DAYS GONE BY: The coal mining industry of Michigan

By Shanna Avery

Lake County Historical Society

Michigan boasts plentiful natural resources which have been tapped into throughout history, and coal once numbered among these.

Since ancient times, coal has been used for heating, but during the Industrial Revolution coal became essential in generating steam by fueling boilers for trains and ships as well as fueling iron-blast furnaces used to make steel. By the late 19th century, it was used to generate electricity.

The Michigan coal basin covers one-third of the lower peninsula, expanding outward from the center of the state. The northwest edge of the coal basin includes parts of local counties: Lake, Newaygo, Wexford, Missaukee, and all of Osceola, Clare, and Mecosta. However, this northwest quadrant has been charted at over 500 feet deep, according to a map from an Michigan State University Department of Geography report, so the commercial mining operations were more active toward the southeast quadrant of the basin where coal was under 500 feet, in counties including Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola, Genessee, Shiawassee, Ingham, Eaton, Jackson and Calhoun.

Coal was first discovered in Michigan around 1835 when pioneers built a gristmill west of Jackson. In 1837, Geologist Douglass Houghton discovered that the river bed and banks of the Grand River at Jacksonburgh contained a bed of bituminous shale mixed with very thin layers of coal. Settlers extracted coal for local use and in 1840 attained 1,500 bushels.

Due to limited means for marketing the coal, the coal industry in Michigan didn't materialize for more than two decades following the discovery of the resource. By 1859, things were looking more promising. The East Saginaw Courier reported, "Our Coal Fields: There is little doubt but that the Coal Fields of Michigan will yet prove as valuable as any in the Union. They cover at least one-third of the entire Lower Peninsula.

"On the Shiawassee River, about 20 miles above here, a shaft was sunk only 28 feet which passed through one vein of 18 inches in thickness, another of 24 inches and terminated in a vein six feet in thickness. The quality is said to be nearly equal to the best of Briar Hill. Coal has also been found on the Flint and Cass Rivers, but as yet no shafts have been sunk.

"Here is a fine field for improvement, with our facilities for shipment to all ports on the Lakes, and with the ease with which the coal can be raised, it would seem wonderful that it has lain unoccupied so long. At Jackson, in this State, the miners are obliged to go, some 90 feet deep, while ours is fully equal in quality," June 16, 1859.

The largest coal deposits were found in Saginaw Valley and largely concentrated in Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola and Genesee Counties. The height of production, reached in 1907, unearthed two-million tons of coal.

Locally, coal was not manufactured, but there are accounts of coal being found. According to the Cadillac News article, "Curiosities of Lake County" reprinted in the Big Rapids Current, coal was found in Yates Township, section 36. "On the farm of Dr. Andrews there has been plowed up several large pieces of fine bituminous coal," it printed on March 22, 1882.

Coal was also found many years ago in Cherry Valley Township, Lake County, when an oil well was dug.

A report from the Department of Labor in 1919 described Michigan coal as bituminous and easily broken, possessing "excellent heat producing qualities." The report further explained the coal was not adapted for cooking, but almost exclusively for steam making.

By 1919, the following number of mines were active in the following counties: Bay County, 10 mines; Saginaw County, 17 mines; Tuscola County, one mine; Genesee County, one mine; Shiawassee County, two mines; Ingham County, one mine; Eaton County, two mines.

The report stated all mines in Michigan were provided with escape shafts as mandated by law with exception of the Community Mine, five miles west of Chesaning, which was in the process of getting up to code. A notable decrease in mining accidents was reported in 1919, but with a total of 252 accidents, three being fatal, safety was still a big concern.

The MSU Department of Geography report elaborated on the mining process and the conditions workers faced. Men lit lard lamps when they reached underground. Puddles of water covered the floor, and even with ventilation shafts, the air was rank. It was not uncommon for miners to chip the seams while laying on their bellies in wet mud.

The coal tunnels were supported with timbers as they were mined, and workers typically had to stoop while chipping through the expanding tunnels. The retrieved coal was loaded into an iron car pulled through tunnels by underground mules. Full cars were then emptied into chutes that supplied railroad cars or wagons. The average worker mined 2.5 tons of coal per day.

More than 160 coal mines were once active in the Michigan Coal Basin. Through its span of about 90 years, major production of Michigan coal produced over 46 million tons.

Michigan couldn't compete well with leading coal regions, such as the Appalachia range, Wyoming and other areas due to coal beds being thinner and more scattered in distribution. Most mining operations in the state ended by 1930. Some smaller open pit operations near Williamston continued until the early 1950s. The last coal mine in the Saginaw Valley closed in 1952.

In the mid-1970s, an open pit mine operated for a brief time in Ingham County. In the early 1980s, thousands of acres of abandoned coal mines were leased for strip mining the remaining coal, but this operation was abandoned before it began due to a halt in coal prices. Over 300 million tons of coal remain beneath the surface in the lower peninsula.

Graveyards of abandoned mines in Michigan's coal country bear testament to a once-thriving Michigan industry that flourished almost a century.