By Mary Giorgio
The first deposits of coal in the United States were discovered by early English colonists in 1673. It wasn’t until around 1740, however, that the first commercial mining operations began in Midlothian, Virginia. Even then, coal remained a small niche industry until the early nineteenth century, as most colonists preferred to burn wood as their heat source.
As more uses for coal were devised and sources of wood were depleted, Americans turned to coal. Eventually, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio would come to dominate coal production in the United States. Although Indiana’s output was less noteworthy than the country’s top three producers, coal nonetheless became an important revenue stream in Indiana.
The first coal deposits in Indiana were discovered along the Wabash River back in 1736. In fact, Southwestern Indiana was teeming with coal, with deposits eventually located in numerous counties. As coal became a more desirable product, land surveys that were drawn up in 1804 reported deposit locations for the first time. It wasn’t until the 1830s, however, that coal mining began in Indiana.
The first sales ads for coal appeared in Southern Indiana newspapers in 1832, but informal mining efforts may have occurred earlier. It wasn’t until 1837, however, that the first Indiana coal mining company officially incorporated and was granted a charter by the State of Indiana. The American Cannel Coal Company of Cannelton, Indiana began to mine for coal in Perry County.
By 1840, coal shipments were being sent by flatboat down the White, Wabash, and Ohio Rivers to customers. At that time, most of Indiana’s salable coal was being produced in Perry and Warrick counties. In the early 1850s, additional mines opened in Newburgh and Clay counties. These were all underground mining operations. Strip mining didn’t begin in Indiana until well into the twentieth century. The coal produced in these mines was used mostly as steamboat fuel, for heat, and to power blacksmith forges.
By the mid-1850s, construction of railroads were well underway in Indiana. Not only did this make it easier to ship coal further inland to urban and industrial sites in Indiana and Chicago, but it also created a new consumer for Indiana’s coal – railroad cars ran on coal.
As the nineteenth century wore on, mining machinery was developed that allowed for the mining of block coal. In 1884, the first Indiana mine began using machinery to harvest block coal, and Indiana’s annual yields of coal vastly increased. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Indiana produced three to four million tons of coal annually, compared to around 10,000 tons in the 1840s. Coal mining became a prosperous industry. The state’s heavy output of coal at the turn of the century resulted in the coining of the slogan, “The Home of Coal, Gas, & Oil,” to promote the Hoosier state.
By the early 1900s, Vigo County had become Indiana’s largest producer of coal. In the first decade of the twentieth century, additional output vastly increased at mines in Greene, Sullivan, Vermillion, Clay, and Parke Counties. By this time, a natural gas boom that had begun in Indiana in the 1880s was slowly depleting. As gas sources dried up in the early 1900s, coal became a necessary alternative, thus driving demand. The dramatic rise in demand skyrocketed Indiana’s production well over ten million tons annually. Commercial coal production eventually reached nineteen counties in Southwestern Indiana. Production peaked in 1918 when over thirty million tons were produced annually in the Hoosier state. By the 1920s, somewhere between fifty and sixty mines had operations in Indiana.
And yet, there was a dark side to the expansion of coal mining in Indiana. As capacity and output increased, so too did fatal accidents. Explosions were not uncommon. In response, an 1891 Indiana state statute required mining company’s employing more than 100 men to report all mining fatalities to a state mining inspector.
The earliest recorded deadly mine explosion in Indiana occurred in 1878 when eight workers died in Sullivan. In 1905, an explosion at a mine in Oswald left eight dead and two wounded. The massive explosion was caused by the ignition of a fire-damp. By the 1920s, mining accidents consistently led to double-digit fatalities. In December 1926, thirty-seven workers died in an explosion at Francisco Mine in Gibson County. In January 1931, twenty-nine people died in a mine explosion in Linton. In July 1937, an explosion at Baker Mine in Sullivan resulted in twenty fatalities. While these incidents were major events in Indiana news, it should be noted that on a national scale, mining accidents resulting in over one hundred deaths were not uncommon.
But, the deadliest coal mine accident in Indiana history occurred in February 1925 in the Coal City mine a few miles outside of Sullivan, Indiana.
On February 20 around 10:30 AM, a pocket of gas freed from the crumbling walls of one of the mine’s subentries ignited, resulting in a massive explosion. The mine was 320 feet deep, and at the time of the explosion, 121 men were trapped inside. A rescue effort was undertaken and seventy workers would eventually be rescued alive. Fifty-one died. Among the dead was 21-year old Russell Dowdy, who had narrowly escaped death in several previous mining accidents. Dowdy had begun working in the coal mining industry when he was just sixteen years old. He left behind a young widow.
The advent of steam-powered mining equipment eventually led to the widespread adoption of surface mining practices (aka strip mining). By the 1970s, 80% of all coal in Indiana came from surface mines. Currently, Indiana ranks 9th nationally in coal production, with 70% of coal coming from surface mines. Today, Indiana coal is mostly used to generate electricity. Southwest Indiana coal reserves remain vast. The state has approximately 57 billion tons of coal within its geographic boundaries, only 17 billion of which is recoverable using current technology. Still, at current extraction levels, that’s enough to last for 500 years.
While the legacy of coal mining in the Hoosier state remains strong, the industry is downsizing and the future focus of United States energy production has switched to renewable sources . Many Southwest Indiana communities have documented the industry’s role in their collective histories. The Museum of the Coal Industry in Lynnville, Indiana, for example, dedicates itself to educating the public about coal’s importance in Hoosier history.