Coal Mining in Southern Illinois

Coal miner, photographed by William "Doc" Horrell
Coal miner, photographed by William "Doc" Horrell, from the Doc Horrell Photo Collection of the Special Collections Research Center

Clearcutting for farming, harvesting lumber for furniture and building, and using wood for fuel devastated Southern Illinois forests. By the 1850s, the Illinois Central Railroad was considering coal for steam engine fuel. After successfully testing bituminous (soft) coal from the Du Quoin area, railroads became its largest consumers.

Thanks to its geological history, Illinois has the largest bituminous coal reserves in the nation, and some veins are large enough for workers to stand upright while underground. Southern Illinois became strongly associated with coal production due to ease of mining, high productivity in a great number of towns, the number of railroads that hauled coal, and the high heat the coal generated.

Coal companies hired experienced mine superintendents from Britain and laborers from Europe. Wages were low until workers organized. Conflict between workers and management became violent by 1898 near Springfield, when nineteen died at Virden.