For several years in the middle of the 20th century, Sangamon County was a leader among Illinois counties in the production of bituminous coal.
Coal was discovered in Illinois as early as 1673, when French explorers Marquette and Joliet noted outcroppings of coal along the banks of the Illinois River between Ottawa and Starved Rock. Until the early 1850s, however, coal production in Illinois was largely limited to the harvesting of “crop coal” from seams left exposed at the surface by the eroding effects of the weather.
As demand increased, “drift mining,” in which tunnels were cut horizontally into the exposed coal face, became more common. Production from such outcrops in Sangamon County was modest (an estimated 3,300 tons in 1840), but even that meager output was enough to supply the few forges and furnaces in the area that burned coal.
Typical of the Sangamon County mines of the period was a crop mine worked through the 1850s in what is now Springfield’s Washington Park. There, in a small ravine on the park’s western edge, workers “gophered” coal from a thin exposed vein and loaded it into wagons for transport to Springfield.
Few attempts were made to explore for other veins. A few of Springfield’s newer businesses like the Springfield Gas Light Co. burned crop coal (in its case taken from mines along Spring Creek north of town) as early as 1854, but most of the town’s manufacturers still depended on wood.
From drift to deep mines
The advent of the railroads meant that coal was in demand as an industrial commodity. In 1858, the Springfield City Council commissioned well-diggers to sink an artesian well on the city’s east side. The diggers’ drills bit into a six-foot seam of coal some 200 feet down and passed through as many as four more veins before hitting bedrock at 1100 feet. But water and mud flooding the excavation made accurate analysis of the strata impossible, and the coal was judged to be no thicker than two feet — not thick enough to risk the construction of a full-scale mining facility.
It was not until late in 1865 that new borings were made in search of deep coal. Parley L. Howlett, a brewer in the village of Howlett (now Riverton), looking for oil, sank a drill into the banks of the Sangamon River near his distillery. Instead of oil, the drill brought up evidence of what looked like an eight-foot coal seam at 210 feet. No one, including the state’s chief geologist, was willing to verify a vein of that size, and Howlett moved on to begin a second test boring nearby.
While Howlett was sinking test holes along the Sangamon, workmen hired by ex-dry goods clerk Jacob Loose were busy tunneling through 200 feet of clay and shale at Iles Junction, near what is now First Street and Highland Avenue in Springfield. Test drilling during the summer of 1866 had revealed a workable coal seam at 237 feet, and Loose was determined to work all winter to get at it.
Loose’s Iles Junction mine was the first deep coal mine worked in Sangamon County, and its opening in April of 1867 was cause for a communitywide celebration (the first load hauled from the pit was auctioned again and again for the benefit of the Home for the Friendless).
A few months later, Parley Howlett opened a shaft on his property in Howlett, having at last been convinced that his original discovery had not been a fluke. At the same time, William Beard and William Saunderson began selling coal from their “Old North” mine on the Henry Converse farm one and a half miles north of town.
Systematic exploration revealed that “deep coal” in Sangamon County was incredibly abundant — “enough to propel the machinery of the world for a dozen generations,” according to one analyst — and “as cheap as any in the world,” selling under contract for as little as 7 cents a bushel. (Even after a half-century of extraction, an estimated five billion tons of minable coal remain buried within the county’s borders, much of it contained in Coal Seam No. 6 south of Springfield.) “Business,” as one local observer noted in 1872, “will gravitate to where it can be done most economically, and for Central Illinois that place can be no other than Springfield.”
Within four years of the opening of Loose’s mine, Sangamon County miners were unearthing nearly 120,000 tons of coal per year; 10 years after that, average annual output had spurted to more than 634,000 tons. By 1893, 21 mines were being worked within Sangamon County’s borders.
Together they employed 1,200 men and accounted for 1,400,000 tons of coal per year, enough to rank the county fourth among all the state’s coal-producing counties in output. By 1902, hopper cars heading out of Springfield toward Chicago and St. Louis were carrying more than 3 million tons of coal per year, and Sangamon County ranked as the most important coal county in the nation’s most important coal state.
The miner’s life
As the new century dawned, 2,500 county men depended on the mines to keep food on their tables and roofs over their heads. One writer described what had become a common sight in Springfield like this:
For eight months of the year, from September through April, these men can be seen daily on their way in the mornings to the various tipples which mark the entrances of the mines, and returning home late in the afternoons with blackened faces and grimy clothes that suggest something of the dingy realities of this underground occupation. Some of them have been digging and loading coal; others have been laying tracks, timbering passages, driving mule-drawn cats, or “trapping” (tending passage entries). The shot-firers begin their work at night when the others leave off; theirs is the dangerous task of handling explosives and blasting out walls of coal for the next day’s work…
The men who did this work during the early years of Illinois mining were largely English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants, many of whom had been miners in their native lands. Those miners who did not come from the British Isles were likely to have come to this country from northern Europe; in 1890, only 7 percent of Illinois’ miners came from non-English-speaking countries other than Germany or Scandinavia. By 1899, however, fully 25 percent of the miners in Illinois had been born in France, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or Belgium. In Sangamon County, as in the rest of the state, the largest single immigrant group in the mines was the Italians. (Their numbers were approached in the Sangamon County area only by the Lithuanians.)
Mechanization of the mines, which was to earn the curse of many an idle miner in another era, had not yet begun, and Sangamon County miners did their work with tools no more complicated than picks and shovels.
Early mornings found groups of miners clustered around the entrance to the main shaft, lunch buckets in hand. Once aboard the caged elevator, the men dropped 200 feet or more “past walls dripping with black water” into a darkness one visitor called “comparable to nothing one would call dark on the surface.” Leaving the cage at the foot of the shaft the miners fanned out, some on foot, most aboard mule-driven coal cars, on their daily trek to the coal face — a trip of as much as two miles in some of the larger mines.
Along the way, they passed caverns cut into the rock walls where repair shops and mule barns had been built, the latter to house the dozens of animals who spent most of their lives strapped to the squat metal cars that carried coal from the working face back through the blackened tunnels to the main shaft for hoisting to the surface.
Jutting at right angles from the main tunnels or “entries” were series of rooms 25 feet wide and as high as the coal seam was thick. The narrow wall opposite the entrance to each room was formed by the exposed coal face itself. It was at the face that the workers dug the coal, biting deeper and deeper into the seam until the room reached as much as 250 or 300 feet in length.
It was at the coal face that each day’s work began. The miners usually worked two men to a room. One man attacked the face with a pick, finishing the job started the night before by the shot-firers, while his partner separated the coal from the waste rock that had fallen with it. The coal was then shoveled by hand into cars for hauling back to the main shaft. The work was done while crouching in the dim light of carbide lamps for eight to ten hours in air thick with dust, working in isolation from the surface world, even from other miners in the same pit.
Miners were paid only for loaded coal. A good miner working a good seam could load as much as four or five tons a day, and he sweated for every pound of it. One miner describes the work:
(It) meant drilling, blasting the coal, loading the coal, timbering rooftop, and throwing back the impurities. The actual loading of the coal was only part of your day’s work. All this other stuff you handled, like slate and sulphur and rock that came with the coal, you had to throw… back into the “gob,” for which you got no pay…
Danger was an almost tangible reality. The shot-firers, for example, earned their pay by blasting coal loose from the solid face with black powder charges. They started their day when the other miners were ending theirs; safety regulations and common sense both dictated that as few men as possible be underground when blasting was going on. Alone in the pits, each shot-firer drilled several inch-wide holes into the coal face, packed each hole with up to 60 inches of powder, set his fuses, and ignited the charge.
If the charges fired correctly, they would break the coal up into man-sized chunks ready for the next day’s sorting and loading. If not, the face would collapse into a cloud of dust and combustible gases which, catching the flame of the shot itself, would ignite. Such explosions roared through the abandoned tunnels in all directions, feeding off dust and gas swept up by the violence of their passage.
The devastation wreaked underground by such an explosion was often massive. At 6:45 P.M. on Feb. 25, 1903, for instance, there was a blow-up at the Auburn and Alton Coal Company’s mine in Auburn. A state mine inspector described what happened:
The carbonic gases given off by these shots took fire from the flame of the (two over-charged) shots, the force of the blast raising the fine dry coal dust in the room, and with the dust from the shots, which also ignited, greatly intensified the explosion. The flame from these blasts passed through a crosscut into the room adjoining, where other shots had been previously fired; the gases from these shots also took fire, which, with the force of the explosions and flames, passed out into the entry. Near the mouth of the room in which the explosion took place, and on the entry, a box containing powder was blown to pieces; the powder exploding greatly increased the force of the blast. Two mine cars standing on the entry were blown to pieces. The fan was blowing a direct current of air down the air shaft; about 16,000 cubic feet per minute was passing in the first and second entries; the force of the blast went against the current of air and forced the doors off the top of the air shaft; fortunately, however, the fan was located back from the air shaft and was not damaged. The flames following the explosion passed out on the return entry for a distance of 600 feet; the bodies of the two shot firers and the driver were found at this point. The force of the explosion had evidently hurled these men a great distance along the entry, as their bodies were terribly mangled and burned.
Explosions strong enough to knock a man backward a dozen feet, caused when pockets of methane gas were touched off by the miners’ carbide lamps, were commonplace. The threat of cave-ins also haunted the pits, and every miner kept an ear cocked for the creaking sounds of a roof about to give way. Pockets of carbon monoxide or “black damp” could suffocate a man in minutes, and heavily laden coal cars rolling through dimly lit tunnels were often fatal traps for the careless.
As one local miner put it, “There was so many ways you could get hurt in coal mining, it was different than anything else. There were two things you had to do. First, you had to learn to take care of yourself, then you learned your job. ‘Cause if you didn’t learn to take care of yourself, you didn’t need any job, cause you weren’t going to have any.”
Sangamon County mines were considered safer than most, a blessing for which nature, not the owners, was responsible. Coal Seam No. 5, the principal target of mining operations in the area, was covered by a solid “top” or roof of limestone which lessened the chance of cave-ins by supporting the enormous weight of earth sitting atop coal tunnels buried more than 200 feet below the surface. County mines were also relatively free of deadly methane gas.
Sangamon County miners still left behind their share of widows. During the 10 years during which the county led the state in coal production, 61 miners died in mine accidents and another 143 were hurt, many permanently.
Typical of the tragedies which routinely felled men underground were these accidents, described in the State of Illinois Coal Report of 1902:
August 26, 1901, James Ryan, mine manager, age 52 years, married, leaves a widow and four children, was killed by being caught by mine cars on the endless rope chain in the Capitol Cooperative Coal Co.’s mine at Springfield, Sangamon County. He was walking on the rope plain behind a trip of cars; the couplings between the cars suddenly broke, allowing some of the cars to run back, which caught him.. September 21, 1901, Win. S. Owens, miner, age 52 years, married, leaves a widow and two children, was injured by a fall of slate in the Junction Mining Co.’s mine in Springfield, Sangamon County, which caused his death Oct. 21, 1901 January 21, 1902, Andrew Janesky, miner, age 17 years, was killed by a fall of rock in his working place in the Chicago Virden Coal Co.’s No. 2 mine at Auburn, Sangamon County… January 21, 1902, Edward Megaha, cager, age 34 years, married, leaves a widow and three children, was caught under the cage, both legs were broken and his body badly bruised, from which he died Feb. 3, 1902…
It was not only men who risked injury or early death in the mines. Young boys, some as young as 10 or 11, were also employed underground. One of these was Joe Ozanic (1895-1978), who started a life’s career in the mines in 1910 at the age of 14, when, as he put it, “I wasn’t old enough and my bones weren’t even sturdy enough to do that kind of work.” Ozanic, like many miners of the period, had followed the example of his father, who had emigrated to this country from Austria in 1890. In oral history interviews for the now-University of Illinois Springfield in 1972 and 1975, Ozanic remembered the day he learned of his first job:
… (W)ith no education, my dad had nothing to do but to work in heavy industry. So he became a coal miner. Nine of us boys and three sisters were born into that family. It was a larger family than he could support on the meager earnings that he made in the coal mines in those days. So, like father like son, we wanted to be coal miners. In fact, we had no choice except to be coal miners. So my dad, when I got out of the sixth grade, said, “I got a job for you, kid.” “What kind of a job you got for me?” “Got a job for you at the mine.” “Fine! I’ll be a man!”
Like many miners’ sons before him, young Ozanic started work as a trapper boy responsible for tending the trap doors that controlled ventilation through the entries to the coal face. For this work he was paid 98 cents a day. From trapper, Ozanic graduated first to car greaser, then switchman and mule driver. Each step up the job hierarchy brought him more pay, until, as a mule driver in 1911, he was making $2.10 a day. In 1911, $2.10 a day was a relatively generous wage.
Irregular work in the second decade of the 20th Century meant that miners earned those wages only sporadically. A research team commissioned to study industrial conditions for the 1914 Springfield Survey reported that “irregularity of employment is greater among coal miners in Springfield than in any other important occupation group.” The coming of spring each year dropped the demand for coal for home heating to a fraction of its wintertime levels; so severe were these warm-weather slowdowns that many mines simply closed down for the summers.
The industry also was plagued by the existence of many more mines than were necessary to meet demand; the resulting overproduction meant that few mines worked all the time. Finally, just prior to the spring expiration of the biennial wage pacts between the miners and the coal operators, major coal consumers stockpiled coal in anticipation of protracted contract disputes. Accordingly, demand for coal slumped badly after the signing of each new contract as large customers drew upon these fuel reserves to meet their needs.
These factors, aggravated by occasional strikes and shorter layoffs scattered throughout the rest of the year, kept most miners idle for four out of every 10 working days. In the year ending June 10, 1913, Sangamon County mines worked an average of only 181 days out of a possible 300 working days.
The exceptions to this rule were the “captive” mines owned by larger corporations (usually railroads or power companies), which consumed the bulk of their output. One local miner ruefully called such captive mines “some of the best in the state, because they worked continually all the year around. (The miners’) pockets would jingle practically all the time, unless there was a strike in progress or something and they had to quit working for a couple of months. They suffered more than we did, because we were used to it. We never made any money when we was striking, and we never made any when we wasn’t.”
The economic effects of irregular work on the miners and their families were devastating. The Springfield Survey team reported:
Miner after miner told the same story of idle days and uncertain work. A few instances will illustrate. An “entry” man who could make $15 to $20 a week counted on work only half the time. A German miner who could make up to $8 a day usually received only $24 to $30 for two weeks’ work. The wife of a Lithuanian complained that her husband’s work was always irregular — only one or two days of work a week. If he could have only three full days of work at $5 a day regularly, she would be perfectly content. An experienced miner forty-four years of age could make $7 a day. Even with three days of work a week his wife declared she could save. She was seen on May 29, and he had had no work since April 1 and there was no prospect of any until September…
A Sangamon County miner in 1914 was paid from 57 cents to $1.27 a ton for coal, depending on the nature of the seam being worked. At these rates, a miner working steadily could bring in $5 a day, and in some cases as much as $7 or $8; his potential yearly income thus would amount to $2000. In fact, many of Sangamon County’s 3,500 miners, their potential incomes slashed by more than a third by forced idleness, earned less than $600 a year.
“I put in twenty-seven years in the underground coal mines,” one miner recalls, “(and) I was never out of debt in those years.” Many local miners were forced to seek work elsewhere when the mines were shut down. If they did not, they had to buy their groceries on credit and let rent and other bills pile up and hope that the pits would reopen before their creditors’ patience ran out.
Art Gramlich (1904-73), another veteran miner, remembered for the UIS oral history project what layoffs and strikes meant to the miners:
When (the miners) came out on a strike, when the contract expired, you just as well get yourself ready for a hell of a long goddam time, because you could strike all summer, because (the operators) didn’t need the coal anyhow — at least most of them didn’t. They would just wait until November. By that time you was pretty well wrinkled up in the gut. You’d pretty near sign for anything, because the grocery man was hollering and the rent man wanted you to pay some rent because you been there six months and hadn’t paid a dime.
Against such forces, the lone miner had no defense. Against these enemies he needed the union. The battle to form unions against the mine owners’ opposition, and later factional battles within the union movement itself, formed a violent chapter in central Illinois history. Sangamon County was the scene of some of the worst of the violence during the Illinois mine wars of the 1920s and ‘30s.
The industry declines
Throughout the Thirties, while union disputes captured the headlines, less conspicuous events occurred which were to have a far more profound impact on the futures of Sangamon County’s mining men and their families. Mining machines were replacing picks and shovels in newly opened mines in southern Illinois counties like Franklin and Williamson. Sangamon County lost its position as production leader among Illinois coal counties to these efficient southern Illinois giants during the ‘20s. By 1930, Sangamon stood fourth in coal production, and by 1940 it had slipped to ninth. (In 1935, only 42 percent of Sangamon County coal had been dug with machines compared to the 97 percent of Williamson County’s output so mined.)
What mechanization meant for miners and mining was seen at Peabody’s No. 10 mine in Christian County, which opened in 1951. Equipped with the latest in drilling, blasting, and haulage gear, the mine’s 800-odd employees for two decades were able to extract an average of more than five million tons of coal per year. In 1902, during the period during which Sangamon County led the state in coal production, 4,300 men working in 30 separate mines were able to dig only a little more than 3.5 million tons.
The decline in Sangamon County’s relative status as a coal producer was speeded by the advent of strip mining in Illinois. In 1919, only 0.7 percent of Illinois coal had been strip-mined. By 1939, that figure had risen to 23.2 percent, and by 1970 more than half the state’s production would come from strip mines. Once the feasibility (and profitability) of strip mining in the southern Illinois fields had been established, the fate of the increasingly marginal central Illinois field was sealed.
Sangamon’s drop from dominance was reflected in employment figures. In 1932, 4,099 men worked as miners in Sangamon County; 10 years later, only 2,746 men were so employed. Local deposits were nearly exhausted after 80 years of intensive digging. Also, shifts to petroleum and natural gas for transportation and heating reduced demand for coal.
Cancellation of fat wartime contracts after the signing of the peace in 1945 cut the last prop from under the sagging Sangamon County coal industry, and production’s downward slide continued until 1952. It was during that year that the county that had been the foremost source of Illinois coal produced a paltry 174,118 tons. The year 1952 also marked the closing of the county’s last major shipping mine, the Panther Creek No. 5 mine on the north side of Springfield, although small mines continued to serve local markets until 1964.
Coal mining returned to the county when Shell Mining opened its Turris facility, which straddles the Sangamon-Logan county line, in 1982. The mine, renamed the Viper Mine following its acquisition by the International Coal Group, continued to operate in 2013. Its portal was near Williamsville, and one of its primary customers was City Water, Light and Power, Springfield’s electric utility.
Bit by bit, even the physical evidence of the era of mining in Springfield s disappearing. Atop the entrance to the Citizens Coal Company “A” mine there now stands a city fire station, and Peabody’s Capital mine on the city’s east side has been converted to a baseball park.
The most extensive of the industry’s relics are unseen. All but the central core of the capital city has been undercut by a maze of coal tunnels; countywide, 53 coal mines undercut a total of 94.4 square miles of land.
Most of these mines used the room-and-pillar technique, which leaves pillars of undug coal to support the mine roof. Unfortunately, these pillars often collapse over time. When that happens, the ground surface can sag as much as four feet. In 1923, for example, the partial failure of a two-year-old concrete highway bridge over Spring Creek was blamed on the collapse of five-foot-high mine tunnels 130 feet beneath the bridge supports.
Because mines were often located close to cities or had towns for miners built atop them, several Sangamon County communities are susceptible to subsidence: Auburn, Cantrall, Chatham, Dawson, Divernon, Jerome, Pawnee, Pleasant Plains, Riverton, Sherman, Southern View, Springfield, Thayer and Williamsville. State mine officials have reported that an average of three subsidence events occur each year in Sangamon County.
Contributor: James Krohe Jr.
Photographs: Larry Senalik has compiled a fascinating collection of 32 mining photos, taken from negatives available at Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Collection. See them on Flicker.
Maps: The Illinois State Geological Society has published a series of maps showing mine boundaries statewide. For a list of maps applicable to Sangamon County, see Coal mines in Sangamon County (maps).
Construction Failure by Jacob Feld, Kenneth L. Carper. Wiley-Interscience, 2nd Edition, 1996.
Midnight at Noon: A History of Coal Mining in Sangamon County by James Krohe Jr. Sangamon County Historical Society, 1975.
History of Coal Mining in Illinois by Harry M. Dixon. University of Illinois, 1951.
History of Springfield, Illinois: Its Attractions as a Home and Advantages for Business, etc. by J.C. Power, Springfield Board of Trade, 1872.
“Subsurface Geology and Coal Resources of the Pennsylvanian System” by Kenneth E. Clegg. Circular 312, Illinois State Geological Survey, 1961.
“Mineral Resources and Mineral Industries of the Springfield Region, Illinois” by Robert L. Major. Mineral Economics Brief No. 17, Illinois State Geological Survey, 1967.
Coal Mining in Illinois by S.O. Andros. Bulletin No. 13, Illinois Coal Mining Investigations, University of Illinois,1915.
Illinois Coal: A Non-Technical Account of Its Organization, Production, and Preparation by Arturo Bement. Bulletin No. 56, State Geological Survey, 1929.
Industrial Conditions in Springfield, Illinois by Louise C. Odencrantz and Zenas L. Potter, Chapter IV: “Wages and Irregularity of Employment,” Springfield Survey Committee, 1916.
The Immigrant and Coal Mining Communities of Illinois, Bulletin No. 2, Immigrants Commission, State of Illinois, 1920
Also of interest are accounts of area miners as recorded by the University of Illinois Springfield’s Oral History Project.
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