When it comes to the nation’s primary source of energy, coal used to be king. But during the past few years, the coal market has collapsed, and along with it virtually all of the coal companies that were once such economic giants.
Coal, which when burned emits a palette of chemicals that are harmful not only to humans but to the entire Earth, was done in by technology. Nuclear power plants started coal’s erosion, and in recent years natural gas, solar and wind energy have both replaced the need for new coal-fired power plants.
Once upon a time – and not all that long ago – coal was used for more than simply producing electricity. When I was a lad living on a farm, I remember well my father’s morning ritual of stoking up the furnace with coal. I have heard it said by those who had to contend with coal-ﬁred furnaces that the sweetest sound in the world is the noise a modern gas furnace makes when it kicks on early on cold winter mornings.
While we tend to think of Kentucky or Pennsylvania when we hear talk of coal mines, western states like Montana have been producing far more coal in recent years from gigantic open pit mines that have caused the death of inefficient shaft mining.
At one time, Illinois was a major coal producer, though the uses to which coal was eventually put would astound the explorers who discovered the state’s mineral deposits in the 1600s.
In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet were on their way up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan when they discovered an outcrop of what they called “Charbon de Terre” near the present city of Utica. Father Hennepin, another French missionary-explorer, also saw the deposit in 1682, noting in his diary that he had “found in Several Places Some Pit-Coal.”
These two instances were, in point of fact, the ﬁrst discoveries of bituminous coal on the North American continent. Nothing was done with the coal deposits of Illinois for more than a century, however.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, coal’s efficiency for home heating was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until 1810 that coal was ﬁrst commercially mined in Illinois in mines along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County. That year, several barges of coal were shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
As settlements moved further north in Illinois, coal was found near the salt-producing areas in Gallatin and Vermillion counties and as early as 1822, coal was shipped to New Orleans from Peoria.
Like the first settlements, early coal mines bordered the state’s rivers, primarily due to problems with overland shipping. Beginning in 1823, the growing city of St. Louis used coal mined from the bluffs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi.
John Reynolds, an early governor of Illinois, helped promote one of the ﬁrst railroads west of the Alleghenies in order to increase the production of coal.
The line’s cars were horse-drawn over six miles of wooden rails from the coal seams on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River to Illinoistown where their cargo of coal was loaded on boats and shipped across the river to St. Louis. In fact, the first macadam road in the state, from Belleville to the Illinoistown ferry, was built to accommodate heavy coal wagon traffic.
By 1840, Illinois was producing 424,000 bushels of coal a year – measurement in tons was several years in the future.
Most of that early coal came from drift or slope mines exploiting easily-reached coal seams exposed along hillsides, river bluffs or stream banks. Shaft mines were required to reach the rich veins of coal that lay deep under the prairie soil of central Illinois. As early as 1842, shaft mining was taking place at Belleville. Strip mining would have to await a more advanced and rapacious generation.
By 1841, coal was hauled overland to Chicago from mines in the upper Illinois River Valley. Mines on the east bank of the river were easily accessible to boats traveling on the new I&M Canal, which, when it opened in 1848, provided a means to deliver coal to the growing city cheaper than it could be shipped via the Great Lakes from Pennsylvania.
Even before it was known that coal was a more efficient source for fueling locomotives than wood, the Illinois Central Railroad leased coal ﬁelds in the Du Quoin area in order to procure fuel for their trains when they crossed largely wood-free Central Illinois prairies. Other railroads soon followed their lead, and mines were sunk along the Rock Island’s right-of-way in Grundy, Bureau and Rock Island counties. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy located and developed coal deposits in Stark and Knox counties; the Great Western Railroad found, to its pleasant surprise, that its right-of-way crossed a large coal bed in Vermillion County.
Since railroads, mining and manufacturing were all interrelated during that era, abundant coal reserves fueled Illinois’ explosive growth in the mid-1800s. Coal also helped Illinois’ farmers to become independent of wood for heating, contributing to the growth of farming on the state’s timber-scarce prairies.
The Civil War spurred the growth in both coal and steel production in Illinois. After the war, farmers and city residents alike clamored for more coal as railroads maintained a firm grip on its supply. In 1870, in an effort to get more coal at cheaper prices, a rail line, financed by local subscriptions, was built between Streator and Aurora to haul coal from the Vermillion mines. But the CB&Q Railroad managed to seize control of the line, leaving investors worse off than they were before.
First oil, then natural gas replaced coal for heating and cooking in homes and businesses, and now electricity is replacing both of them. As a result, the days of Big Coal have passed, and the state’s once prominent part in that industry is gradually becoming little more than a historical footnote recalled by place names on maps like Coal City and Carbondale. But the time was, Illinois coal fueled a large fraction of the nation’s industry and progress into modern times.
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