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In Colonial America, blacksmiths used small amounts of "fossil coal" or "stone coal" to supplement the charcoal normally burned in their forges. Farmers dug coal from beds exposed at the surface and sold it by the bushel. Although most of the coal for the larger cities along the eastern seaboard was imported from England and Nova Scotia, some came from Virginia.

Although early coal mining was a dangerous business, many miners were children (learn more on the Department of Labor’s “Little Miners” Page). Thanks to mining laws, unions, and improvements in technology, coal mines are now much safer places to work. The number and severity of mining accidents that happen today are a fraction of what they were in the late 1800s. See a listing of Coal Mining Disasters since 1839, on the Centers for Disease Control website.

  • The first record of coal in the United States was shown on a map prepared by Louis Joliet. The map notes charbon de terra (coal of the earth) along the Illinois River in northern Illinois.
  • Coal was discovered near Richmond, Virginia.
  • The location of several "cole mines" were recorded on a map. The mines were located along the upper Potomac River, near what is now the border of Maryland and West Virginia.
  • The first commercial U.S. coal production began near Richmond, Virginia.
  • Coal was reported in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and what is now the state of West Virginia.
  • The first commercial coal shipment in the United States was recorded.
  • Pennsylvania’s anthracite deposits were found.
  • Coal was used to manufacture shot, shell, and other military materials.
  • James Watt patented the modern-day steam engine. Coal was used to produce steam for early steam engines.
  • Coal became the principal fuel used by steam-powered trains (locomotives). As the railroads branched into the coal fields, they became a vital link between mines and markets.
  • More and more households and steamboats used coal for fuel.
  • Coal was used to produce oil and gas for lighting.
  • Coal was burned to heat salt brines, a source of salt in southwestern Pennsylvania.
  • Baltimore, Maryland, became the first city to light streets with gas made from coal.
  • Coal was used to make glass in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
  • Tom Thumb, the first commercially practical American-built steam powered train (locomotive), was manufactured. The Tom Thumb burned coal, and soon, every American locomotive that burned wood was converted to use coal.
  • The first coal miners’ union was formed in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
  • The practive of strip-mining (mining in strips of land) began near Danville, Illinois. Horse-drawn plows and scrapers were used to remove the top layer of dirt or rocks so that the coal could be dug and hauled away in wheelbarrows and carts.
  • A major mine disaster occurred at the Avondale Mine in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, killing 108 men and boys.
  • Coal began to be formed into chunks called briquets in the United States.
  • Coal coke replaced charcoal as the chief fuel for iron-blast furnaces.
  • A steam-powered shovel excavated some 10 feet of overburden (earth covering a coal deposit) from a 3-foot-thick coal bed near Pittsburg, Kansas.
  • Coal-cutting machines became available (before that, coal was mined underground by hand).
  • The first practical coal-fired electric generating station, developed by Thomas Edison, went into operation in New York City to supply electricity for household lights.
  • A converted wooden dredge with a 50-foot boom was used to uncover a coal bed under 35 feet of overburden (earth covering a coal deposit).
  • The United Mine Workers of America was formed.
  • Congress passed the first Federal law to improve safety in mines. The law required ventilation in mines and made it illegal for companies to hire children under 12 years of age to work in mines.
  • The Spring Valley Coal Company pioneered the use of 15-inch steel timber beams in 400 mine openings.
  • On Dec. 6, 1907, 362 men and young boys were killed in an underground explosion at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia. This was the worst mining accident in United States history.
  • Surface mining with steam shovels was specifically designed for coal mining.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Mines was created to help reduce accidents in mines.
  • The first self-contained breathing apparatus for mine rescue operations was used.
  • Mechanical coal-loading equipment replaced hand loading and increased productivity. Mules, horses, and oxen were used to haul coal and refuse. A few dogs were used in small mines, working thin coal beds. In time, the animals were replaced by electric locomotives, dubbed electric mules, and other haulage equipment.
  • Molded, protective helmets for miners were introduced.
  • The shuttle car was invented for use in mines.
  • Surface mining with auger machines was introduced.
  • Most coal was used by industry.
  • Many homes were still heated by coal.
  • Coal was used by steam-driven trains and ships.
  • Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952, which increased the number of safety inspections in mines.
  • First longwall mining with powered-roof supports.
  • Most coal was used for generating electricity. (Today, more than 90% of coal is used for electricity generation.)
  • Coal had become the major fuel used by electric utilities in the United States to generate electricity. (Today, it is still the leading fuel for electricity generation.)
  • Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 passed by Congress. The “Coal Act” extended safety laws to surface mines, and allowed miners with “black lung disease” to receive money for their care. More recent safety practices have made black lung disease, caused by inhaling fine coal dust, much less common than it used to be.
  • Surface mines replaced underground mines as the leading source of coal produced in the United States. The importance of surface mining has continued to grow since that time.
  • Kentucky became the leading coal production state.
  • The OPEC oil embargo focused attention on the energy crisis and resulted in an increase in demand for U.S. coal.
  • The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was passed by Congress. The purpose of the Act was to reduce the environmental impact of surface mining. The Act required surface mines no longer being used to be "reclaimed" or restored to their natural state.
  • The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 was passed by Congress. The “Mine Act” strengthened existing mining safety and health regulations and created a new agency in the U.S. Department of Labor, the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
  • The National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) study began.  Industries spent over $1 billion on air pollution control equipment.
  • The Clean Coal Technology Act passed.
  • Wyoming displaced Kentucky as the leading coal-producing state.
  • United States coal production topped 1 billion tons a year.
  • The National Mining Association was formed by merging the American Mining Congress and the National Coal Association.
  • Burlington Resources began injecting carbon dioxide into wells in the San Juan Basin in New Mexico to recover more methane from the coal beds.
  • Coal mining companies reclaimed the 2 millionth acre of mined land. Surface mines that are no longer in use must be "reclaimed" or restored to their natural state.
  • The United States sponsored a $1 billion, 10-year demonstration project to create the world's first coal-based, zero-emissions electricity and hydrogen power plant.
  • Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, promoting the use of coal through clean coal technologies.
  • Coal production set a record high with 1.16 billion short tons. Wyoming continued to dominate coal production in the United States.
  • Congress passes the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006. The Act aimed to enhance mine safety training, improve safety and communications technology for miners, and provide more emergency supplies of breathable air.

  • On April 5, 2010, 29 miners were killed in an underground explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. This was the worst mining accident in United States since 1972.

Last Revised: June 2010
Sources: National Energy Education Development Project, Intermediate Energy Infobook, 2005–06
U.S. Department of Labor, History of Mine Safety and Legislation, September 2007
Centers for Disease Control, Coal Mining Disasters, April 2010