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How Coal Built America

By Stephanie Jelks

The coal industry in America harks back to the days when what is now the United States was just a few British colonies. From its first discovery in Illinois to the birth of the industry in Virginia and Pennsylvania, coal has been a driving force behind the United States’ growth and development for decades. Coal had a part to play in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War in addition to being used to heat homes in the colonial era, fuel America’s industrial revolution, and drive technological change.

The coal industry played a fundamental part in the growth of the United States into a major global power. Technical innovations in the American coal industry advanced the growth of the railroad, iron, and electricity generation industries. The organization of miners into trade unions did much to improve working conditions for tens of millions of Americans. Without the advent, growth, and economic dominance of the coal industry, the United States of today would look like a very different place.


The first record of coal in the United States dates to 1673-74, when Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette identified it along the Illinois River, although it was until the 1740s that commercial coal mining began. Before America won its independence from Great Britain, the colonists had little use for coal. Wood, water, and animal products were widely used as fuel in the 17th century and throughout much of the 18th century (Adams, 2012). The first coal users in colonial America, who were typically blacksmiths, imported their coal from England or Nova Scotia, Canada (Energy BC, 2012).

In 1701, coal was found in the Manakin area near Richmond, Virginia and, by 1736, a map of the upper Potomac River (near the border of modern-day Maryland and West Virginia) showed several “coal mines.” The first “miners” in the American colonies were probably farmers who dug coal that was exposed on the surface and sold it by the bushel. Just over a decade later, in 1748, commercial coal production started in mines around Richmond (Energy BC, 2012). Coal mining in the United States remained a small industry until the 1800s.

After independence from Britain, the domestic coal trade in the United States became more important as imported coal became less common. Economic nationalists, including Alexander Hamilton, believed that the American coal trade—then centered in the Richmond coal basin—would provide the new country with a strategic resource for its growth and independence (Adams, 2002). However, the growth potential was limited before the turn of the 19th century. Slave labor was used in the Richmond basin, and it was especially difficult to fill the labor force during peak periods of agricultural activity. There were transport limitations, too. The turnpike road system was too expensive to cost-effectively transport coal, and the rivers near Richmond lacked the infrastructure to accommodate barge traffic and the facilities for loading, conveying, and distributing coal (Adams, 2002).

Anthracite coal was discovered in the mid-18th century and the first anthracite coal mine was established near Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1775 (Knies, 2022). Prior to its discovery, bituminous coal was the type of coal used in America. Anthracite coal has a higher carbon content than bituminous coal and it is also much harder (Adams, 2002). Anthracite coal became a common source of residential heating first in Philadelphia, then in other northeastern cities, and by the 1840s it was the standard form of coal used throughout the Eastern seaboard. Anthracite coal is a cleaner coal than bituminous coal and it is virtually smokeless. Technological advances made anthracite coal more desirable for industrial uses and from 1840 it was used to make iron (Arcadia Publishing, 2017). Anthracite coal was mined more than bituminous coal from 1843 to 1869, but limited deposits of anthracite coal and its decline in use in iron smelting meant that bituminous coal became the U.S.’s most mined coal again in 1869 (Angus, 2021). Bituminous coal remains the most mined coal in the United States today.

Coal use grew in the United States throughout the 19th century as mining and transport companies were established and the process of getting coal from mines to customers became more streamlined. Before the Civil War, the coal industry expanded to at least 20 states, including Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. Coal production grew from 240,000 tons in 1829 to 15.6 million tons in 1859 (Adams, 2002).

The Civil War led to major changes in the American coal industry. Although production was increasing before the war, coal prices were falling. In 1830, anthracite coal was sold for $11 per ton. By 1840, the price had decreased to $7 and in New York City it sold for $5.50 a ton in 1860 (Adams, 2002). During the Civil War, however, the Union Army and Navy demanded more coal for fuel, which drove up both prices and production. Coalfields grew in the Confederacy, as well, although not to the same extent as in the North. By the late 1850s, the expansion of railroads reached states that mined bituminous coal such as Maryland, Ohio, and Illinois. In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad company’s profit margin on coal grew from $0.88 per ton in 1861 to $1.72 per ton in 1865 (Adams, 2002).

At the end of the Civil War, railroad companies emerged as the most important factor in America’s coal trade. Railroads allowed coal from previously inaccessible fields to be shipped to market; railroad companies bought their own coal tracts directly and either leased them to subsidiary firms or opened their own mines (Adams, 2002). And, while railroads helped the coal industry in the East grow, they allowed the industry to expand to new ground west of the Mississippi River. Coalfields were developed in western states such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming (Adam, 2002).

By the turn of the 20th century, coal was gaining popularity as a means of electrical generation. Production had grown to 57 million tons of anthracite and 212 million tons of bituminous coal (Adam, 2002). And, as mining became more labor intensive, trade unions were growing in strength. Before 1890, production rates roughly doubled every 10 years, with 8.4 million short tons produced in 1850, 40 million short tons in 1870, and 270 short tons in 1900. A staggering 680 million short tons were produced 1918 (it reached this figure again in 1947 and climbed to its all-time peak in 2008) before stabilizing and ultimately declining for a time. The Great Depression lowered the demand for coal to 360 million short tons in 1932 (Angus, 2021).

The coal industry also reached its peak employment levels in the same era; in 1924, more than 860,000 people worked in mines around the country (Arcadia Publishing, 2017). The growth of the oil industry from 1859, and the demand for petroleum as fuel for cars and airplanes as well as for some uses in the manufacture of plastic, meant that the demand for oil eventually surpassed that of coal. The increase in natural gas production during the industrial era also helped supplant coal demand.


Coal played a very important part in the development of manufacturing-based industrial economies from the late 18th century onwards. Industrialization required more dependable and more concentrated forms of fuel than wood, water, wind, and animal fuel (, 2019). Unlike the more traditional sources of fuel, coal could not be depleted and is not dependent on the climate.

When coal was first mined in the United States, coal mining companies were usually small and labor-intensive. Miners worked in coal seams, also known as coal beds, close to the earth’s surface. A skilled miner and a few laborers could raise several tons of coal a day from a hillside or from along the bank of a river. The coal could then be rolled down the hillside or riverbank to a waiting handcart where a barge could transport it along a river (Adams, 2002).

Before the Civil War, the most important technological development in the U.S. coal industry was adapting the newly discovered anthracite coal to make iron. From the 1780s, bituminous coal or coke (coke was bituminous coal with the impurities burned away) had been the preferred fuel for British iron makers. In order to smelt iron ore, a blast of excess air was needed to aid the combustion of fuel. In the 1820s, British iron makers developed a method to increase the efficiency of smelting iron by using superheated air, known as a “hot blast.” American iron makers were still using a “cold blast” to stoke their furnaces. When anthracite coal was discovered, the traditional method of igniting coal for industrial purposes didn’t work (Adams, 2002).

In 1840, Welsh hot blast technology was brought to Pennsylvania. Just one year later, there were 11 iron furnaces in operation in Pennsylvania and it was noted that the conversion to using anthracite coal in iron furnaces saved up to 25% of the cost of producing iron. It was also believed that the quality of the iron was better when anthracite coal was used as a fuel. By 1854, 46% of American pig iron had been smelted with anthracite coal; this number increased to over 56% by 1860 (Adams, 2002).

One reason anthracite use declined after the Civil War was that coking coal became a more popular choice for use in blast furnaces in iron smelting. Coke was made by heating bituminous coal in the absence of air, resulting in a fuel that remained hard and porous and was able to support the heavy column of ore and fuel in the large blast furnaces it was used in (Angus, 2021). Anthracite coal cannot be used to produce coke in the same way that bituminous coal can, and bituminous coal is also more common in many more parts of the United States than anthracite coal.

After the Civil War, underground mines became more prevalent. Initially when coal was surface-mined, picks and shovels were used to extract it. Later, black powder was used to blast holes in coal seams and mine shafts were dug deeper underground to reach the coal. New systems of pumping, ventilation, and extraction were needed in the mines, and steam engines and new machinery were used to increase coal production. By the 1890s, electric cutting machines began replacing the blasting method of loosening the coal in some mines (Adams, 2002). With the increase in technology and machinery came a decrease in the number of workers needed.


During the Revolutionary War, coal was used to manufacture shot, shell, and other war material. In the late 1700s, anthracite coal was used in Pennsylvania to heat homes and cook food because it was smokeless (Energy BC, 2012). Coal didn’t just replace the wood that was used for heating and cooking; it also introduced expensive new stoves into homes (, 2019). Coal was also sent across the Monongahela River to supply fuel to the military garrison at Fort Pitt. In 1814, coal was burned to heat salt brines, which provided a source of salt in southwestern Pennsylvania. Two years later, the city of Baltimore started to light its streets with a combustible gas made from coal. By the 1830s, coal was also being used to make glass in Pennsylvania (Energy BC, 2012).

The first commercially practical American-built locomotive, the Tom Thumb, was manufactured in 1830. The Tom Thumb was a steam locomotive, but it used coal as a fuel to heat the water. Soon after, every other American locomotive that had been using wood as a fuel switched to coal. The steam shovel was invented in 1839 and was used to mechanize surface coal mining (Energy BC, 2012).

By 1875, the coke produced from heating coal became the main fuel for iron blast furnaces. Strip mining, the removal of soil and rock that was on top of a coal seam, began in Illinois in 1866. By 1877, miners used steam shovels to reach a coal bed three feet deep in Kansas. By the early 1900s, coal was supplying more than 100,000 coke ovens in the United States to meet the increasing demand for iron and steel (Energy BC, 2012). Textile factories used coal-powered steam engines to increase productivity; the construction industry benefited from cheaper iron bars, nails, and screws; and new industries such as making stoves for homes were made possible by cheap and plentiful coal (, 2019).

Thomas Edison built the first practical coal-fired electricity generating station in 1882, which was used to supply electricity to some New York City residents. General Electric Company built the first alternating current power plant in Pennsylvania in 1901. This plant was designed to solve the problem of transmitting direct current electricity long distances. By 1961, coal had become the major fuel that electricity utility companies used to generate electricity (Energy BC, 2012).

Coal also had a large part to play in the emergence of America’s railroad systems. Coal served as a fuel for steam engines and was used to produce the iron (and later, the steel) was used to manufacture railway tracks and the trains themselves. Trains were also used to transport coal across the United States as demand grew from coast to coast. The rail network’s expansion also led to the establishment of mines and mining towns close to train stations.


In the industry’s early days, miners worked close to the surface. It wasn’t quite as dangerous as it would be when deep shaft and underground mining became prevalent. Mines tended to be far from urban centers and in less developed regions, so proprietors often worked in the mines themselves. This meant that “the lines between ownership, management, and labor were often blurred” (Adams, 2002).

Early labor disputes often arose due to the low wages miners earned because of the fierce competition between colliers. The first dispute in the anthracite industry occurred in 1842 when workers marched to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to protest low wages. In 1848, a man named John Bates enrolled 5,000 miners and organized them to go on strike the following year for higher pay. However, the members of the “Bates Union” found themselves locked out of work and the movement soon died down. In 1853, a miners’ strike for a 2.5 cent per ton increase in their piece rate was successful but didn’t lead to a lasting union presence in the mine company’s operations (Adams, 2002).

As technology improved and capital investment increased, miners’ roles changed significantly. Before the Civil War, skilled miners had been employed as contractors and had considerable control over the pace of mining. Corporate reorganization and the mechanization of the industry diminished the skilled miner’s traditional authority. By the 1870s, numerous companies employed managers to supervise the work pace, but they maintained the practice of paying workers per ton instead of an hourly wage. Being paid less for piece rates became a source of discontent among miners (Adams, 2002).

The restructuring of mine labor and falling wages led miners to start organizing craft unions. In 1868, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association in Pennsylvania united English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh anthracite miners (Adams, 2002). They won some concessions from the industry until the acting president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad company broke the union in the winter of 1874-75. After the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association was broken, coal mining unions organized workers in specific regions until 1890, when a national group — the national United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) — was formed. Not until 1897, when widespread strikes caused many miners to seek union membership, was the UMWA widely accepted. By 1903, the UMWA had around a quarter of a million members and a million dollars in their coffers (Adams, 2002).

State coal industry health and safety regulations weren’t introduced until almost a century after mining started in Pennsylvania. In 1869 and 1877, Pennsylvania enacted the Pennsylvania [Anthracite] Mine Inspection Act and the Pennsylvania Mine Inspection Act (the latter being for bituminous coal mining), respectively. Illinois enacted health and safety regulations in 1872 and Ohio followed in 1874 (National Academy of Sciences, 2018). On a national level, the Federal Coal Mine and Inspection Act didn’t come into force until 1941 and the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act was established in 1952. It wasn’t until 1969, with the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, that federal health and safety standard enforcement was carried out by a federal government agency (National Academy of Sciences, 2018). Additional federal acts were enacted in 1977 and 2006.

A mine disaster in 1968 and a triple murder in 1969 led to the first successful rank-and-file takeover of a major labor union in U.S. history, which both “transformed the UMWA into one of the country’s most democratic unions and inspired workers in other unions to rise up and challenge their own entrenched, out-of-touch leaders” (Bradley, 2020). In 1968, a mine in Fairmont, Virginia, exploded so violently that windows rattled 12 miles away. Seventy-eight miners working the overnight shift immediately perished, leaving behind 74 widows and 235 children. It was later discovered that a large surface fan’s alarm system had been disabled just hours before the accident. No alarm went off when the fan threw off its blades and ground to a halt, causing methane gas and coal dust to fill the mine’s tunnels that likely exploded when a mere spark set them off (Bradley, 2020).

The following year, Jock Yablonsky started his campaign for the UMWA’s presidency with a manifesto that called for an expansion of the union’s safety division; paid sick leave for workers; and the use of the UMWA’s vast resources to invest in the Appalachia’s inadequate schools, limited social services, and environmental cleanup. The current UMWA president sought to eliminate his opponent and, after eight failed attempts, Yablonsky, his wife, and his daughter were murdered while they slept at home on New Year’s Eve 1969 (Bradley, 2020). In addition to setting in motion one of the FBI’s biggest and most successful manhunts ever, the murders also brought about the democratic changes in the UMWA for which Yablonsky. This had a ripple effect on unions across the country. Coal miners’ “sweat and blood provided the ‘black gold’ that built [the] country’s industrial base and paved the way for many benefits Americans now take for granted such as an eight-hour workday, health insurance, safer workplaces and pensions for those who are still lucky enough to get them” (Bradley, 2020).


Today, the American coal industry has decreased due to several factors. In 1980, 2,400 underground mines and 2,800 surface mines in the U.S. produced 830 million tons of coal. Twenty-five years later, coal production had reached 1.1 billion tons from 70% fewer mines and 50% fewer miners (National Academy of Sciences, 2018). Despite a slight increase in mine employment due to the energy crisis of 1973, by September 2016 the coal industry in the United States employed just over 75,000 miners (Arcadia Publishing, 2017).

Technological advances have resulted in a dwindling number of mining jobs; machines are more efficient at coal extraction than humans are. Natural gas, solar, wind, and other sources of energy have seen the demand for coal decline. The United States has retired coal-fired plants with production levels of 46,000 megawatts of energy between 2006 and 2016 with little anticipation that new ones will be built in the future (Sanzillo and Schlissel, 2017, pp. 2-3). The industry outlook predicts that U.S. coal production will never again reach its 2008 peak of 1.17 billion short tons (Congressional Research Service, 2017, p. 2). Globalization in the form of increased coal production in China and until 2022 the sale of Russian natural gas to Europe, a key U.S. coal export market, keeps the prices of American coal low for many years. Modern environmental regulations and increased public perception of climate change as an immediate threat make it highly likely that the U.S. coal industry will remain in fundamental decline.


From the growth of trade unions in the United States to helping to produce the steel contained in the frames of the U.S.’s famed skyscrapers to the investment in new technologies also used in other industries, the American coal industry has had far-reaching impacts on the nation for generations. The history of the United States cannot be told without mentioning the contribution the coal industry has made over the centuries.

The coal industry has had a massive impact on the U.S.’s industrial and economic growth. From its start as a small-scale, localized industry, it grew into a national industry that is intertwined with the growth of the iron and steel, railroad, and many other major American manufacturing industries. From being used by artisanal blacksmiths in the 1600s to maintaining a 50% share of the U.S.’s electricity generation market until 2008 (Congressional Research Service, 2017, p. 9), the coal industry has played an integral part in the history, growth, and development of the United States and its rise to become a global industrial and economic power.


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