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The US Coal Industry in the Nineteenth Century

Sean Patrick Adams, University of Central Florida


The coal industry was a major foundation for American industrialization in the nineteenth century. As a fuel source, coal provided a cheap and efficient source of power for steam engines, furnaces, and forges across the United States. As an economic pursuit, coal spurred technological innovations in mine technology, energy consumption, and transportation. When mine managers brought increasing sophistication to the organization of work in the mines, coal miners responded by organizing into industrial trade unions. The influence of coal was so pervasive in the United States that by the advent of the twentieth century, it became a necessity of everyday life. In an era where smokestacks equaled progress, the smoky air and sooty landscape of industrial America owed a great deal to the growth of the nation’s coal industry. By the close of the nineteenth century, many Americans across the nation read about the latest struggle between coal companies and miners by the light of a coal-gas lamp and in the warmth of a coal-fueled furnace, in a house stocked with goods brought to them by coal-fired locomotives. In many ways, this industry served as a major factor of American industrial growth throughout the nineteenth century.

The Antebellum American Coal Trade

Although coal had served as a major source of energy in Great Britain for centuries, British colonists had little use for North America’s massive reserves of coal prior to American independence. With abundant supplies of wood, water, and animal fuel, there was little need to use mineral fuel in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America. But as colonial cities along the eastern seaboard grew in population and in prestige, coal began to appear in American forges and furnaces. Most likely this coal was imported from Great Britain, but a small domestic trade developed in the bituminous fields outside of Richmond, Virginia and along the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Richmond Basin

Following independence from Britain, imported coal became less common in American cities and the domestic trade became more important. Economic nationalists such as Tench Coxe, Albert Gallatin, and Alexander Hamilton all suggested that the nation’s coal trade — at that time centered in the Richmond coal basin of eastern Virginia — would serve as a strategic resource for the nation’s growth and independence. Although it labored under these weighty expectations, the coal trade of eastern Virginia was hampered by its existence on the margins of the Old Dominion’s plantation economy. Colliers of the Richmond Basin used slave labor effectively in their mines, but scrambled to fill out their labor force, especially during peak periods of agricultural activity. Transportation networks in the region also restricted the growth of coal mining. Turnpikes proved too expensive for the coal trade and the James River and Kanawha Canal failed to make necessary improvements in order to accommodate coal barge traffic and streamline the loading, conveyance, and distribution of coal at Richmond’s tidewater port. Although the Richmond Basin was nation’s first major coalfield, miners there found growth potential to be limited.

The Rise of Anthracite Coal

At the same time that the Richmond Basin’s coal trade declined in importance, a new type of mineral fuel entered urban markets of the American seaboard. Anthracite coal has higher carbon content and is much harder than bituminous coal, thus earning the nickname “stone coal” in its early years of use. In 1803, Philadelphians watched a load of anthracite coal actually squelch a fire during a trial run, and city officials used the load of “stone coal” as attractive gravel for sidewalks. Following the War of 1812, however, a series of events paved the way for anthracite coal’s acceptance in urban markets. Colliers like Jacob Cist saw the shortage of British and Virginia coal in urban communities as an opportunity to promote the use of “stone coal.” Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society and Franklin Institute enlisted the aid of the area’s scientific community to disseminate information to consumers on the particular needs of anthracite. The opening of several links between Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields via the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (1820), the Schuylkill Navigation Company (1825), and the Delaware and Hudson (1829) insured that the flow of anthracite from mine to market would be cheap and fast. “Stone coal” became less a geological curiosity by the 1830s and instead emerged as a valuable domestic fuel for heating and cooking, as well as a powerful source of energy for urban blacksmiths, bakers, brewers, and manufacturers. As demonstrated in Figure 1, Pennsylvania anthracite dominated urban markets by the late 1830s. By 1840, annual production had topped one million tons, or about ten times the annual production of the Richmond bituminous field.

Figure One: Percentage of Seaboard Coal Consumption by Origin, 1822-1842


Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine and Commercial Review 8 (June 1843): 548;

Alfred Chandler, “Anthracite Coal and the Beginnings of the Industrial Revolution,” p. 154.

The Spread of Coalmining

The antebellum period also saw the expansion of coal mining into many more states than Pennsylvania and Virginia, as North America contains a variety of workable coalfields. Ohio’s bituminous fields employed 7,000 men and raised about 320,000 tons of coal in 1850 — only three years later the state’s miners had increased production to over 1,300,000 tons. In Maryland, the George’s Creek bituminous region began to ship coal to urban markets by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (1842) and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (1850). The growth of St. Louis provided a major boost to the coal industries of Illinois and Missouri, and by 1850 colliers in the two states raised about 350,000 tons of coal annually. By the advent of the Civil War, coal industries appeared in at least twenty states.

Organization of Antebellum Mines

Throughout the antebellum period, coal mining firms tended to be small and labor intensive. The seams that were first worked in the anthracite fields of eastern Pennsylvania or the bituminous fields in Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and Ohio tended to lie close to the surface. A skilled miner and a handful of laborers could easily raise several tons of coal a day through the use of a “drift” or “slope” mine that intersected a vein of coal along a hillside. In the bituminous fields outside of Pittsburgh, for example, coal seams were exposed along the banks of the Monongahela and colliers could simply extract the coal with a pickax or shovel and roll it down the riverbank via a handcart into a waiting barge. Once the coal left the mouth of the mine, however, the size of the business handling it varied. Proprietary colliers usually worked on land that was leased for five to fifteen years — often from a large landowner or corporation. The coal was often shipped to market via a large railroad or canal corporation such as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, or the Delaware and Hudson Canal. Competition between mining firms and increases in production kept prices and profit margins relatively low, and many colliers slipped in and out of bankruptcy. These small mining firms were typical of the “easy entry, easy exit” nature of American business competition in the antebellum period.

Labor Relations

Since most antebellum coal mining operations were often limited to a few skilled miners aided by lesser skilled laborers, the labor relations in American coal mining regions saw little extended conflict. Early coal miners also worked close to the surface, often in horizontal drift mines, which meant that work was not as dangerous in the era before deep shaft mining. Most mining operations were far-flung enterprises away from urban centers, which frustrated attempts to organize miners into a “critical mass” of collective power — even in the nation’s most developed anthracite fields. These factors, coupled with the mine operator’s belief that individual enterprise in the anthracite regions insured a harmonious system of independent producers, had inhibited the development of strong labor organizations in Pennsylvania’s antebellum mining industry. In less developed regions, proprietors often worked in the mines themselves, so the lines between ownership, management, and labor were often blurred.

Early Unions

Most disputes, when they did occur, were temporary affairs that focused upon the low wages spurred by the intense competition among colliers. The first such action in the anthracite industry occurred in July of 1842 when workers from Minersville in Schuylkill County marched on Pottsville to protest low wages. This short-lived strike was broken up by the Orwigsburgh Blues, a local militia company. In 1848 John Bates enrolled 5,000 miners and struck for higher pay in the summer of 1849. But members of the “Bates Union” found themselves locked out of work and the movement quickly dissipated. In 1853, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s miners struck for a 2½ cent per ton increase in their piece rate. This strike was successful, but failed to produce any lasting union presence in the D&H’s operations. Reports of disturbances in the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania and Ohio follow the same pattern, as antebellum strikes tended to be localized and short-lived. Production levels thus remained high, and consumers of mineral fuel could count upon a steady supply reaching market.

Use of Anthracite in the Iron Industry

The most important technological development in the antebellum American coal industry was the successful adoption of anthracite coal to iron making techniques. Since the 1780s, bituminous coal or coke — which is bituminous coal with the impurities burned away — had been the preferred fuel for British iron makers. Once anthracite had nearly successfully entered American hearths, there seemed to be no reason why stone coal could not be used to make iron. As with its domestic use, however, the industrial potential of anthracite coal faced major technological barriers. In British and American iron furnaces of the early nineteenth century, the high heat needed to smelt iron ore required a blast of excess air to aid the combustion of the fuel, whether it was coal, wood, or charcoal. While British iron makers in the 1820s attempted to increase the efficiency of the process by using superheated air, known commonly as a “hot blast,” American iron makers still used a “cold blast” to stoke their furnaces. The density of anthracite coal resisted attempts to ignite it through the cold blast and therefore appeared to be an inappropriate fuel for most American iron furnaces.

Anthracite iron first appeared in Pennsylvania in 1840, when David Thomas brought Welsh hot blast technology into practice at the Lehigh Crane Iron Company. The firm had been chartered in 1839 under the general incorporation act. The Allentown firm’s innovation created a stir in iron making circles, and iron furnaces for smelting ore with anthracite began to appear across eastern and central Pennsylvania. In 1841, only a year after the Lehigh Crane Iron Company’s success, Walter Johnson found no less than eleven anthracite iron furnaces in operation. That same year, an American correspondent of London bankers cited savings on iron making of up to twenty-five percent after the conversion to anthracite and noted that “wherever the coal can be procured the proprietors are changing to the new plan; and it is generally believed that the quality of the iron is much improved where the entire process is affected with anthracite coal.” Pennsylvania’s investment in anthracite iron paid dividends for the industrial economy of the state and proved that coal could be adapted to a number of industrial pursuits. By 1854, forty-six percent of all American pig iron had been smelted with anthracite coal as a fuel, and by 1860 anthracite’s share of pig iron was more than fifty-six percent.

Rising Levels of Coal Output and Falling Prices

The antebellum decades saw the coal industry emerge as a critical component of America’s industrial revolution. Anthracite coal became a fixture in seaboard cities up and down the east coast of North America — as cities grew, so did the demand for coal. To the west, Pittsburgh and Ohio colliers shipped their coal as far as Louisville, Cincinnati, or New Orleans. As wood, animal, and waterpower became scarcer, mineral fuel usually took their place in domestic consumption and small-scale manufacturing. The structure of the industry, many small-scale firms working on short-term leases, meant that production levels remained high throughout the antebellum period, even in the face of falling prices. In 1840, American miners raised 2.5 million tons of coal to serve these growing markets and by 1850 increased annual production to 8.4 million tons. Although prices tended to fluctuate with the season, in the long run, they fell throughout the antebellum period. For example, in 1830 anthracite coal sold for about $11 per ton. Ten years later, the price had dropped to $7 per ton and by 1860 anthracite sold for about $5.50 a ton in New York City. Annual production in 1860 also passed twenty million tons for the first time in history. Increasing production, intense competition, low prices, and quiet labor relations all were characteristics of the antebellum coal trade in the United States, but developments during and after the Civil War would dramatically alter the structure and character of this critical industrial pursuit.

Coal and the Civil War

The most dramatic expansion of the American coal industry occurred in the late antebellum decades but the outbreak of the Civil War led to some major changes. The fuel needs of the federal army and navy, along with their military suppliers, promised a significant increase in the demand for coal. Mine operators planned for rising, or at least stable, coal prices for the duration of the war. Their expectations proved accurate. Even when prices are adjusted for wartime inflation, they increased substantially over the course of the conflict. Over the years 1860 to 1863, the real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) price of a ton of anthracite rose by over thirty percent, and in 1864 the real price had increased to forty-five percent above its 1860 level. In response, the production of coal increased to over twelve million tons of anthracite and over twenty-four million tons nationwide by 1865.

The demand for mineral fuel in the Confederacy led to changes in southern coalfields as well. In 1862, the Confederate Congress organized the Niter and Mining Bureau within the War Department to supervise the collection of niter (also known as saltpeter) for the manufacture of gunpowder and the mining of copper, lead, iron, coal, and zinc. In addition to aiding the Richmond Basin’s production, the Niter and Mining Bureau opened new coalfields in North Carolina and Alabama and coordinated the flow of mineral fuel to Confederate naval stations along the coast. Although the Confederacy was not awash in coal during the conflict, the work of the Niter and Mining Bureau established the groundwork for the expansion of mining in the postbellum South.

In addition to increases in production, the Civil War years accelerated some qualitative changes in the structure of the industry. In the late 1850s, new railroads stretched to new bituminous coalfields in states like Maryland, Ohio, and Illinois. In the established anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, railroad companies profited immensely from the increased traffic spurred by the war effort. For example, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad’s margin of profit increased from $0.88 per ton of coal in 1861 to $1.72 per ton in 1865. Railroad companies emerged from the Civil War as the most important actors in the nation’s coal trade.

The American Coal Trade after the Civil War

Railroads and the Expansion of the Coal Trade

In the years immediately following the Civil War, the expansion of the coal trade accelerated as railroads assumed the burden of carrying coal to market and opening up previously inaccessible fields. They did this by purchasing coal tracts directly and leasing them to subsidiary firms or by opening their own mines. In 1878, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad shipped three million tons of bituminous coal from mines in Maryland and from the northern coalfields of the new state of West Virginia. When the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad linked Huntington, West Virginia with Richmond, Virginia in 1873, the rich bituminous coal fields of southern West Virginia were open for development. The Norfolk and Western developed the coalfields of southwestern Virginia by completing their railroad from tidewater to remote Tazewell County in 1883. A network of smaller lines linking individual collieries to these large trunk lines facilitated the rapid development of Appalachian coal.

Railroads also helped open up the massive coal reserves west of the Mississippi. Small coal mines in Missouri and Illinois existed in the antebellum years, but were limited to the steamboat trade down the Mississippi River. As the nation’s web of railroad construction expanded across the Great Plains, coalfields in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming witnessed significant development. Coal had truly become a national endeavor in the United States.

Technological Innovations

As the coal industry expanded, it also incorporated new mining methods. Early slope or drift mines intersected coal seams relatively close to the surface and needed only small capital investments to prepare. Most miners still used picks and shovels to extract the coal, but some miners used black powder to blast holes in the coal seams, then loaded the broken coal onto wagons by hand. But as miners sought to remove more coal, shafts were dug deeper below the water line. As a result, coal mining needed larger amounts of capital as new systems of pumping, ventilation, and extraction required the implementation of steam power in mines. By the 1890s, electric cutting machines replaced the blasting method of loosening the coal in some mines, and by 1900 a quarter of American coal was mined using these methods. As the century progressed, miners raised more and more coal by using new technology. Along with this productivity came the erosion of many traditional skills cherished by experienced miners.

The Coke Industry

Consumption patterns also changed. The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of coke — a form of processed bituminous coal in which impurities are “baked” out under high temperatures — as a powerful fuel in the iron and steel industry. The discovery of excellent coking coal in the Connellsville region of southwestern Pennsylvania spurred the aggressive growth of coke furnaces there. By 1880, the Connellsville region contained more than 4,200 coke ovens and the national production of coke in the United States stood at three million tons. Two decades later, the United States consumed over twenty million tons of coke fuel.

Competition and Profits

The successful incorporation of new mining methods and the emergence of coke as a major fuel source served as both a blessing and a curse to mining firms. With the new technology they raised more coal, but as more coalfields opened up and national production neared eighty million tons by 1880, coal prices remained relatively low. Cheap coal undoubtedly helped America’s rapidly industrializing economy, but it also created an industry structure characterized by boom and bust periods, low profit margins, and cutthroat competition among firms. But however it was raised, the United States became more and more dependent upon coal as the nineteenth century progressed, as demonstrated by Figure 2.

Figure 2: Coal as a Percentage of American Energy Consumption, 1850-1900

Source: Sam H. Schurr and Bruce C. Netschert, Energy in the American Economy, 1850-1975 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960), 36-37.

The Rise of Labor Unions

As coal mines became more capital intensive over the course of the nineteenth century, the role of miners changed dramatically. Proprietary mines usually employed skilled miners as subcontractors in the years prior to the Civil War; by doing so they abdicated a great deal of control over the pace of mining. Corporate reorganization and the introduction of expensive machinery eroded the traditional authority of the skilled miner. By the 1870s, many mining firms employed managers to supervise the pace of work, but kept the old system of paying mine laborers per ton rather than an hourly wage. Falling piece rates quickly became a source of discontent in coal mining regions.

Miners responded to falling wages and the restructuring of mine labor by organizing into craft unions. The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association founded in Pennsylvania in 1868, united English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh anthracite miners. The WBA won some concessions from coal companies until Franklin Gowen, acting president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad led a concerted effort to break the union in the winter of 1874-75. When sporadic violence plagued the anthracite fields, Gowen led the charge against the “Molly Maguires,” a clandestine organization supposedly led by Irish miners. After the breaking of the WBA, most coal mining unions served to organize skilled workers in specific regions. In 1890, a national mining union appeared when delegates from across the United States formed the United Mine Workers of America. The UMWA struggled to gain widespread acceptance until 1897, when widespread strikes pushed many workers into union membership. By 1903, the UMWA listed about a quarter of a million members, raised a treasury worth over one million dollars, and played a major role in industrial relations of the nation’s coal industry.

Coal at the Turn of the Century

By 1900, the American coal industry was truly a national endeavor that raised fifty-seven million tons of anthracite and 212 million tons of bituminous coal. (See Tables 1 and 2 for additional trends.) Some coal firms grew to immense proportions by nineteenth-century standards. The U.S. Coal and Oil Company, for example, was capitalized at six million dollars and owned the rights to 30,000 acres of coal-bearing land. But small mining concerns with one or two employees also persisted through the turn of the century. New developments in mine technology continued to revolutionize the trade as more and more coal fields across the United States became integrated into the national system of railroads. Industrial relations also assumed nationwide dimensions. John Mitchell, the leader of the UMWA, and L.M. Bowers of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, symbolized a new coal industry in which hard-line positions developed in both labor and capital’s respective camps. Since the bituminous coal industry alone employed over 300,000 workers by 1900, many Americans kept a close eye on labor relations in this critical trade. Although “King Coal” stood unchallenged as the nation’s leading supplier of domestic and industrial fuel, tension between managers and workers threatened the stability of the coal industry in the twentieth century.


Table 1: Coal Production in the United States, 1829-1899

Year Coal Production (thousands of tons) Percent Increase over Decade Tons per capita
Anthracite Bituminous
1829 138 102 0.02
1839 1008 552 550 0.09
1849 3995 2453 313 0.28
1859 9620 6013 142 0.50
1869 17,083 15,821 110 0.85
1879 30,208 37,898 107 1.36
1889 45,547 95,683 107 2.24
1899 60,418 193,323 80 3.34

Source: Fourteenth Census of the United States, Vol. XI, Mines and Quarries, 1922, Tables 8 and 9, pp. 258 and 260.

Table 2: Leading Coal Producing States, 1889

State Coal Production (thousands of tons)
Pennsylvania 81,719
Illinois 12,104
Ohio 9977
West Virginia 6232
Iowa 4095
Alabama 3573
Indiana 2845
Colorado 2544
Kentucky 2400
Kansas 2221
Tennessee 1926

Source: Thirteenth Census of the United States, Vol. XI, Mines and Quarries, 1913, Table 4, p. 187

Suggestions for Further Reading

Adams, Sean Patrick. “Different Charters, Different Paths: Corporations and Coal in Antebellum Pennsylvania and Virginia,” Business and Economic History 27 (Fall 1998): 78-90.

Binder, Frederick Moore. Coal Age Empire: Pennsylvania Coal and Its Utilization to 1860. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974.

Blatz, Perry. Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875-1925. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.

Broehl, Wayne G. The Molly Maguires. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Bruce, Kathleen. Virginia Iron Manufacture in the Slave Era. New York: The Century Company, 1931.

Chandler, Alfred. “Anthracite Coal and the Beginnings of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the United States,” Business History Review 46 (1972): 141-181.

DiCiccio, Carmen. Coal and Coke in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1996

Eavenson, Howard. The First Century and a Quarter of the American Coal Industry. Pittsburgh: Privately Printed, 1942.

Eller, Ronald. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.

Harvey, Katherine. The Best Dressed Miners: Life and Labor in the Maryland Coal Region, 1835-1910. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Hoffman, John. “Anthracite in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, 1820-1845,” United States National Museum Bulletin 252 (1968): 91-141.

Laing, James T. “The Early Development of the Coal Industry in the Western Counties of Virginia,” West Virginia History 27 (January 1966): 144-155.

Laslett, John H.M. editor. The United Mine Workers: A Model of Industrial Solidarity? University Park: Penn State University Press, 1996.

Letwin, Daniel. The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Lewis, Ronald. Coal, Iron, and Slaves. Industrial Slavery in Maryland and Virginia, 1715-1865. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. New York: Paragon, 1989.

Nye, David E.. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998.

Palladino, Grace. Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-1868. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Powell, H. Benjamin. Philadelphia’s First Fuel Crisis. Jacob Cist and the Developing Market for Pennsylvania Anthracite. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

Schurr, Sam H. and Bruce C. Netschert. Energy in the American Economy, 1850-1975: An Economic Study of Its History and Prospects. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960.

Stapleton, Darwin. The Transfer of Early Industrial Technologies to America. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1987.

Stealey, John E.. The Antebellum Kanawha Salt Business and Western Markets. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. St. Clair. A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Warren, Kenneth. Triumphant Capitalism: Henry Clay Frick and the Industrial Transformation of America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.

Woodworth, J. B.. “The History and Conditions of Mining in the Richmond Coal-Basin, Virginia.” Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers 31 (1902): 477-484.

Yearley, Clifton K.. Enterprise and Anthracite: Economics and Democracy in Schuylkill County, 1820-1875. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961.