Coal production in the 20th century

Miners on shift break, photographed by William "Doc" Horrell, from the Doc Horrell Photo Collection at the Special Collections Research Center

Coal miners, many of whom were European immigrants, suffered low wages during the 19th century. Mine collapses and explosions claimed many lives in the unregulated industry. Labor unions fought for higher wages, increased safety, and better health care, but reforms were rarely enforced. Conflicts between unions and mine owners turned violent, escalating in the early 20th century. A number of mines closed in the wake of accidents and decreasing profitability, creating widespread poverty by the 1930s. While mine safety has increased, gains in healthcare and retirement compensation are challenged when coal companies fail.

Although mining labor organization began in Southern Illinois, no Illinois members remain. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the 185 coal mines employing more than fifty thousand in 1930 have been reduced to nineteen mines employing fewer than four thousand. When mines shut down, a number of workers may stay on for several years to work on land reclamation.