of the coke ovens that were built throughout the southern Appalachians. They represent the process of converting coal into coke, an important source of heat for iron and steel production. Similar coke ovens are located in southeast Tennessee and northern Alabama. Coke is a byproduct of coal that is produced by heating coal at high temperatures in controlled conditions. It is the main fuel in the iron-smelting process and it is used to make steel in blast furnaces because it burns longer, hotter, and more evenly than coal. The conversion of coal into coke for the smelting of iron was first attempted in England in the 18th century. Before this time, the production of iron utilized large quantities of charcoal, produced by burning wood. As forests dwindled, the substitution of coke for charcoal became common in Great Britain, and later in the United States. Before the advent of large-scale coke making, coke was manufactured by burning coal in heaps on the ground in such a way that only the outer layer burned, leaving the interior of the pile in a carbonized state. In the late 19th century, brick beehive ovens were developed, which allowed more control over the burning process.”

coal mining
Industries of War – Mining – Coal – Mining coal during the war. Superior Coal Mining Company plant in the Cherokee Coal field near Scammon, Kansas (National Archives Identifier 45488534)

In Reliance, Wyoming is the Reliance Tipple (National Archives Identifier 73730719) (a coal tipple is a structure used at a mine to load the extracted product (e.g., coal, ores) for transport, typically into railroad hopper cars), which “consists of two distinct features. The first is a tipple constructed from steel and concrete. The second is the site of the first wooden tipple. This site consists of a sandstone foundation and historical artifacts buried in a tailings pile adjacent to the original tipple. The standing steel tipple at Reliance was built on a concrete foundation. The steel I-beams were bolted to the foundation and rivets were used to connect the I-beams in the building superstructure . . . The sorting of coal was accomplished by towing coal cars to a rotary dump situated on the south end of the tipple. The coal was dumped into a hopper and conveyed to a shaker screen . . . To the east of the standing structure are the remains of the wooden tipple. This wooden tipple was placed on a sandstone foundation. This sandstone foundation exhibits excellent craftsmanship. The stones were shaped and cut and held together with mortar. When the steel tipple was constructed in 1936 the wooden tipple was dismantled, however, much of the original stone and coal dump were left in place. As a result, artifacts dating from 1910 to 1936 are evident within the dump. Most of the historic artifacts consist of mining equipment and railroad rails. These rails have dates stamp lad on the sides assisting in dating the period of operation.”

“Generally speaking, historians have tended to ignore coal mining in the West. Most of the literature about mining has centered on hard rock mines. Specifically, this focus has been on gold and silver mines in Colorado, California, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming. Coal camps were seemingly not as romantic as the gold and silver camps and they were dealt with only briefly. Even though coal fueled the smelters at a majority of the precious metal camps, coal mining was seen as secondary to the quest for gold. Coal also fueled the railroads that served the large heavy-metal mines and provided the means to transport various natural resources to market. Recently there has been widespread interest in coal camps . . . Coal was significant in the development of an American industrial revolution. As a fossil fuel, coal provided the infant industries with the energy needed to develop an industrial complex, including the steel empires of the East. Initially, this coal came from the eastern United States, especially from Pennsylvania and from the Appalachian chain. Labor was cheap and plentiful, so the mines of the East produced vast quantities of the inexpensive fuel that, in turn, fired the Industrial revolution in the Northeast, “As the West was settled during the mid-nineteenth century, precious mineral deposits were found and a need for locally produced coal occurred, this was due not only to the lack of suitable alternative fuels, but also thanks to prohibitive transportation costs from east to west”. In the West, the largest users of coal were in the mineral industries, especially gold, silver, and copper producers. Smelters from California to Colorado and Montana needed a steady supply of fuel, and coal was readily available. Initially smelters were fueled by charcoal made from locally available timber; but as mining and the population grew, forests surrounding mining camps were denuded. By the 1880s, smelters throughout the West were experiencing fuel shortages. The result was that new fuel sources were needed. The first major users of coal from the western coal reserves were railroads. In order to fuel the railroad, development of the vast coal beds was necessary. Building of the railroads also provided a means, of shipping coal to smelters throughout the West. The railroads provided the necessary capital for expansion and the needed transportation to get the fuel to market throughout the region. Thus, it was the coming of the railroads that caused the coal industry in the West to grow and flourish during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.”

coal mining Peabody Coal Company

Outside Port Graham, Alaska is the Coal Village (National Archives Identifier 75325586), which “is associated with attempts of the Russian American Company to diversify its exploitation of Alaska’s resources and, in part, to make the colony self-sustaining. The priority placed on this effort is evidenced by the fact that during its existence. Coal Village was the third largest settlement in Russian America. Had the project been economically rewarding, it might have dramatically increased Russia’s reluctance to relinquish her North Pacific colony; or, made that colony much more attractive to the United States’ chief competitor to be Russia’s successor—Great Britain. During its active period, however, the mine on Coal Cove only supplied fuel for Russian American Company steamers and for an unsuccessful attempt to market its product in California.”

“Europeans first became aware of coal in the vicinity of Coal Cove when English voyager Nathaniel Portlock stopped here in 1786. Samples of the coal were taken aboard Portlock’s ship and found to burn well. Nine years later, in 1795, Alexander Baranov, then chief factor for the Shelikov-Golikov Trading Company’s Alaskan activities, experimented with coal from the same locality, possibly for use in smelters. In 1850, mining engineer (or as he was then called, geonost) Peter Doroshin, charged by the Russian American Company with finding exploitable Alaskan resources with other than furs, examined coal seams at Coal Cove. In this same investigation, Kachemak Bay, Kanikagluk Bay, Unga, Port Holler, Cape Lisburne, Korovin Bay, Sitka, Kotznahoo Inlet; but on his return to Russia in 1853, urged the Company to begin mining operations at Coal Cove.”

Madrid Coal Mines
Turquoise Trail – Madrid Coal Mines (National Archives Identifier 7722604)

In Madrid, New Mexico, the Historic District (National Archives Identifier 77847562) is “situated in a deep gulch amid the arid, cactus covered foothills of the Ortiz Mountains in central New Mexico, [and is an] excellent example of a company-owned western coal mining town. The townsite, which is twenty-five miles southwest of Santa Fe and forty miles northeast of Albuquerque, is bisected by New Mexico Highway #14 which runs along the bottom of the gulch and is also the community’s main street where the buildings which housed the coal company offices, general store and more impressive residences are located. Running parallel to Main or Front Street and across the railroad right of way to the west is Back Street, the town’s other thoroughfare on which most of the miners houses still stand. Besides the townsite, the Madrid Historic District also includes the tipples, breakers, mine shafts, powder houses, and auxiliary structured erected on both sides of the gulch when the mines were in production.”

“During the early years, the few miners conducting independent operations in the gulch constructed small stone and adobe houses whose foundations can still be seen on the hillsides outside the Historic District. Although Madrid became a town on its present location with the advent of the railroad spur into the gulch in 1892, it was not until control of the mines passed to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1896 that the community began its long history of monolithic company control. Dominated by the Rockefeller interests, CF&I was not known for generous treatment of its employees and life was primitive and difficult for the miners in Madrid.”

Berryman cartoon
Coal Strikes (National Archives Identifier 6011747)

The coal industry for many years supported the United States economy.  In the early 20th Century, there were strikes by coal miners and railroad workers for better wages.  President Warren G. Harding supported the owners, believing that his concept of “normalcy” meant deflation. The United Mine Workers, led by John L. Lewis, went on strike to protest efforts by mine owners to scale back wages from $7.50 per day to the 1917 level of $5.00 per day in order to meet competition from non-unionized mines. After the old contract expired on March 31, 1922, over 600,000 union coal miners struck, supported by another 150,000 non-union miners. Similarly, railway workers went out on strike to protest proposed wage cuts. As the strikes continued on into the summer, state governors appealed to President Harding to take over the mines and railroads, but Harding refused. Violence had erupted in some states between strikers and strike-breakers. Harding did offer federal protection to workers who wished to return to work. In the political cartoon above, Clifford Berryman shows a determined Uncle Sam advising a coal mine operator: “You get the coal out and we will protect you.”

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.

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