Coal and Labor in IL


Curriculum: social studies, American history, Illinois history, socio-economic history seen through the history of coal mining and labor movements in southern Illinois

Lesson Objectives:
* To understand what coal is, how it is used and extracted, and the emergence of coal as an importance resource in the State of Illinois.
* To consider the role of coal mining in Illinois since the 19th century, including the importance of the Mississippi River as a route of transportation for that industry.
* To analyze the development of the labor movement in southern Illinois coal towns as a springboard for broader labor coalitions and labor history in the United States. 
* To evaluate how histories of coal mining, labor disputes, strikes and disasters are remembered today as part of the historical legacy of Illinois towns such as Virden, Herrin and West Frankfort.


1. Introduction: What is Coal?
Coal is a sedimentary rock, usually black or brownish-black in color, that can be used as fuel or to generate electricity. Around 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period, plants and algae were occasionally trapped at the bottom of swampy wetlands. Over long periods of time these plants and algae were continuously compressed by the weight of mud and other vegetation. Over millions of years this plant debris shifted deeper under the surface where it faced increasingly higher pressure and temperatures. Various conditions caused the plant matter to decompose very slowly and to retain most of its carbon, which all living matter has. This buried plant matter is called peat, which itself contains high concentrations of carbon and can be burned as fuel. Through a process called carbonization, peat transforms to coal under intense heat and pressure.

Coal exists underground in formations called “coal seams” or coal “beds,” which can be as thick as 30 meters, depending on the local formation processes. These coal beds exist on every continent but the largest reserves are in the United States, Russia, China, Australia, and India. In the United States, coal is heavily extracted from Wyoming in the Western Coal Region, in addition to the Appalachian Coal region, including West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It has also been extracted from other states, including Texas and Illinois.Illinois has vast coal fields.

There are several different types of coal, distinguished by the process through which they were formed and therefore the concentration of carbon they contain. The deeper the plant matter, the greater the temperature and pressure to which it has been subjected and the more the plant matter is transformed into coal.

Peat: Peat is an accumulation of decayed vegetation that has undergone a small amount of carbonization. Peat is part of the coal family but is not actually coal. Peat has several functions around the world, including as a source of energy in Ireland, Scotland and Finland where it is dehydrated and burned as a heat source.

Lignite: Lignite is the lowest possible rank of coal. While it has carbonized past the point of peat, its carbon content is still relatively low, at around 25-35%. Because it retains more moisture than other types of coal, it is more expensive and dangerous to mine, store, and transport. It is primarily used to generate electricity.

Sub-Bituminous Coal: Sub-Bituminous coal contains more carbon than lignite at about 35-45% and is about 100 million years old. Similar to lignite coal, it is primarily used for generating electricity.

Bituminous Coal: Bituminous coal contains about 45-86% carbon and is formed under increased heat and pressure. It is 100 million – 300 million years old. There are three major types of bituminous coal: smithing, cannel and coking. Smithing coal is ideal for metal forges, as a fuel for the heating and shaping of metals. Cannel coal was an important source of coal oil in the 19th century, when it was used as fuel for street lights. Coking coal is useful for large-scale industrial processes like the steel industry.

Anthracite: Anthracite is the highest rank of coal with the greatest amount of carbon at up to 97%. As a high-quality coal it is harder and more dense, and burns cleanly with little soot. As a result, it is also more expensive and mainly used in stoves and furnaces rather than in power plants.

2. Coal Mining and Labor History
Coal has been utilized as a small-scale source of fuel for thousands of years. But it was only in the Industrial Revolution and notably during the 19th century that coal expanded globally. This is when coal became an indispensable resource driving those technological changes. Industrial processes depended on coal for power production and to fuel steam engines for the railways and steamships that transported new mass commodities.

Today, coal fuels around 40% of the world’s electricity as it continues to be a relatively cheap and plentiful resource. Nevertheless, coal is also the most polluting fossil fuel and its extraction is among the darkest, dirtiest and most dangerous of tasks.

Two general extraction methods are used to extract coal from the ground: surface (open cast) mining or underground (deep) mining. The method selected is based on depth, density, overburden, and thickness of the coal seam in question. In order to conduct surface mining, the “overburden” first has to be removed to expose the coal seam. This may be done with the use of large excavators or explosives to remove the sediments and access the coal strips.

Most coal seams are too deep to extract using surface mining methods. Deposits at depths greater than around 55 meters below surface require underground mining. Today there are several methods used for underground mining, often involving the use of sophisticated machinery that has greatly enhanced the extraction rate of coal. These methods involve the mining of networks of “rooms” into a seam and extracting the coal through mechanized methods such as long-wall mining and continuous mining. Some underground mines are thousands of feet deep with tunnels connecting off the vertical shafts for miles. There are also instances where underground mining causes the surface level to sink or subside, with drastic consequences for those on the surface. This happened notoriously in Benld, Illinois, which lost its new primary school to such an event in 2009.

In the United States coal mining was a notoriously harsh industry for its laborers with dangerous and unhealthy work and extremely unjust labor contracts. For instance, miners were often paid in “scrip” – this was company=printed paper wages that could only be spent in the company store, which often charged higher prices. Housing often belonged to the company with rent deducted from the wage and guaranteed only as long as the miner worked. The work itself was exhausting and dangerous, involving long hours in the dark mines. Mining was prone to accidents, exposure to dangerous gases like carbon monoxide and to toxins like coal dust known to cause “black lung,” or major respiratory issues from the inhalation of the dust.

The dangerous and exploitative conditions of coal mining led to the formation of the United Mineworkers of America union in 1890. Labor unions like the UMW elevated the demands of laborers in the coal industry as well as across labor sectors. The UMW was founded in Columbus, Ohio, on January 25, 1890. The primary goals initially were threefold: to develop mine safety; to improve mine workers’ independence from the mine owners and the company store; and to provide miners with collective bargaining power. Over its history, the union successfully advocated for concessions such as the eight-hour workday, collective bargaining rights, health and retirement benefits for miners, higher wages, compensation in cases of injury and disease. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the UMW was instrumental in coordinating local and national scale strikes and labor movements to achieve the above concessions.

In 1932 a splinter union called Progressive Miners of America formed in Gillespie and was prominent in southern Illinois. The PMA formed because of the corruption and inefficacy those miners saw in the UMW. Although the two unions had a common “enemy” – the exploitative, capitalist coal mine owners, southern Illinois was convulsed over several years by a “mine war” between the two unions. (See –;

3. Coal in Illinois
Many people associate coal mining in the United States with the Appalachian coal region of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But Illinois sits on vast seams of coal. Indeed, the first discovery of coal in North America was made by Marquette and Joliet in 1673 along the Illinois River. Settlers did not first begin to mine the coal until the 1800s, when it was used primarily for blacksmithing and domestic use. By 1848 Belleville had become the first underground mining operation in Illinois. The new industry quickly spread along the shipping routes of the Mississippi around growing nearby urban centers like St. Louis and Chicago.

Coal mining and the labor movements that resulted from the industry have long been an integral part of the development of the State of Illinois and the national economy. In fact, cities like Carbondale are named for the large coal deposits found nearby. A statue of a coal miner stands on the grounds of the State Capitol in Springfield in recognition of its importance. But what is the legacy of coal in Illinois? As the industry grapples with changing economic outlooks and cleaner energy source markets, it is important to consider the history of coal mining in Illinois and its place in the collective heritage of many downstate communities.

4. Great Mining Strikes and Mine Disasters in Illinois History
Battle of Virden (1898): The Battle of Virden was a 10-minute gunfight that resulted in the death of 13 men and a lasting significance in the history of Illinois coal mining. Virden is in Macoupin County, just to the south of the Sangamon County line. Tensions began when owners of the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. refused to honor an agreement struck nationwide between bituminous coal operators and the United Mine Workers. The company, led by J.C. Loucks and Frank Lukens, argued that the provisions of a 40 cent-per-ton pay rate and an eight-hour, six-day week would crush its market competitiveness.

The company recruited non-unionized, African-American miners from Alabama in an attempt to break the strike but the strikers intercepted the train carrying the Black miners. The company then had a stockade built around the mine and hired dozens of guards. They tried a second time to bring African-American miners on October 12, 1898. In a tense scene company guards squared off against strikers who were aware of the oncoming train of Alabaman miners (who likely were not aware of the situation).

Around midday a shootout erupted as the escorted strikebreakers arrived at an armed stockade near the Virden train station. The hired gunmen of the company had superior arms and ultimately 13 men were killed – eight miners, four hired guards and a railroad company employee. A large monument was erected on the town square of Virden in 2006, depicting the event with additional information.

Herrin Massacre (1922): In 1922 the United Mineworkers of America was in the midst of a nationwide strike. At that time W.J. Lester had recently opened a new strip mine called the Southern Illinois Coal Company near Herrin, IL. After agreeing with the Union to keep the mine open provided no coal was shipped out, he decided to violate the agreement in June. He hired dozens of strikebreakers and mine guards to ship out the coal that had been mined. On June 16 he shipped out more than a dozen railroad cars with coal. By June 21, striking union miners laid siege to the mine and antagonized strikebreakers, prompting guards to exchange fire killing three union members. Amidst the tension, a surrender of the strikebreakers and company superintendent was negotiated but as they left the mine and marched toward Herrin, the miners began to attack them. Eventually, despite the surrender, the union miners killed the superintendent and 18 of the strikebreakers in brutal violence on June 22. In June 2015 the city erected a monument in Herrin cemetery to memorialize the massacre victims who had been buried there in unmarked graves.

West Frankfort Mine Disaster (1951): On December 21, 1951 disaster struck the Orient Coal mine in West Frankfort, IL. As a night shift crew worked the mine just days before Christmas, an apparent methane-caused explosion trapped 120 miners inside. Workers from unaffected portions headed for the surface but only 1 of the 120 trapped miners emerged alive after a rescue effort. A local school became a temporary morgue as the local residents dealt with the tragic blow to their fellow townsmen. The disaster brought greater urgency to the national push for mine safety legislation and in July 1952, president Harry Truman signed the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act.

5. Mother Jones
A unique figure in American labor history is Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones. Born in Ireland, she traveled to North America to escape conditions of the Irish famine and ultimately landed in Chicago in her early twenties. She faced the tragic loss of her husband and four children in a yellow fever epidemic in 1867 and lost it all again in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In the aftermath, she began traveling the country, agitating for improved conditions and economic justice across the coal fields of the United States and for unionized workers across sectors. She was a fearless union organizer for the United Mine Workers and self-proclaimed “hell-raiser.”

Mother Jones died in 1930, having been called “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” by some in the United States government. Her fervent wish as she neared the end of her long life was to be buried with “her boys” from the Virden riot who had been brought to the Union Miners Cemetery in nearby Mt Olive for burial.

This cemetery was created decades before, as a result of the Battle of Virden when that town refused to bury the dead miners and Mt. Olive accepted them and created a cemetery for union miners. A towering monument to the Progressive Miners and Mother Jones stands in this unique cemetery. She is accompanied in death by some of the local Progressive leaders who predeceased her. Mt. Olive proudly claims Mother Jones as its own.

6. The Legacy of Coal in Illinois Today
While the future of the coal industry remains unknown, production in Illinois and across the country continues. Illinois coal production increased to 59 million tons in 2015 up from 33 million tons in 2010.

At the start of 2015, 4,100 people were employed in coal mining in Illinois. But in the early twentieth century there had been tens of thousands of miners. Extraordinary machinery – true modern marvels – is doing the work that a huge labor force once did. Many of the mines closed decades before, resulting in the economic devastation of once prosperous communities. Moreover, as new sources of clean and renewable fuels take greater shares of the market over the coming years, local towns across the state and country are trying to navigate the changing economic landscape, the physical landscapes left by mining, and the legacies of coal statewide.

Today the coal industry has disappeared from much of the Illinois landscape. Its legacy is generations of lost lives, black lung disease, and crippled bodies as well as environmental waste, scarred landscapes, and ground subsidence. Yet in its heyday the steady wages of the coal industry and, in its later years far better labor conditions, had generated prosperous communities downstate. Today many of these towns struggle with unemployment, population loss and attendant social problems. No matter the political promises made, coal is not coming back and even if it does, technologically remarkable mining equipment does the work of scores of men in a fraction of the time.

It is interesting that some towns – such as Marissa and Gillespie – recall “the glory days” of coal with annual festivals named after the industry. Yet these are more street fairs and homecoming events than significant events of commemoration. That is left to the memorials scattered around these places, such as in Herrin, Marissa, Panama and West Frankfort (see The most significant new remembrance was created in December 2017 by the Illinois Department of Transportation at the newly named Coalfield Rest Stop on the east and west sides of Highway I-55 just south of Springfield.

Q1. What do you know about the history of coal in Illinois and the importance to the state?
Q2. How does coal affect your life today? Is it important to the economy of your community? Do you know all the conveniences that are still powered by coal? Does coal affect you or your community negatively or positively?
Q3. Illinois has a dramatic history of labor organizing around coal mining. Did that ensure better conditions for miners? Did it help to foment more effective movements for economic justice in Illinois overall? in the nation?

1)  DEBATE: Students should consider the contentious history of coal in Illinois, its current place in the economic and social landscape of the state, and debate how to memorialize the history of coal mining and its future locally, while also taking into account the role of coal mining in Illinois in an era with climate change concerns.
2) DEBATE: Should Illinois continue to invest in coal production or seek alternative economic and energy sources?

1) Students should choose 1 or 2 sites or events (strike, violent confrontation, disaster) to research in more depth the details surrounding those events. Then, in class, students will share their findings with others so as to arrive at a nuanced view of the history of coal and labor in the state.
2) What is the economic outlook of coal moving forward in Illinois, as well as the environmental consequences that coal has left in its wake?
3) What is the place of coal in the collective memory of downstate residents, including how it is commemorated and how it should be remembered? How can Illinois memorialize its coal heritage? There are many conflicting aspects of this history and opposing viewpoints. So how can a coherent heritage narrative be created to tell this story? What stories would students tell? What sources would they use? Who would they talk to? What would the overall message convey? 

Visit a group of the many places in Illinois associated with the state’s coal mining history, including its tragedies. Some of these are:
* Memorial to the 1898 Virden Riot in Virden’s town square
* lllinois Coal Museum in Gillespie: provides an excellent overview of coal’s geology and its history of exploitation in the state
* Mother Jones Museum in Mt Olive and the Union Miners Cemetery in Mt Olive


The Battle of Virden (1898). Sangamon County Historical Society.

Lydersen, Kari (2016). “Illinois Coal’s Last Stand.” Chicago Reader.

National Geographic Society Resource Library. “Coal.”

O’Connor, Aine (2015) “Mother Jones, grandmother of agitators, is remembered in Illinois.” St. Louis Public Radio.

United States Energy Information Administration.