Since the day a pioneer found coal near the present-day village of Spillertown north of Marion, coal has shaped the economic landscape of Williamson County.
The very name of Williamson County towns bespeak their mining history: Carterville, Herrin, Colp, Stiritz, and other towns were named for mines or the men who created them.
Early blacksmiths performed some of the county’s first mining, extracting fuel for their craft from small deposits near the surface on Hurricane Creek.
Construction of the Carbondale and Shawneetown Railroad between Carbondale and Marion in 1872 provided motivation for the first full-scale mining venture. Steam locomotives not only carried fuel to other destinations, but used the fuel to move the freight.
Soon after the railroad was built, a former Confederate Army captain by the name of Laben Carter leased a tract of land near the present location of Carterville to sink the first slope mine. Unlike vertical shaft mines, such mines “slope” at an angle to a seam of coal. Slope mines in the early days allowed operators to remove coal in carts pulled by mules or ponies Roofs in the early mines were barely high enough for a miner to stand up, giving credence to the derogatory nickname, “scratch-back mines.’
Carter reputedly shipped the first coal from Williamson County. He also produced coke; a by-product used in making steel, and sunk an early shaft mine.
Following soon after Carter were D.R. Harrison, his sister, Louisa M. Williams, and Ephraim Herrin. The partners put down a prospect hole about one-half mile north of the former Illinois Central depot in Herrin around December 1890. The drill hole produced the discovery of a rich 8-foot vein of coal at a depth of 184 feet.
Today, the name “Herrin” is universally applied by geologists to some of the rich seams of high-energy coal found in the Illinois basin.
Another partnership, D.R. Harrison, Thomas Stotlar and G.H. Pope sunk a shaft a short distance to the south. They struck another seam of fine coal at 146 feet.
Other coal ventures soon followed: The Big Muddy Coal Co. Sunnyside mine west of Herrin and the Chicago and Carterville Hickory Hill Mine northwest of Herrin were among the earliest. As the 20th century dawned, dozens of mines were flourishing. Geological factors generally limited coal mining activity in the county to areas north of Illinois 13, which roughly parallels the Brushy Creek fault.
“Demand for mine labor shaped immigration patterns into the county. “
Inexpensive immigrant labor from Italy gave the population around Herrin a rich Italian heritage. Scottish miners flocked to Carterville in a response to Carter’s offer of free passage to America for qualified help.
The mines also brought some of the first black residents to Williamson County and provided the basis for some of the earliest racial strife.
The United Mine Workers of America unionized virtually all major mines in Illinois during the 1890s, providing miners with contracts that shielded them from the seven-day and six-day work weeks and subsistence wages that kept them indebted to company stores. The day was bound to come, however, when a mine operator dared to buck the powerful union.
Mine owner Samuel T Brush’s St. Louis & Big Muddy Mine a mile north of Carterville opened the county’s only non-union mine. When contracts with workers expired in 1889, Brush announced a plan to lower wages. Workers struck the mine, and Brush’s recruitment of 178 black Tennesseans to operate the mine brought down an onslaught of violence which did not end until the mine was sold by Brush.
The miners who brought coal to the earth’s surface faced daily risks in the industry which have diminished, but hardly disappeared, with increasing regulation of mining practices.
Individual mining deaths were common in the early mining days, when roof protection tended to be unreliable and techniques for measuring and dissipating deadly methane gas were unsophisticated.
Too often, the tragedy claimed the lives of entire crews or shifts of miners.
Probably the greatest Williamson County mine tragedy occurred at the East Side Mine near Johnston City on a cold winter day in 1924. Thirty-three miners died when a small cave-in occurred in one of the entry-ways, raising a pocket of gas mixed with dust particles which ignited. The lack of a full-time safety officer was criticized, but the mine was later reopened.
In more modern times, the entire 11 miner second shift of the Blue Blaze No. 2 Mine died when they accidentally opened a hole into a sealed area full of methane gas. The tragedy occurred on Jan. 11, 1962.
In the past decade, Williamson County’s coal industry has subsided almost as quickly as the land above a modern long-wall mine.
“Geologists estimate that more than 2.25 billion tons of coal is lying under the surface of Williamson County”
As recently as 1978, Williamson County could claim 20 operating mines producing nearly 3 million tons of coal.
By 1988, the number declined to two mines, which produced a total of 1.4 million tons. One of those mines, the relatively small Ace Diggins Mine, has since become inactive.
In 1989, the large AMAX Coal Co.’s Delta Surface Mine near Crab Orchard was the county’s only significant mine. It produced a total of 1.36 million tons of coal in 1988, although 412,000 tons of that came from reserves in Saline County.
Williamson “is still an important county as far as coal production is concerned,” according to Illinois Department of Mines & Minerals Director Richard Shockley. “We’re hoping it’s going to stay an important county.”
State officials say the overall depressed state of the coal mining industry has probably shut down many of the small operators, who struggled to meet increasingly stringent reclamation and safety standards with their modest resources.
Much of the county’s strippable reserves, those which could be reached by surface mining practices, have already been removed. Nearly 7 percent of the county’s land area — almost 19,000 acres — has been surface mined, according to state records.
But statistically, Williamson County is still the state’s second highest producer. Its cumulative production of more than 453 million tons is second only to Franklin County for the period in which records have been kept.
‘”At one time, Williamson County was the power,” said Art Rice, an assistant to Shockley who monitors production. “It was a No. 1 producer.”
That day isn’t likely to come again soon, but don’t count coal out of Williamson County’s future. Geologists estimate that more than 2.25 billion tons of coal is lying under the surface of Williamson County, leaving a rich legacy for the future.
(Extracted from the Southern Illinoisan, 1990)