Coal in Iowa — Part II: Coal Mining

by

~ Submitted by Clara Gunderson Hoover
(Part I is here.)

* * * * * * * *

Coal mines in Iowa?  Yes, indeed!  The High Trestle Trail Bridge is located in the area where several mine shafts had been worked by Italian immigrants in the late 1880s and continuing to the 1920s.  In fact, 15 different coal mines are listed on the Madrid, Iowa, site.

From the July 12, 1923, Rolfe Arrow. (Click on image to magnify text.)

Coal mining itself occurred from Webster and Boone counties south and southeast as far as the Missouri border, with the most mining seeming to occur in Polk, Marion, Mahaska, Monroe and Wapello counties.  Many of these small mining towns, once bustling with people, no longer exist.  Railroads often owned the coal mines and the coal-mining towns, rented houses to miners, expected miners to shop exclusively in the company’s general store, and sometimes operated the company school.

Because wood was not available, Iowa’s early settlers used coal for cooking food and heating.  Coal mining began in Iowa in the 1840s with small mines on the sides of hills where coal was exposed.  In the 1860s and 1870s, railroads spread throughout the state.  They leased land and operated mines that produced coal for their own use, including fueling their trains.  Over time, more than 5,500 underground mines existed in Iowa.  Although a few were large, most were small, local operations.  In 1896 there were more than 20 coal mines in Boone County.  The Boone County town of Angus no longer exists, but in the 1880s, it supposedly had a population of 3,500 and was the largest coal-mining town in the state.  By the 1920s, coal mining had all but disappeared from the state.  By that time many Iowa mines had exhausted their coal supply.  Railroads began buying coal from other states.  Iowans sought cleaner-burning coal from other states and converted to other sources of fuel: electricity, natural gas and oil.

Coal developed in Iowa 250-300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian geological era when Iowa had an abundance of vegetation.  Gradually this plant material became peat, which after great pressure and heat became coal.  It has been estimated that 20 feet of plant material compresses into three feet of peat, three of peat compresses into one foot of bituminous coal, and all that occurs over 3,000 years.  (One source said ten feet of peat compress into one foot of bituminous coal.)  Coal seams in southern Iowa varied in thickness; most were thin and not nearly as deep or as consistently widespread as in Pennsylvania or West Virginia, for example.  Iowa coal was mostly bituminous—soft, easily breakable, and contained impurities such as sulfur.  Its carbon content is only 60-80%.  By contrast, anthracite coal found in the Appalachian Mountains is harder, cleaner and denser with a carbon content of more than 90%.  The 1904 Pioneer History of Pocahontas County, Iowa, referred to the “soft coal” found in Iowa’s roughly 20,000 square miles of coal fields and stated, “The coal in this belt is of excellent quality and the supply inexhaustible.”

* * * * * * * *

Part III will follow.

If you have memories related to coal, but do not want to comment directly on this blog, you may email them to me (Louise). If you’d like, I can post them anonymously (i.e., not reveal your identity) in the “comment” area. mariongundersonart@gmail.com

(Click here to go to Louise Gunderson Shimon’s blog’s home page.)

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4 Responses to “Coal in Iowa — Part II: Coal Mining”

  1. Marti Gunderson Carlson Says:

    Very intersting, Clara. And well written. Am looking forward to Part III.

  2. Peg Says:

    So much that seems so “distant” from my experience.

    Italian immigrants in the 1880s. That would maybe be when my/our great-grandparents were young marrieds. I wonder what contact they had with mining/mining info.

    Madrid. I think the only time I was in Madrid was for a high school track meet. I know of at least a few people on that team who will never forget that 220 grass track!

    A bustling town of 3,500 . . . now nowhere in sight. I’m all too familiar with small towns getting smaller but not so much with Iowa towns becoming nonexistent.

    5,500 underground coal mines at one time? That could be ~ 55 per county! (I know–it doesn’t work that way.) Suppose there were any in Pocahontas County? Maybe Carolyn Keene should have written a “Mystery in the Old Coal Mine.” I feel some sleuthing coming on! 🙂

  3. Peg Says:

    Aha! I see I overlooked the Arrow photo. Going there next.

  4. Peg Says:

    1923. Grandpa would have been 34. Bompa, 36. Mother, 4. Daddy, 5. So interesting.

    Threshing–that makes sense now.

    $10/ton. Wow. Call up No. 72!!!

    You must have had fun delving into this, Clara!

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