Coalmining in Webster County

By Roger Natte

For several years, Roger Natte, a local Fort Dodge Historian has been researching and compiling information for a work he has prepared on Coal Mining in Webster County. In 2001 Roger Natte contributed a portion of his research that is subject to Coalville for the Coalville Web page, that information is contained here below. A very special thank you to Roger Natte for this wonderful amount of information he has made possible for the people of Webster County, and graciously provided to our Coalville, Iowa Web page.


THE DEVELOPMENT OF IOWA COAL ~ The genesis of Iowa coal is found in the geological era known as the Pennsylvanian period, which began over 250 million years ago and lasted some fifty million years. This was a period in which the unique conditions required for the formation of coal were met on a grand scale. Coal is an accumulation of plant material in the form of peat, which has been subjected to pressure and heat. The first condition necessary for its creation is the prolific growth of vegetation. Experts estimate that under modem conditions it takes twenty feet of plant material to compress into three feet of peat, which in turn can produce one foot of coal the time needed to produce that much plant material is three thousand years. Since mine able coal in Webster County ranges from two and one half to ten feet in thickness between fifty and two hundred feet of plant material would be required, needing between 7,500 and 30,000 years to accumulate. An additiona1 25,000 to 100, 000 years is necessary to transform that material into coal.

The Coalville district, was one of the county's largest, it measures about two and three-quarters miles long and one and three-quarters mile wide. In that field a unique seam, the "big coal" sometimes reaching a thickness of ten feet, is in long strips, 200 to 300 feet wide, which curves through the area, possibly a result of the marsh developing in the bed of an old river. In most cases the coal deposit takes a lens shape, with the thickest coal in the center of the field and feathering out toward the edges.

Coal has several forms; anthracite, bituminous, cannel, and lignite. Anthracite or hard coal and lignite or brown coal, are not found in Webster County. The local coal is primarily of the bituminous variety, which is soft and breaks easily. It contains a large percentage of volatile materials, burns with a strong yellowish flame, leaving considerable ash, and gives off dense smoke. (Local pioneer lore tells that the early settlers first used local coal to produce smoke to keep mosquitoes away.) A few mines, primarily around Kalo, produced cannel coal. Its high number of BTUs makes it desirable for both the gypsum mills and the clay products plants in the area. Cannel coal also contains more ash material than other coal. Often when the volatile materials burned and the gases were driven off the cannel coal ash expanded greatly, giving rise to the settlers claim that if you burned a bushel of cannel coal you had to carry out a bushel and one half of ash, a claim that may not have been far from the truth. Webster County historically has had five coal producing areas; the Coalville-Kalo- Holliday Creek district, the Lehigh district, the Skillet Creek district east of Dayton, all of which are on or near the Des Moines River, and the Tara district on Lizard Creek several miles west of Fort Dodge. Exposure of seams in the walls of the valleys and ravines of the streams allowed easy discovery and easy mining through slope and drift entries. In more recent years shaft mines tapped a fifth coal measure on the flat lands west of the Des Moines River along Highway 169. In addition to these primary areas limited mining for local use has occurred in other areas, such as in the immediate vicinity of Fort Dodge. Nine-tenths of all the coal mined in the county, however, has come from a radius of six miles around Kalo and four miles around Lehigh.


THE HOLLIDAY CREEK~COALVILLE DISTRICT These early mines at Fort Dodge were worked only on a sporadic basis but in 1862 Silas Corey, a name closely associated with the development of coal mining in the county over the years, established the first mine in the Holliday Creek area six miles southeast of Dodge. It was the first mine to be operated over an extended period of time and, with its establishment, the center of coal mining shifted away from Fort Dodge The Holliday Creek-Coalville district in Pleasant Valley Township was to become the first extensive commercial mining development in the county and began with the extension of railroads into the county in 1869. The Holliday Creek coal deposits were ideal for development because they were within a few miles of the Illinois Central railroad line. The first of these railroad inspired companies was the Holliday Creek Railroad and Coal Company incorporated in March of 1870 by John F. Duncombe, C. B. Richards and Platt Smith, among others. A company town with company owned housing and a company store was established, at that time considered a very progressive action. Assessor's records of 1880 indicate that the company owned sixty-six houses along Holliday Creek for rental to its employees and a general store located in Coalville. Finally, an 1885 newspaper item indicates that the company operated a school with 122 pupils. The Company ruled with an iron hand and brooked no opposition from its employees as seen in its work rules, published in 1870. Anyone who was "of cross and complaining, or quarrelsome disposition or who incites strikes, or interferes with the manage(ment) of the company, as soon as found out will be discharged." and "any person discharged for cause will never under any circumstances be permitted to again work for the Company." and "every employee... expressly agrees that in case of injury or death, no action or right of action shall ever be maintained against the Company on account of such injury or death". The Fort Dodge Coal Company may well have been the county's biggest producer of coal over the history of the local industry. It leased 1200 acres of coal lands, although most were never developed. During its seventeen years of existence sixteen mines were operated, however, it appears that no more than two were ever in production at anyone time. All of the mines were in the Coalville-Holliday Creek district with the exception of the Parle mine at Kalo in which the company had a financial interest. The number four mine was the most productive and longest operating mine in the county, opening before 1877 and finally closing when the company went out of existence in 1888. In 1887 that mine alone employed 127 men. An idea as to the size of the total operation of the company can be seen in the 1886 Mining Inspector's Report which indicated that the company was using twenty horses and mules in its underground operations and two steam locomotives to haul coal from its mines to the railroad. Even when the whole industry was facing a general slowdown in 1876 the Messenger reported that, "only 3,848 carloads of coal were shipped by Duncombe and his Fort Dodge Coal Company between September of 1876 and January of 1877. " In 1880 the company contracted with the Northwestern Fuel Company of Minneapolis and St. Paul for the delivery of 25,000 tons for the 1880-1881-winter season.


The reasons for the final dissolution of the company are unclear. In 1887 Mine Number Four still appeared to be productive but the company had begun to sell its assets. The Mason City and Fort Dodge Railroad acquired the railroad stub line from Carbon to Coalville in 1886. Dissolution may have been decided upon because it was believed that the Holliday Creek - Coalville deposits were rapidly being depleted. Indeed, the last mine that the company opened, "Number Sixteen" had proven to be unproductive, largely because pockets of rock interrupted the coal seam, making mining difficult and expensive. Other companies, smaller than the Fort Dodge Company also worked in the district. At least twelve smaller companies mined there off and on between 1888 and 1940. Second in size to the Fort Dodge Company was the company owned by the Collins family, and it employed around one hundred men in 1887-1889. The dominance of mining in the economy of Pleasant Valley Township, which included Coalville and Holliday Creek, can be seen by the fact that the great majority of men in the township were miners. In 1876 sixty-three percent of the men between twenty-one and forty-five were miners, and in 1880 the percentage had risen to eighty. A surprising number of African-Americans were included among them. Assessorís books indicate that fourteen of the miners in the twenty-one to forty-five year age groups were black, about ten percent of the total. Mining continued sporadically in the district through the entire mining period. The last two commercial mines appear to have been operated by Harlan Rogers and Billy McEwen and both closed about 1936. Both men came from families, which had a long history of mining in the area. The Rogers mine was located just to the east of Carbon or Gypsum and employed five men. McEwen's mine was located at the southeast edge of Coalville. McEwen's mine was closed shortly after he; William (Billy) McEwen was killed when the roof collapsed on him in 1936.


Although the mines were primarily along Holliday Creek, the town developed at Coalville, two miles west, because it was the end of the stub railroad line from which tracks were run to each of the mines. In the 1880s Coalville had a population of nearly seven hundred, making it the second or third largest town in the county. No other source however, indicates a population of 400, which sounds more reasonable. Most of the population in some way was associated with the mines. In 1884 the town had three saloons, two general stores, a telephone company and all of the small businesses, which might be associated with any mining community. The other town in the district was Carbon or Carbon Junction. It developed at the junction of the Illinois Central Railroad and the tramway/railroad from the Coalville and Holliday Creek mines as the transfer point for coal. The Messenger of June 18, 1891 credited it with a population pushing 500, a figure unsubstantiated by other sources. It did have a store, a post office, and it claimed a short-lived newspaper. It also had all of the equipment and structures needed for the interchange of cars and the storage of coal. In 1903 the Chicago Great Western acquired the Mason City and Fort Dodge Railroad, which included the Carbon-Coalville stub, and in 1915 that three-mile stub was abandoned. The name of the town Carbon was changed to Gypsum, indicating the loss of the importance of coal to the area and the increased importance of the new mineral. By World War I it had declined to thirty houses and in the forties the last of these was tom down. Neither Gypsum nor Carbon exists today.



The remnant of the mining boom town Kalo is located in this picturesque wooded valley of the Des Moines, River seven miles southeast of Fort Dodge. The second district to be opened was the Kalo-Otho district and was also highly productive and long lasting. It was distinguished by a coal seam running from five to six feet thick. The first coal to be dug there was mined by George D. Hart after whom Hart's Ford, a shallow crossing of the Des Moines was named. Later Harts Ford was renamed Kalo, by the railroad executives. According to local legend, Hart used the coal to make smoke to drive away mosquitoes. Hart's diggings were later sold to a D. Hackenburg who mined primarily to provide fuel for his blacksmith shop. Andrew Craig whose family was to dominate mining in the district until its end began true commercial mining. Craig and Walter Irvine opened a mine in 1868 and, in their first year, sold twenty-eight ton of coal. By 1870 production at that mine had increased to 712 tons, all of which was sold in Kalo and in Fort Dodge and hauled from the mines by wagon. That year Craig opened his own mine, which produced over three thousand tons valued at nine thousand dollars in the first year of operation. By 1875 seventy men were employed in the Kalo operations.

COAL MINING TOWNS ~ Coal mining towns tended to take on a distinct character. Most were characterized by a rough life style associated with hard working and hard drinking men; often single, transient and often unemployed many days of the year. The Fort Dodge Messenger on November 29, 1878 ran and article on Coalville. "We heard something today about some bloody noses and bruised eyes at the saloon yesterday. It is something that some may think that we should refrain from speaking of but when things get to be so degrading to our town as this it is time someone had something to say. The idea of having regular bulldog fights every night of the week with Sunday well put in is getting too disgusting for us to refuse to speak." The reporter offered a solution to the problem. " If our honorable saloon keeper cannot get along without having such a damning hole he had better shut up his saloon and rely on charitable institutions and reflect on his past life and ask himself, "Where shall I spend my eternity?" Apparently his warnings did little good. In 1885 Coalville sported three saloons, centers of low life and considered unsafe to be around after dark. Other coal towns experienced the same difficulties. In 1882 (Messenger 3/24/1882) the newspaper reported that in Otho "the March payday was attended with less drunkenness and carousing around the miners than the corresponding day in February." The most violent episode marking coal town history was an occurrence in Dayton in 1894. Reported around the state (Progressive Farmer January 9,1894) it illustrated ill feelings between communities. Dayton, itself, was not primarily a coal town but it frequently attracted miners from other communities who brought with them a tendency for trouble making. On January 2, 1894, as part of their New Year' s celebration 200 miners from the Boone County coal town of Fraser took possession of a hall in Dayton in which a dance was in progress, an action that had occurred on previous occasions also. A fight broke out, the locals were ejected and furniture and windows were destroyed in the hall. The Dayton ladies fled in terror and the men went home and secured their own weapons, gathering in the public square to plan their action. In the mean time town marshal Lawson attempted to talk the Fraser miners into going home. In a scuffle that developed Lawson's revolver was taken from him and he was shot and he died the next day. News of the shooting brought the men from the square and in the ensuing battle which lasted a half hour, Frank Dowd, deputy U.S. Marshal, was injured and a local man John Gustafson, was slashed horribly with a knife. The Dayton men were forced to retire from the field, barricading themselves in their homes. It wasn't until the next morning that the last of the Fraser miners left town, six of who were later arrested with little resistance and charged with rioting and murder. There was also the positive side of miners and mining towns. There were many instances of miners coming to the assistance of fellow miners or towns people who were down in their luck. The March 22,1882 Messenger reported that the miners of Lehigh sponsored a dance, the proceeds of which were to be given to John Flenmling, a miner who was injured in a mine accident. The population of mining towns was a mixed lot. Some were transients who might be employed for a season or two and then move on to new areas and new opportunities. Many were young single men with no roots or ties. Still others were area farmers who worked in the mines only during the winter when their farm work was light and the market for coal was strong. Miners' wages were seen as a way to supplement farm income.

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