Because of its geology, Central Virginia was the site of the first commercial coal mining in North America.
The James River Coal basin, a football shaped area 55 miles long and 12 to 17 miles wide, runs from Amelia County to Hanover County, according to Peppy Jones. Jones is executive director of the Mid-Lothian Mines and Railroad Foundation. The foundation name derives from the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Co. that operated the largest mine.
The coal in the region was formed during the upper Triassic period more than 160 million years ago. Dinosaurs first appeared in this period. Remains of animals, trees and plants compacted in layers over millions of years and compressed to form coal. “Paleontologists have found evidence in the shale and coal deposits that dinosaurs and crocodile-like creatures lived near Midlothian,” according to the foundation’s the website.
The area’s Huguenot settlers discovered coal in Chesterfield County in 1701, according to the American Coal Foundation. “Commercial mining was under way by 1730,” Jones said. Several mines sprang up in the area over the rest of the century.
Better transportation was needed to move the tons of coal to customers. In 1802, a 30-foot-wide turnpike with two tollgates was completed from the mines in Midlothian to the James River wharfs in Manchester. Midlothian Turnpike was the first lengthy, fully graveled road in Virginia.
The first railroad in Virginia began operating in 1831 to carry coal from the mines in Midlothian to the James River about 13 miles away. The coal-laden rail cars moved by gravity most of the way, assisted up the occasional hill by mules. The mules then pulled the empty cars back to the mines.
A 36-foot-thick vein of coal was found in the mid-1830s at the Mid-Lothian Mine, which soon became the largest coal mine in the country. It was located just west of what today is Woolridge Road, about half a mile south of Midlothian Turnpike.
A 34-foot tall headstock structure was directly over the 625-foot deep mine shaft and contained a system of pulleys and ropes to raise and lower elevators filled with workers and mules, and to retrieve coal. The wooden headstock for the mine has been reproduced at Mid-Lothian Mines Park, easily visible from Woolridge Road.
A nearby mine, called the Grove Shaft, also is being developed as part of an exhibit. Its largest remaining structure is the ventilation building that housed steam-powered fans to pull out toxic fumes and provide fresh air for workers and mules.
All the mines were plagued with cave-ins, explosions, deadly gases and fires. Pumps continuously removed groundwater from the shafts. The water was heated to steam to power the pumps.
In 1856 the Mid-Lothian Mine flooded when workers accidently drilled into an adjacent mine. “Only 12 men were working at the time and 10 were killed,” Jones said. The tragedy could have been worse. Normally about 100 workers were in the mineshaft in 12-hour shifts.
Engineers knew the regular pumps were no match for the volume of water in the flooded shaft. They purchased a 500-horsepower Cornish pumping engine. Jones said that Cornish pumps originated in Cornwall, England.
The pumping engine, said to be the largest of its kind in the world at that time, was described in newspapers up and down the east coast. The mammoth pump also was reported in mining engineering publications around the world. Engineers, and those who were just curious, flocked to Midlothian to see this unique pump. “It was like Disneyworld,” Jones said. The 42-foot-tall pumping engine completed the job in about two months. Then regular pumps took over. The Cornish engine pump was taken apart and stored in nearby woods. The pieces were sold as scrap metal from about 1935 to 1940, according to Jones.
Working in the mine was very difficult, Jones said, and it continued to have floods, explosions and fires. The mine was abandoned in about 1860.
Coal mining continued at other locations in and around Chesterfield County for years to come. Coal from the area supplied Tredegar Iron Works, where 80% of the cannons were made for the Confederate Army. After the war, production dropped as better quality coal became available from other areas. “Chesterfield County coal production finally ended in about 1930,” Jones said.
U.S. coal mining continues to decline. Coal production in 2016 was half that of 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Alternate energy sources such as natural gas, solar panels and wind power are gaining favor as scientists, economists and politicians debate coal’s future.