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Ol' King Coal

Coal Mining and Use in 1962

Hello again, Don Milne here, with another ROADTRIP-'62 ™ discussion. Today, in honor of US-23 passing through some significant coal mining country, I’ll talk about coal. We’ll look not only at mining, but also at the mining communities, how we use or used coal, and what was happening with coal in 1962. This is part of my plan to discuss a different topic every other week, usually related to the segment of US-23 we just traveled the week before. If it’s something new to you, you have a chance to learn. If I talk about things you remember, you can reminisce a bit. By the time we travel the entire 1444 miles of US-23, we should all have a pretty good model of just how 1962 fits into our modern world. Let’s start with coal heat, something that was common then but uncommon today.

steel coal door on house basement
steel coal door on house basement

How we heat our buildings may seem like something that doesn’t change much, but it changed a great deal during the late 20th Century. We now have solar heating, both passive and active, geo-thermal heat pumps, and the most common heat source of all: natural gas and its cousin propane. But in 1962, the most common heat source was still coal. And the change from coal to gas has had huge impacts on many facets of our lives. Find your mom or dad, or better, your grandma or grandpa, and ask them about coal heating. They will tell you about the coal bin in the basement, the delivery trucks, the dirty coal dust, disposing of the ashes, and more. Or I’ll tell you here, and I’ll also tell you about the local coal dealers, the trains moving coal around the country and coal mining. Everything but the trains and coal mining are gone now, and those last two are only supplying electrical generating plants and steel making. That’s about the only uses we have for coal now.

Into the 1950’s, many homes and other buildings were built to be heated with coal. And the homes heated with gas were often supplied from coal gasification plants. In gasification, coal is turned into gas by heating it without air. Steam is sometimes added to increase the amount of gas released. This was once a very common way to obtain gas for heating, instead of the drilling and pumping directly from the ground that we use now. Visit homes built before World War II and you can spot many telltale signs of coal heating. You may see giant octopus-shaped furnaces, a small room in the basement that has remains of coal dust, a coating of coal dust in the attic, a basement “window” that has an steel door outside, or a second driveway ending at that window. Sometime in the 1960s, I helped my dad close up one of these delivery windows in a house he used to own, with concrete blocks. If you drive past any older institutional buildings, such as schools or hospitals, some of them still have smokestacks reaching over five stories up. These are the remains of coal-fired boilers for heat: the smokestacks made sure the heavy smoke went far into the sky, away from the buildings.

coal boiler smokestack at Arthur Hill High School, Saginaw, Michigan
coal boiler smokestack at Arthur Hill High School, Saginaw, Michigan

To show just how dramatic the change from coal heat has been, the US Energy Information Administration reports that residential use of coal has dropped from 21,544,440 Tons in 1962 to just 320,993 Tons in 2009! While still large, the change has not been quite as much for commercial heating and power uses, dropping from 14,971,560 Tons in 1962 to 2,888,935 Tons in 2009. As natural gas and home heating oil prices have risen in recent years, there has been a slight bump up in the use of coal. E.F.M. (Electric Furnace Man) Automatic Heat, one of the oldest manufacturers of coal-fired furnaces and boilers in the country, notes that as recently as the 1980s, they sold hundreds of furnaces a year. During the 1990s, that decreased to as few as 10 a year, but they sold 200 for the 2008 season. And the sale of coal for home heating has changed too. Where you used to get a dump truck full delivered to your house, it’s now mostly sold in 40 or 50-pound bags. In fact, outside of some coal mining areas or large cities that still have enough old customers, it’s hard to find a dealer who still sells coal delivered by the ton. But using coal is also good exercise, because no matter which form you use, someone has to load each pound or ton into the furnace!

For those of you into research, go to a library and find newspapers, phone books or directories from 1962 and you’ll find advertisements for coal dealers. They were most commonly part of a lumber yard, ice company, or other fuel dealer. They were nearly always on a railroad line. If any of these businesses are still open as a lumber yard, ice company or fuel dealer, drive by and look for remains of old coal piles or rusting coal loading equipment. Sometimes you can make out where a rail line existed for delivery of the coal by train. Don’t bother to look for signs, as most of those have been sold to antique dealers. You’ll have more luck finding old coal company signs in a restaurant today, where they are used for nostalgic atmosphere.

United States coal consumption, 1948-2008
United States coal consumption, 1948-2008 (public domain from US Energy Information Administration) Red line is electrical power generation, blue line is vanishing residential, institutional, and commercial use.

The big winner for coal use has been burning it to create electricity. As we have used ever more electricity, US use of coal has risen from 193,315,869 Tons in 1962 to 1,017,806,305 Tons in 2008, almost 6 times as much! Total use of coal has followed this lead, as has mining activity. Today’s coal is mined primarily in three places around the country. The old coal fields of the Appalachain Mountains are still mined from Pennsylvania south through Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Another area with active mines is southern Illinois, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. But today, most coal is mined out west. Especially in Wyoming, because that coal burns the cleanest. Because of requirements to reduce air pollution, many mines in the Appalachains have closed. Those mines are also more dangerous, because they are generally underground tunnels. Most of the western mines are nothing but gigantic holes. And this change in location has also changed delivery patterns. Coal from the west is shipped in trains of up to a mile in length to power plants all over the nation. When distance and geography are suitable, coal is transported by pipeline as a coal-water slurry. West Virginia law changed to give pipeline operators the right of eminent domain in 1962, to construct a pipeline to the east coast. Coal from Kentucky and Virginia is also shipped by train, but many of the old tracks to abandoned mines have likewise been abandoned. There are whole towns, some along US-23, that are also abandoned. Meanwhile, states out west advertise for employees in newspapers all over the country, to find enough workers for growing cities.

In the effort to reduce air pollution, the way coal is burned for power plants has also changed. The old way of burning coal simply involved building ever taller smokestacks, to discharge the smoke high into the winds and disperse it. The ash created by burning was also handled somewhat loosely, dumped an any available ground or even in bodies of water. Today, the fly ash (the tiny particles going up the smokestack) are removed by static electricity devices. This is then placed in specialized landfills in a dry form, which substantially reduces the risks of dike failures or leakage that happened with earlier methods, where the ash was mixed with water for storage. Storing ash dry also significantly reduces water useage. The remainder of the ash from burning, that stays on the bottom of the burning area, is now commonly recycled as a building material. Some utility companies use all of their bottom ash to manufacture Portland cement. Bottom ash is similar in nature to virgin materials used for Portland cement manufacture, so this also means less mining of those materials.

Trains Magazine 1962 all-diesel issue
Trains Magazine 1962 all-diesel issue

Interestingly, the changeover from coal to diesel oil for railroad power was mostly complete by 1962. Transportation uses of coal had dropped from 39,801,000 Tons in 1952 to only 687,000 Tons by 1962. Trains Magazine published its first all-diesel issue in May 1962, probably in recognition that coal-fired locomotives had been mostly replaced by diesels. Coal was also still used for steamship and barges and we would have seen the smoke on the Great Lakes and Ohio River system back then. The railroad ferry back at Mackinaw City, Michigan operated through 1984, belching black smoke near the beginning of our US-23. Today, most of marine transportation is diesel engines also.

The different uses of coal require different grades of coal, and there are commonly four grades recognized at the mine. These are: anthracite, bituminous, sub-bituminous, and lignite. There are many different classification systems in use in the world, but this is sufficient for practical purposes. Coke is often confused with coal. Coke is coal that has been heated without air, driving off all the gases in the original coal. The remaining coke is nearly pure carbon. Coke burns cleanly, producing heat without a lot of smoke. It is used primarily for metallurgical processes, especially making steel. Anthracite has less than 8% volatiles (compounds that can be burned out of the carbon). Anthracite is the hardest type and it burns amazingly clean, much cleaner than wood, so it is the best for home heating. Once up to normal burning temperature, there will be no visible smoke whatsoever. The range of bituminous coals is from 8-30% volatile compounds and sometimes is described to include sub-bituminous coals. Bituminous coals are mined in greater quantity and are what is primarily burned for electric power generation. Lignite is a softer, brownish-black coal in which the texture of the original woody plants can often be seen. It can have up to 70% volatiles and has the poorest burning characteristics because of a high degree of impurities and moisture.

1914 map of Elkhorn Coking Coal Region Kentucky
1914 map of Elkhorn Coking Coal Region Kentucky. Pikeville, Shelby, and Jenkins are on US-23. (used by permission of Kentucky Historical Society.)

Along US-23, we first encounter a coal-producing area at Saginaw, Michigan. The coal there was of poor quality and found only in thin veins, making mining unprofitable. It was mined mainly for local use with the last mine closing in the 1930s. Coal mining is an important industry in Ohio, but the coal lies east of Portsmouth, Ohio and US-23. I had expected some old coal mines in the Toledo, Ohio area because the geology is similar to Saginaw. But I cannot find references to any. If you know of some historical mines there, Please Write. We really begin to see coal when we enter Kentucky. First in barges along the Ohio River and then south of Ashland, Kentucky we enter the mining districts. In Van Lear, Kentucky, you can stop in to the Van Lear Historical Society, in a former Consolidation Coal Company building. Exhibits there include a collection of mining equipment, a model of a large section of the town as it appeared during it's "boom years", and a 1950s store. The mines extend throughout western Virginia along our route. Virginia has even designated some highways as the Coal Heritage Trail, including US-23 from Norton to Clinchport. Some coal-related sites along our route there include the Harry W. Meador Coal Museum in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. It features displays of mining equipment, and a collection of photographs. The Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park highlights the 1890s coal boom in the Big Stone Gap area. Appalachia, Virginia has the Louis E. Henegar Miners Memorial Park, dedicated to a local mining historian and coal miners, and hosting underground mining equipment used today in mining. In Tennessee, the coal mining areas are in the central part of the state and west of Knoxville, so we don’t see them along US-23. This area also continues south into Georgia, and we will not pass any active mines in the northeast corner of that state. North Carolina has no active coal mines and very little in known coal deposits.

Though we use a lot of this coal in the United States, a large amount is exported. This is likely to grow, as the US Energy Information Administration predicts that Asian growth will drive a 40 percent increase in world coal consumption by 2030. When I was growing up, my dad always said the Chinese can never obtain the standard of living we have because there just isn’t enough copper in the world for them all to have a phone. That’s no longer relevant because cell phones and fiber optics have greatly reduced the need for copper telephone wires. But China is the world’s biggest user of coal, so that resource may still test his theory.

home heating coal
home heating coal

There are five major coal terminals in the United States, all on the east coast. They reported combined exports were up 8.2% for 2010 compared with the previous year. About 80 million tons of coal was exported in 2010, with most heading to Europe and Brazil. Because CSX is the major railroad in the Kentucky and Virginia area we travel through, and CSX also owns several of these terminals, I suspect that a good share of the exported coal comes from this region. Some coal is also exported across the Great Lakes to Canada, and from Gulf of Mexico ports. Currently, only minor amounts head for China and other parts of Asia through west coast terminals. Upgrades are planned at several east coast coal terminals to increase capacity by 7 million Tons per year within the next two years. There has been movement recently to increase capacity of the west coast also, but the changes are being fought heavily by environmentalists who want to keep our coal resources in the ground, unused. The Wall Street Journal reports an Australian company purchased a site in Longview, Washington to build a new coal terminal.

Unfortunately, coal mining is a dangerous business. The year 1962 was no exception, with several mining disasters around the world:

  • February - 298 miners were killed in West Germany in mine explosions
  • February – 54 miners were killed in Bosnia in an explosion
  • March – 16 miners were killed in a mine explosion in England
  • December – 37 miners died after being trapped underground by a mine explosion in Carmichaels, Pennsylvania

A more unusual mine disaster began in Centralia, Pennsylvania which is still going on today. A coal mine fire began there in May, 1962, most likely as a simple fire started in a garbage dump that happened to be over an open coal seam. This fire was put out and reignited spontaneously several times and by July, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources started to monitor the fire. Some blame the bore holes drilled to check the fire for providing a natural draft which helped combustion. The fire continued to burn underground and on May 22, 1969 the first three families were moved out. Fly ash and clay fill were used in a newly dug trench to contain the fire and hopefully end it for good. This did not succeed, perhaps because the containment project was too small. In 1980, the U.S. Bureau of Mines recognized that the Centralia mine fire had not been extinguished and was not controlled. That year, twenty-seven more families were moved out. A near-fatal ground collapse occurred in 1981, as a 150-foot deep hole opened, but the victim managed to hold on to exposed tree roots and was pulled to safety by his cousin. This incident finally grabbed the first national media attention. Various plans were advanced to try to control the fire, but in 1983 folks effectively gave up. A government buy-out of property owners was approved and today there are only a few scattered homes remaining in Centralia. The population in 1997 was down to 44 people and has dwindled since and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania owns most of the property. The fire continues to burn underground.

There are also other coal mine fires still burning underground around the world. I’ve found references to a fire in New Straitsville, Ohio that has been burning since 1884! Pennsylvania appears to have just the right conditions for long-term fires, with official estimates of over 45 still burning. A coal mine fire larger than the Centralia fire burns in Northern China. The Chinese believe the only way to deal with these fires is to try to isolate them and let them burn out, and judging from Centralia’s experience there may be little else that can be done. Scientists estimate that Australia’s Burning Mountain has burned for 6,000 years, making it the oldest known coal fire. Early explorers mistook it for a volcano in the 1800s. There was even a small coal mine fire in Pikeville, Kentucky, near US-23 back in 2004. It was in the Excel No. 3 mine operated at that time by MC Mining. The fire was quickly brought under control using a combination of nitrogen gas and fire fighting foam to smother it, and the mine was reopened in just 33 days.

Martin County slurry spill map, October, 2000
Martin County slurry spill map, October, 2000 (from Kentucky NREPC)

Another type of mine disaster occurred along US-23 on October 11, 2000. A 2.3 billion gallon coal slurry impoundment owned and operated by the Martin County Coal Corporation broke open and released an estimated 250 million gallons of coal slurry, sediments, and other waste materials before it was stopped. An abandoned mine shaft collapsed under the refuse impoundment, causing the liquified waste to enter both the Wolf Creek and Rockcastle Creek watersheds. This spill has been described as one of the south’s worst environmental disasters smothered. The location is near Inez, Kentucky, just miles off US-23. It processes coal from several mines in the immediate area. It left, fish, turtles and other aquatic animals buried and suffocated. The slurry entered local rivers and impacted more than 100 miles of stream beds and associated flood plains downstream, including the all the way along our route through Louisa and back to the Ohio River at Cattlettsburg, Kentucky. The spill buried yards and farms, covered roads, disrupted water service in many cities, and closed schools and business.

Another unfortunate byproduct of hard work in dangerous conditions, and often for poor pay, has been violence. Over a decade before 1962, United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis realized that the coal industry would have to modernize in order to compete with other fuels. He made deals that the union would back mechanization in the mines, on the theory that it is "better to have half a million men working in the industry at good wages and high standards of living than to have a million working in poverty and degradation." The result has been prosperity for the union and many of its miners, but a disaster for many other miners. For example, in nearby Perry County, Kentucky, 39% of the people lived on the dole in 1962. Some of these desperate people resorted to violence that year. And, the union had recently made things worse by closing four welfare-fund hospitals in the area and declaring that anybody who worked for a mine that was not paying the full coal royalty to the United Mine Workers Welfare Fund would not be eligible for the fund's pension and hospitalization benefits. These hospitals were created by a 1946 contract between the UMW and the federal government. The UMW Fund built eight hospitals in Appalachia, established numerous clinics, and recruited young doctors to practice in rural coal field areas. Closure of some of these hopitals in September of 1962 threw many workers into desperate straits and before things settled down next year, Kentucky called in state troopers armed with submachine guns.

coal miners in Jenkins, Kentucky, 1935
coal miners in Jenkins, Kentucky, 1935 (public domain from U.S. Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress)

Coal is America’s largest domestic energy resource; enough to last 250 years at current rates of use. Modern coal mining still goes on underground as it has for centuries, but methods are changing. Many new mines in the Appalachian region just blow the top off a mountain instead of going underground. The rock and soil is temporarily moved to fill in a nearby valley. After coal extraction, the land is leveled and can be more conveniently used for many modern purposes including farming, forestry, recreation, and even building residential neighborhoods. Out west, strip mining, where a giant hole is dug instead of working underground, is the usual method.


Just as the mining has changed, so too has the burning of coal. Modern technologies have drastically lowered the pollution levels. These 'clean-coal' technologies include low nitrogen oxide burners and selective catalytic reduction equipment that reduce nitrogen oxides, flue gas desulfurization systems to reduce acid rain, and the latest idea, integrated gasification combined cycles. This last seeks to burn the gasified coal and create zero-emission plants. Problems still being worked on are potential health impacts of trace emissions of mercury and the effects of microscopic particles on people with respiratory problems. A new “clean-coal” generation plant is now in design and permitting near the north end of US-23, at Rogers City, Michigan. The US Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030, electricity demand will be 39% higher than today, and that new coal-fired plants will need to be built to provide 57% of electric generation. How we will get there is unclear, as President Obama has stated he wants new regulations that would push the cost of using coal so high that it will bankrupt the utility companies that build such plants. Later on US-6, I discovered one coal-fired generating plant that has already closed due to the new regulations. If he is successful, it will put thousands more coal miners out of work along US-23 and elsewhere around the country. Will this still be coal mining country when ROADTRIP-'62 ™ comes through in another 50 years?

abandoned railroad coaling facility
abandoned railroad coaling facility

All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne., except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.

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Weather on October 18, 1962 for Pikeville, KY, from the National Climatic Data Center:

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