Embedded in History

Coal has been a part of Illinois history virtually from the start.

Robert P. Howard, an Illinois historian, has noted in his writings on the Prairie State that explorers Joliet and Marquette reported observing "charbon de terre" in the Ottawa-Utica area as early as 1673. To some historians, that signified the discovery of bituminous coal in America.

Of course, commercial mining did not come until much later. It began in Jackson County about 1810, many historians believe, when barges of coal left the Big Muddy River for the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Likewise, boats loaded with coal from the Peoria region floated to New Orleans in the early 1820s.

The first mines, like settlements, were near rivers. Much of the coal in the early days came from drift or slope mines cut into seams exposed on bluffs of hillsides. However, according to Howard, shaft mining was in progress near Belleville in the early 1840s.

Railroads were a key to a major expansion of the market for coal. Besides providing a means for moving coal in bulk quantities from mines to distant points, the railroad industry itself was a prime burner of coal. Railroad trackage more than tripled in Illinois during the last half of the Nineteenth century, and much of it was put down to permit the mining of specific coal deposits.

Due in large measure to the fuel needs of Chicago and St. Louis, the Illinois coal industry was well established by 1880. But it was only a start. Coal production in the state soared between 1882 and the end of the century. By 1900, coal was coming out of at least 52 counties, nine of which were producing more than 1,000,000 tons a year.