Simple black rocks, formed millions of years ago, have provided people with fuel for centuries Coal is plentiful in many parts of the United States, sometimes close to the surface, sometimes a few thousand feet below it. Before Europeans reached North America, the Pueblo Indians found coal and burned it to cook food and make pottery. In 1673 French explorers found coal along the Mississippi River and several decades later, it was discovered near the James River in Virginia. That region became the site of the first commercial coal operation in what would become the United States.
The demand for coal led Americans to look for more sources, and they easily found them as they moved westward. The biggest need for coal came when the United States and much of the rest of the world began to industrialize. Coal created the heat that fueled steam engines which in turn powered machines of all kinds. Steam power, based on coal, propelled the first trains. Later, after the Civil War, a material made from coal called coke became essential for making steel. During the 1870s and 1880s, U. S. coal production quadrupled as the demand continued to rise. Soon coal would also become a source of power for the plants that generated electricity.
When the first settlers came to the area around the South Pittston, Pennsylvania they found a region rich with coal. The type of coal there is called anthracite. The first miners soon discovered that anthracite was hard to light. But once lit, it burned longer and more cleanly than other coal, and it provided a strong heat. Mining anthracite became a major industry in northeastern Pennsylvania, where a region covering about 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) contained almost three-quarters of the world’s known supply of anthracite.
Although some anthracite coal was found near the earth’s surface, most of it was much deeper. Mining companies dug long shafts into the sides of hills or straight down into the ground. Large timbers lined the roofs and walls of the shafts to hold up the dirt and rocks. Deep underground, water often flowed into the shafts. Pumps kept most of the water out, but the miners still sometimes worked in knee-deep water.
The job presented many dangers. Miners used explosives to break off the coal from the surrounding rock. If miners mishandled the explosives, they could easily die in an accidental blast. The timbers holding back the earth and rock could break, causing a collapse that could kill the miners or cut off the route back to the surface. Or parts of the mine could fill with methane, a gas released by coal. In the days before batteries, miners carried lamps with open flames to see their way in the dark mines. A spark from a lamp could cause the methane to explode, killing everyone nearby. Other gases found in the mines could kill without a spark because breathing them was deadly.
No government agencies then protected workers doing dangerous jobs. Many Americans believed that government should not interfere with how companies ran their businesses. And the companies used their political influence in some states to prevent the creation of safety laws. Finally the growing number of disasters and deaths led the U.S government to force companies to improve mine safety.
Even if the miners survived working in the mines, many faced a long-term health risk. Over time the dust from the coal collected in their lungs, causing black lung disease. The disease makes it hard to breathe and can lead to other lung diseases that can kill, such as emphysema. About three-fourths of miners eventually developed black lung disease – if they didn’t die in the mines first. By one estimate, three miners died every two days in the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. Improvements in technology and laws to protect workers slowly lowered the numbers. But even in the middle of the 20th century, on average, one miner a day was killed in a U. S. coal mine.