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Strip-mining coal big in its day

By Lisa Hammer, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Coal mining cut deep swaths on the surface and created caves in Henry County. Mining helped families get through the Depression and provided many men with vivid memories of their working life. Accidents at the mines injured some and killed at least two workers here.

The Illinois Geological Survey has maps for 51 mines in the Kewanee area but the locations of perhaps another 50 are unknown.

Today, one of Kewanee's manufacturers, Compaction America, then Hyster, "discovered" a former vertical shaft mine in 1970 when the east end of the plant collapsed into it, according to Robert Richards of the Kewanee Historical Society. Mr. Richards' uncle was a state inspector and owned maps of some of the old mines. A cousin thought the papers were useless and burned them. "Everybody could have shot him," said Mr. Richards.

The county's biggest mines were Midland Electric Coal with its processing plant at Atkinson and Lathrop Coal just east of Kewanee. Lathrop closed in 1874. Small mines existed both before and after Midland, which opened in 1929, and lasted after the big mine closed in 1964.

The first Midland strip mine shovels removed 13 cubic yards of earth at a time. Newer models took out 40 cubic yards at a time. Originally, coal was removed by small locomotives, but the problem with using railroad cars was the tracks had to be removed after each 40-foot-wide cut was exhausted.

In 1946 the shovels were dismantled and taken to the new mine pit in the Sheffield-Mineral area. Crushing and grading coal for size was still done at Atkinson. Jack Tunney of Annawan was a new employee at that time. He didn't think moving the operation was difficult, just dirty.

"You can't believe how greasy that stuff was," he recalled.

In the later years, Mr. Tunney worked with another miner dynamiting into 60-foot holes drilled into rock above the vein of coal, 300 pounds of dynamite per hole, up to 4,000 pounds per day.

Strip mining equipment was on a scale almost unique in human machinery. In later years, miners took an elevator to get up into shovels capable of lifting 60 cubic yards, or four trucks, in their buckets at once.

In 1946, the new operation in the Sheffield area switched to trucks to bring the coal out of the pit. Trucks then carried the coal to a transfer hopper to be loaded in railroad cars for the trip to Atkinson for processing. Up to 100 railroad cars of coal a day rolled out of Atkinson.

Tom Bartlett, of Geneseo, worked in Midland's office, its engineering department, as payroll clerk and truck repair supervisor.

"It was a nice, wonderful part of my life," he said. "More like a big family than anything else. We worked well together."

In the open-air strip mine, the dirtiest, dustiest place to work was the processing room, where impurities were removed by hand. Processing workers were the most likely to contract black lung disease, Mr. Bartlett said.

Midland sold directly to customers at Atkinson, saving area residents on their fuel costs. Even after Midland closed, Mr. Bartlett said, people continued to go to Atkinson to buy direct from the smaller mines.

Midland Coal had about 125 employees and was open seven days a week, three shifts a day, only shutting down for Christmas and Easter. The first shift loaded and processed coal. The second was a skeleton crew for maintenance. The third shift involved just those needed for two stripping machines.

A second full-scale shift was added in 1951 with equipment improvements, but retired miner Bob Rogers of Geneseo said it was bad for the miners. "They went down to two shifts of three or four days, sometimes two days a week," he said.

Mr. Rogers worked as a "car-dropper," rolling over 13 railroad cars an hour to empty the coal at Atkinson. As the weather turned severe in winter, the coal stuck in the cars. What didn't fall went back to the mine at Sheffield.

"I think we'd ship the same coal back and forth to Sheffield 'til springtime," he said.

Outdoor laborers in those days didn't have the benefits of today's rugged outdoor clothing.

"In the wintertime, it was rough. It was cold," he said. "You couldn't get the railroad cars to go, and once you got them to go you couldn't get them to stop."

Rusty Larimer of Geneseo started to work in the mines on his 18th birthday and ended at a Missouri mine 40 years later.

"It was quite a life with the coal-mining industry, but I loved every minute of it. I guess I had every job except electrician and welder."

Mr. Larimer said he remembers working at the strip mine with Mr. Rogers one day when it was 25 degrees below zero. "They all went home except him and me," he said. "We stuck it out, but we like to froze to death."

Anthony Becker of Atkinson worked for Midland Electric for about 20 years, doing exploratory drilling throughout the state. Finally he quit rather than take a job in southern Illinois. He later worked another 10 years for the mine as a heavy equipment mechanic. The coal wasn't depleted when the closing of the Rock Island railroad brought an end to coal mining here.

"There was a good 20 years in both places," he said. "When the Rock Island Railroad quit, we even tried to ship our own coal by truck, but we had been moving about 120 railroad cars a day. We made it for a week or two with trucks, I don't know just how long it lasted. That's pretty hard to duplicate with trucks."

Miners went on strike a couple of times. Local miners recall being off work for up to a couple of months, during which times supplies for heating even hospitals and schools grew scarce. At the time of the national coal strike in 1935, the price of coal was 18-1/2 cents a bushel or $2.95 per ton.

Eventually Peabody Coal bought Midland and then shut down the Atkinson operation in 1964. Peabody still has mines at Canton and Farmington. Some of the men who worked for Midland took jobs in those towns.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.