Ingersoll-Rand class ER mine car compressor and jackhammer outfit was used in the Lynch, Harlan County, Kentucky, mines of the United States Coal & Coke Company, ca. 1920. (New York Public Library photo)

Early Underground Coal Mining In Kentucky

Ingersoll-Rand class ER mine car compressor and jackhammer outfit was used in the Lynch, Harlan County, Kentucky, mines of the United States Coal & Coke Company, ca. 1920. (New York Public Library photo)

Ingersoll-Rand class ER mine car compressor and jackhammer outfit was used in the Lynch, Harlan County, Kentucky, mines of the United States Coal & Coke Company, ca. 1920. (New York Public Library photo)


The First Commercial Coal Mine Opened In The Western Coalfield In Muhlenberg County In 1820; Eastern Coalfield In Floyd Co. In 1900

John W. Bassett and Harry L. Washburn 1950

Coal in Kentucky has a very historical life probably beginning 260,000,000 years ago in a period called, by geologists, the Pennsylvanian. At that time, great primeval swamps covered the Appalachian section of Kentucky, later extending into what is now known as the Western Coal Fields.

Huge forests composed mostly of fern-like trees which were predecessors of those we know today, spread out over the swamps in a mattress formed of tangled roots, twigs, and trunks. The cycles of swamp, forests, and submergence were repeated many times in the Pennsylvanian period, leaving as a monument each separate coal seam that we see today. Through the lapse of ages, the coal measures became hardened by heat and pressure. Animal life of this period leaves a plain record, but no man is evident. The most prevalent fossils are invertebrate shell fish, bivalves, and clamlike animals. Large numbers of high types of life were present in the low vertebrates and the primitive fishes. In the minority were the early amphibians tracking their way along old shore lines.

Because of great crustal uplifts, the lands of Eastern Kentucky were raised above the level of the seas. The erosion of rivers and streams has left the hills and coal as they are today. In contrast, the coals of Western Kentucky are approximately 1,000 feet lower and are in a region of relatively low relief. In world history it is not known when, or by whom, coal was first used. Evidence existed that three or four thousand years ago the people of the bronze age, living in Glamorganshire, Wales, used the coal in their funeral pyres to cremate their dead. Greek historians referred to coal, and it was used in Roman Britain. The fact is known that coal mines were in operation in England three hundred years before Columbus discovered America.

Coal was first discovered in the United States by Joliet and Marquette, who were exploring the middle west in 1673. A map published with Marquette’s journal of 1681 reveals that coal was found near the city of Utica, Illinois.

There is no doubt that the Indian was the first user of coal in Kentucky, but it remained for Dr. Thomas Walker to make the first written record of its existence. Dr. Walker, Civil Engineer as well as physician, was employed by the Loyal Land Company of Virginia on December 12, 1749, “To go westward in order to discover and prepare a place for settlement.” His route went through the heart of Eastern Kentucky coal fields and from his journal we quote these passages:

“April 13, 1750: At the foot of the hill on the North West Side we came to a branch, that made a great deal of flat land. We kept down it two miles, several other branches coming in to make it a large creek, and we called it Plat Creek. (Yellow Creek near Middlesborough.) We camped on the bank where we fund very good coal.”

“April 23, 1750: We travelled about 12 miles and encamped on Crooked Creek. The mountains are very small hereabouts and here is a great deal of flat land. We got through the coal today.”


“May 5, 1750: We got to Tomlinson’s River (tributary of the Laurel) which is about the size of Powells River. Here is plenty of coal in the south bank opposite to our camp (near Livingston and Pine Hill).”

“June 19, 1750: We got to Laurel Creek (head of Tug Fork of the Big Sandy) early this morning and met so impudent a bull buffalo that we were obliged to shoot him or he would have been amongst us. We then went up the creek six miles, thence up a north branch of it to the head, and attempted to cross a mountain, but it proved so high and difficult that we were obliged to camp on the side of it. The ridge is nigh the eastern edge of the coal land (outcrop of Pocahontas seam on Flat Top Mountain).”

One year later, Christopher Gist, who later accompanied Washington across the mountains, was sent by the Ohio Land Company to select suitable land on the banks of the Ohio River. After leaving the Ohio he went south to the Kentucky River and up it into Virginia. The following is from his journal:

“March 27, 1751: Our horses and selves were so tired that we were obliged to stay this day to rest for we were unable to travel. On all branches of the little Cuttaway River (North Fork of Kentucky River) was plenty of fine coal, some of which I brought in to the Ohio Company.”

“April 1, 1751: Set out the same course about 20 miles. Part of the way we went along up a path up the side of a little creek, at the head of which was a gap in the mountains. Then our path went down another creek to a lick where….

Finish this story and more in our March 2016 issue!


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