Pennsylvania is a state with deep roots in coal; its coal fields contribute greatly to the geological makeup of its geography. Coal was a driving force behind the steel industry and coal employed a huge work force that. Through several major strikes and incidents, coal workers actually helped shape the future of the unions and legislation which pertains to it. For today’s blog post, let’s take a look at the types of coal Pennsylvania has, mining methods, mining disasters, books about coal and a bit of coal history.
Types of Coal and Mining Methods
From state line to state line, coal can be found within many Pennsylvania’s counties. Many of those coal fields are named after the individual who either discovered it, or the one who bought the land in order to mine it. A good seventy-five percent of the fields are located in the western half of the state, with a mix of different kinds of fields spread out closer to the east coast.
One only has to look at the sweep of the bituminous coal fields to know that that is the same flow as that of the Allegheny Mountains. Or, if you’re a geologist, the Allegheny “plateau,” since the mountains aren’t really mountains at all.
If you look at a map of towns and villages closer to central PA, you’ll notice that these settlements also follow the curve of the land. As such, the placement of the anthracite fields also makes sense in geological terms. Let’s take a look at the two main types of coal that were (and in some places still are) mined here in Pennsylvania.
As with any natural resource, anthracite coal doesn’t have just one type in of itself. Geology classifications include “standard grade,” “high grade,” and “ultra high grade,” and are graded based on several properties. These properties include: moisture, ash, volatiles, fixed carbon and sulfur levels.
The Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania encompasses six counties in Pennsylvania: Carbon, Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northumberland, and Schuylkill (a small portion of Dauphin County also contained coal). This region contains the only reserves of United States’ anthracite coal, which was heavily mined throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. […]
Originally inhabited by the Delaware and Susquehannock nations, the first anthracite coal was discovered in the mid-18th century and the first mine established in 1775 near Pittston, Pennsylvania. By the 1820s, coal was being shipped in large quantities out of the region. The population rapidly grew following the American Civil War, with the expansion of the mining and railroad industries.Home – Anthracite Coal Mining Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania – Library Guides at Penn State University (psu.edu)
Older than bituminous, anthracite is not as commonly found as its softer counterpart. While there is a coal type even younger than bituminous – lignite – it isn’t as valuable as anthracite or bituminous. Anthracite’s properties – harder, fewer impurities, contains more carbon – is what makes it so difficult to mine.
Chemically, anthracite may be considered as a transition stage between ordinary bituminous coal and graphite, produced by the more or less complete elimination of the volatile constituents of the former, and it is found most abundantly in areas that have been subjected to considerable stresses and pressures, such as the flanks of great mountain rangessource
Burning coal for heat and fuel is nothing new, not even in 1700s America. Pennsylvania’s river systems (and subsequently its canals and railroad systems), were used from the very beginning to ship coal to buyers. Iron furnaces began popping up across Pennsylvania, and it was seen as a “cleaner” source of fuel over bituminous.
While mining in Pennsylvania isn’t as common today as it was in the early 1700s, it’s still a viable industry elsewhere. From hundreds of mines in the early 20th century to just around 40 today, the shift in Pennsylvania’s work force from blue to white collar is evident among this state’s residents.
As with anthracite, bituminous coal also has its own set of properties to contend with. Known as “dirty coal,” it gives off more fumes, and is softer, making it easier to mine. “The largest number of mine sites are found in Clearfield, Somerset, and Indiana counties.” source
There is an amazing story out of the Somerset area which concerns the Quecreek Mine. Still in operation in 2002, it was home to a disaster that could’ve ended very poorly for the miners and their families. Not even one year after the attacks on September 11th, 2001, Pennsylvania was home to one of the worst mining accidents and biggest rescue effort ever. The disaster and rescue would later be featured in several documentaries. Somerset County is deeply rooted in bituminous coal.
Another mine, also located in Somerset, is now home to a very famous (or infamous) memorial. It’s the Flight 93 Memorial, as the plane crashed near Shanksville due to the heroism of the passengers instead of the hijacker’s intended target. It crashed on an filled with coal mines. “At the time of the crash, the mines around Lamberts Run were owned by PBS Coals, Inc. They were shuttered soon afterward, and the families of Flight 93’s passengers and crew were looking to buy the roughly 900 acres from the coal company for the memorial.”
Coal, on the whole, has a storied past with the residents of Pennsylvania. While it was instrumental in putting Pennsylvania on the map as a hub for industry during America’s Victorian Era and industrial revolution, it’s peppered with disasters of all kinds.
Unlike anthracite, bituminous coal was used far more often in industry. Most commonly known is the making of coke and steel. It’s often synonymous with names like HC Frick and Andrew Carnegie, who were among the first in Pennsylvania to harness its potential. Though not as widely used during our time as it was in theirs, it is still mined in several states: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana.
Room and Pillar
Room-and-pillar mining involves driving tunnel-like openings to divide the coal seam into rectangular or square blocks. These blocks of coal, or pillars, are sized to provide support for the overlying strata. The openings are referred to as rooms or entries. In older mines, entries normally ranged from 8 to 30 feet (2.4 to 9.1 meters) wide, while pillar sizes varied considerably.source
Drift mining is either the mining of an ore deposit by underground methods, or the working of coal seams accessed by adits driven into the surface outcrop of the coal bed. A drift mine is an underground mine in which the entry or access is above water level and generally on the slope of a hill, driven horizontally into the ore seamsource
Longwall mining is a form of underground coal mining where a long wall of coal is mined in a single slice. […] Longwall mining has been extensively used as the final stage in mining old room and pillar mines. In this context, longwall mining can be classified as a form of retreat mining.source
Strip [Surface] Mining
Strip mining is the practice of mining a seam of mineral, by first removing a long strip of overlying soil and rock (the overburden); this activity is also referred to as overburden removal. It is most commonly used to mine coal and lignite (brown coal). Strip mining is only practical when the ore body to be excavated is relatively near the surface and/or is mostly horizontal.source
Several years ago during my research phase for the now shelved WIP called Project Firedamp, I stumbled upon a massive list of every coal mining accident and disaster recorded for history. While disappointing and sad to see the loss of life of this harsh field of work, this was a great resource that helped me pinpoint several plot devices. While I can’t seem to find it now, I did come across another such list of mining disasters that took place between the anthracite and bituminous coal mines throughout their rough histories.
Centralia, Columbia County
I tried to stay away from this particular instance, but how can I have a post about Pennsylvania coal and not mention one of the weirdest, unfortunate incidents related to coal mining?
Rolling Mill, Johnstown, Cambria County
Johnstown, known mainly for the infamous Flood of 1889, was home to several industries, including coal mining.
Sheppton, Schuylkill County
In fact, Wikipedia provides a whole list of Pennsylvania coal towns
- Boston Run
- Brandy Camp
- Buena Vista
- Coal Hollow
- Coal Mining in Plymouth
- Dagus Mines
- Fayette City
- Forest City
- Glen Carbon
- and many more…
Books About Coal (and other resources)
(and other resources)
There are many many more books about coal mining across the United States (not just in Pennsylvania), and there have been many more incidents between coal miners and those who own the mines. As with anything, coal had its time and its place. It was an industry that grew hard and died fast, but it provided hundreds of thousands of workers a means to live. While a coal miner’s life wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy, coal eventually helped shape current labor laws, showed what unions can be good for, and fueled — quite literally — an entire nation through its industrial revolution.
Coal fueled everything from blast furnaces and crucibles to Henry Clay Frick’s coke industry and Andrew Carnegie’s steel company. From breaker boys to foremen to every individual in between, those whose families have called Pennsylvania home for decades know the impact of coal on our Commonwealth. There’s a reason why many Pennsylvania homes have mini, dirty bathrooms in their basements. There’s a reason why many regions became depressed in the 70s and 80s as the coal industry really began to collapse. And there’s a reason why the folks who lived through that time are so special.
Mining is a dirty, dirty job. Not everyone wanted to be a part of it, but they found themselves in the throes of a highly volatile and dangerous industry nonetheless. While many don’t know any history related to this early form of fuel, I choose to preserve it here. It’s a rich history that’s hard to ignore. Especially if you consider yourself a Pennsylvanian.