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TIP 281 - COAL MINING IN KY - 1750 TO 1900

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TIP 281 - COAL MINING IN KY - 1750 TO 1900

Sandi Gorin (View posts)
Posted: 952084800000
Classification: Query
Edited: 993310358000
Surnames: Walker, Evans, Shelby, McLean, Gist, Jillson, Flahoven, McClure, Leavy, Mather, Verhoeff, Currens, Smith, Scalf, Miles, Verhoeff, Sandman
“I owe my soul to the company store...” So begins the well known song which speaks so elequently of the life of the coal miner. Kentucky is well-known for his coal mines, primarily in eastern Kentucky. Credits are given at the end of this tip.

1750 April 13th-Dr. Thomas Walker was the first recorded person to discover and use coal in Kentucky.
1755 Lewis Evan's map showing coal in what is now the Greenup County and Boyd County area of Kentucky.
1792 Issac Shelby becomes the first Governor of Kentucky (1792-1796).
1820 First commercial mine, known as the "McLean drift bank" opened in Kentucky, near the Green River and Paradise in Muhlenberg County. 328 short tons mined and sold in Kentucky.
1830 2,000 tons of Kentucky production.
1837 10,000 tons of Kentucky production.
1843 100,000 tons of Kentucky production.
1850 150,000 tons of Kentucky production. Lexington and Big Sandy Railroad proposed.
Kentucky Geological Survey established.
1860 Pre-Civil War Kentucky production record of 285,760 tons.
1870 Post-Civil War Kentucky production decline to 150,582 tons.
St. Louis & Southern Railroad completed from Henderson to Earlington, Ky.
1872 First train off the Big Sandy Railroad.
1877 Coal mined with steam-powered shovel.
1879 One million tons of Kentucky production.
1880 Mechanical stokers introduced. First coke ovens in west Kentucky. Mine Ventilation Law.
First train from Williamson, West Virginia to Pike County, Kentucky. Coal mining machines come into general use.
1890 N&W Railroad's first mine at Goody in Pike County. Hopkins County in west Kentucky leading coal producer in the state for 18 straight years. Miner Pay Law. United Mine Workers of America formed. Machines developed to undercut coalbeds. 5,000 kilowatt steam turbine generates electricity.
1900 Child Labor Law. Edgewater Coal Company's first production in Pike County. First train off the Lexington and Eastern Railroad. Independent Geological Survey established.

Mining in Eastern Kentucky: 1790-1860. Thomas Walker in 1750 and Christopher Gist the following year, observed abundant coal in the area which would become eastern Kentucky. Two years before Kentucky broke from Virginia to become a state, the first coal production was reported in the area around Beattyville, the present day seat of Lee County. Lee County yields rose steadily from 20 tons in 1790 until 1819 when production rose to 1600 tons. Also before 1800, iron furnaces near Owingsville in present-day Bath County employed the plentiful fuel in the production of implements, utensils, and, a little later, in making weapons for the war of 1812. From 1820, production in both the Eastern and Western Coal Fields increased, peaking at 56,000 tons in the Western Field and 74,600 tons in the Eastern Field by 1860. Each year until the Civil War, eastern Kentucky counties outproduced their western counterparts, despite limitations in moving the product (Currens and Smith: 11-32; Jillson, 1924: 6-15). Lee County garnered early attention for its coal resources probably as much because the three branches of the Kentucky River converged there. The Beattyville Enterprise (April 15, 1910), recounted that Philadelphia merchant Thomas Flahoven, ca. 1797, bought 17823 acres in the Three Forks area, near the present-day seat of Lee County. Flahoven purchased mining supplies from Lexington merchants Gallatin and Fishal and in 1806 took supplies and several miners to his site. Flahoven died in December of 1807, apparently without selling enough coal to entice others to improve on his efforts (McClure: 148). Perhaps for a year, something of a company town might have operated at the site. Its location is unknown.

A similar notion appears in a December, 1805 advertisement in the Frankfort Palladium. A Lexington merchant, William Leavy, advertised 18,000 acres near the Three Forks of the Kentucky River and noted the presence of coal near by the stream. He tempted prospective buyers with coal consumption in Kentucky's growing cities: Lexington, 162.5 tons and Frankfort, 62.5 tons (Collins, V. 1, 407-408). Eavenson (pp. 300-303) offers additional examples of commercial coal production in eastern Kentucky prior to the 1820s.

Despite the efforts by land speculators or early mine operators, the movement of eastern Kentucky coal to urban areas increased slowly during the antebellum period. At least two factors dominated the marketing of coal. First, coal was adopted as a heating source and industrial fuel only gradually prior to the Civil War. During this period Kentuckians relied upon ubiquitous stands of wood for home heating. A certain amount of encouragement was needed before coal could displace wood as the fuel of choice. Geologist W.W. Mather provided some impetus for the switch in a report to the Kentucky legislature in 1838. He noted the many advantages of coal over wood. For instance, $1.00 bought ten bushels of coal while a cord of wood cost $2.50. While these amounts possessed comparable heating value, coal weighed one third as much, consumed one ninth the bulk, and required one-quarter the labor to be brought to the consumer. In addition to residential use, Kentucky iron works and steam-powered mills began to turn to coal. The mineral was also exported from the state in increasing amounts--to iron works in Nashville and to Louisiana sugar boiling plants. Burgeoning river traffic boosted consumption: riverboats required around 200 bushels per day (Mather: 255-257).

The second factor affecting the acceptance of coal was the difficulty in transporting it. By the 1830s coal was known to underlay nearly all of the Appalachian area of Kentucky (see, eg., Mather, 1838). However, the amount of coal taken from eastern Kentucky and the place where it could be mined profitably depended more upon transportation access than upon the thickness of the coal seam. During the antebellum period coal was transported over land in wagons and by water in barges.

Overland transport of the mineral proved to be feasible for local consumption only, due to the difficulty of hauling the mineral. Straight, level, regional roads which would have made hauling economically viable, were nearly non-existent. Roadbuilding in much of nineteenth-century eastern Kentucky was strictly a local affair. In this very democratic process, those who used the roads determined their course, paid for their construction, and were responsible for the road's maintenance. Residents of county precincts provided the materials and labor to build and improve roads, and the county financed bridge construction. (Verhoeff: 44-45).

Some regional roads were present: Wilderness Road, Big Sandy Trail, Red River-Pound Gap, and the North Fork Trail, and state roads snaking their way to more accessible destinations, such as Manchester and Winchester. Privately funded toll roads and wagon roads financed by the State Board of Internal Improvements cut new travel paths into the mountains. But these pathways did not result in dramatic increases in coal output during the first half of the nineteenth century (Verhoeff: 78-96, 131). The amount of coal in eastern Kentucky exceeded the ability of roads and wagons to carry it far from the mine. The scale of mining for local use did not require the amount of labor which called company towns into being.

Mining on a grander scale in eastern Kentucky took place in areas within easy access of water transportation. Meaningful amounts were produced in Greenup (beginning in 1824, and shipped via the Ohio River), McCreary (1827, via Big South Fork of the Cumberland), Clay (1829, via Goose Creek tributary of the Kentucky River), Breathitt (1837, via North and Middle Forks of the Kentucky River), Morgan (1837, via Licking River), and Lawrence (1838, via Levisa Fork and Big Sand River) Counties. Land around the Laurel and Rockcastle Rivers, which form the southern line of present-day Laurel County, was an established scene of coal mining well before the Civil War (Currens and Smith: 11-32; Scalf: 132-133).

Kentucky lawmakers in 1837 probed the dependence of mining on water transportation by appointing a committee to study that relationship. Findings recommended ways that the state could increase coal production by joining the national frenzy for canal building. The committee reported that from 1834-1837, seventy-five to one-hundred flatboats left Kentucky for Tennessee markets annually--a healthy traffic even without waterway improvements (Mather: 263). Improvements included removal of debris, channel digging, and lock and dam construction. Locks and dams had been applied to the Licking, Little Sandy, and Kentucky Rivers by 1840. These internal improvements made establishment of perhaps the earliest coal company town, Peach Orchard, near Prestonsburg, feasible.

Prestonsburg, in Floyd County, became an established commercial and mining center on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River during the 1830s and 1840s. Steamboats reached the town in 1837, allowing enterprising businessmen to trade in Cincinnati markets. Ambitious sorts, such as partners May and Griffith, diversified their efforts by engaging in saw and grist milling, as well as coal mining (Scalf: 198-199).

During the late 1840s Cincinnati capitalists took aim at the resource rich land around Prestonsburg. Archibald Miles of Cincinnati bought 110 acres south of Prestonsburg between 1845-1847, on which he built houses, mills, and a boat yard. It is not clear that coal mining was part of Miles' business which he sold in 1853 to escape debt. In 1849 Peach Orchard was initiated; by 1852 it consisted of 40 houses, a saw mill, steam grist mill, storehouse, shops, and a stable. Workers loaded 6000-8000 bushels of coal per day. In addition to coal, Peach Orchard's owners, Great Western Mining and Manufacturing Company, also built the coal barges and prefabricated houses to float downstream (Scalf: 200-205).

Coal barges are an important but vanished artifact of this period of coal mining. Such boats were as necessary to mining activity as would be the company town two generations later. These vessels were caulked poplar rafts, 60'- 70' long with sides 8' high and could hold 1750-3500 bushels. They were built and filled during the fall and winter months. The bottom of the boat was built first, coated with waterproofing material. The strenuous process of turning over the many boat bottoms for final assembly became a tremendous social event celebrated with moonshine and other brews. Once loaded, the barges floated down streams swollen by spring rains, where the cargo was sold. After the conclusion of their journey, the boats were dismantled for use in construction, and the captains began a journey home on foot. The transitory nature of these boats caused shipbuilding and timbering to become important industries that supported coal mining (Watson: 50-51).

The search for antebellum coal company towns is hampered by poor record keeping within the coal industry. One illustration of that deficiency is the difference in estimates of early coal usage in Frankfort. Leavy suggested Frankfort used 62.5 tons of coal in 1805; Jillson places consumption at 200 tons annually from 1800-1810 (Jillson, 1924: 15). The discrepancy between these rates of coal use is inimical to establishing reliable coal usage patterns and other factors which would have encouraged the creation of coal company towns.

Furthering the difficulty in pinpointing nascent coal activity is that the earliest documented sales of coal and coal land in eastern Kentucky stretch back no further than 1827 (Verhoeff: 37; Sandman: i). While the earliest coal production figures are sometimes estimates, production amounts reported in Currens and Smith exhibit a regularity seems reliable. Perhaps the effort to locate antebellum coal towns should start with those production totals, concentrating survey efforts in counties with the highest activity.

Sources: Energy Information Administration, Coal Data: A Reference, 1989, Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals, Annual Reports, and Willard Rouse Jillson, Coal Industry in Kentucky, 1922. See also:

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