Kentucky Coal Heritage
Mechanization of the Coal Industry in Appalachia










Mechanization of the Coal Industry in Appalachia

May, 1997

(This paper is adapted from a non-technical presentation given with a slide show to a mining group in Lexington, Kentucky and Denver, Colorado)

INTRODUCTION: The history of the development of the coal industry in Appalachia, namely eastern Kentucky, has many very interesting stories. The development of one town, in particular, Jenkins, Kentucky, as was announced in the Ashland Daily Independent newspaper in 1913, is a story we would like to describe in a little more detail. This small town in southeastern Kentucky, bordering Virginia, is in the heart of Appalachia and its development mirrors the mechanization of the coal industry in Appalachia. The purpose of this paper is to describe the evolution of a coal milling town in Appalachia and the factors which assisted in its development, particularly, the mechanization of the coal industry.

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT. The town of Jenkins was built by Consolidation Coal Company at the headwaters of the Big Sandy River in Letcher County, Kentucky. All of the building materials, the lumber, bricks and other materials, had to be secured from the surrounding area. The railroad was built from Pikeville, Kentucky to Jenkins to the area in which the coal mines and the coal preparation plants were located. The town consisted of over one thousand homes, including schools, churches, stores, an ice plant, and the hospital. All of the buildings that support the town were built so that, to this day, it is heralded as one of the best examples of a coal mining town built during that era. Moreover, the electricity had to be generated in the area to support the mining of coal and all of the electrical needs of the new community. Water was supplied by an artificial lake built to supply the power plant and, also, drinking water for the town. The planning of the whole town was remarkable in that even the hotel, the bowling alley, the drug store, and all of the facilities were built with local materials.

To provide for the needs of the people, the milk was produced on the dairy farm, ice was manufactured, and the training of the people had to be done. (Some of the miners were recent immigrants). In order to train people, not only in mining coal, but also, in first aid work, contests were held every year at the local baseball park. The mining towns, in those days, were famous for having their own baseball teams that would compete with each other.

The reputation of this part of Kentucky, in the early years, was notable for producing moonshine. Yes, it was one of the businesses of the day. One of the U.S. Marshals, who was a legend, was named "Bad John" Wright. "Bad John" maintained law and order although he had a reputation of being a pretty tough character himself. COAL MINING. The mining of the coal, then, was simply a matter of extracting "tunnels" through the coal seam and allowing the main roof to be supported by larger coal pillars. The coal was extracted as the coal seam was developed. Then, on the retreat work, the larger pillars of coal were removed, causing the subsidence of the roof. To mine coal in those days, six, seven, or eight "tunnel" entries were driven and connected for ventilation and haulage purposes. Providing electricity for the equipment underground required a large assortment of substations and transformers. Today, warehouses contain tens of thousands of parts for the support of this equipment. 

The extraction of the coal meant dewatering the mine by pumping out water which would accumulate and hinder production. Pumping stations existed throughout the coalfield to pump this water out of the mine and, in some cases, this water was used for drinking purposes.

Safety was a major problem. In the early days, the detection of methane gas and low oxygen content was done, oddly enough, by the use of canary birds. Later on, the flame safety lamp was developed to detect a low percent of oxygen or an accumulation of combustible gas. The coal seams, then, were the thicker seams of coal which were mined by the proverbial pick-and-shovel methods. The coal roof supported the slate overhead and this was the roof support method prior to the use of mine timbers.

One of the typical working places for hand loading in those early days was where the rail was placed into the working face and a small mine car was installed. The coal was loaded by hand into the mine car. Any rock partings that existed were carved out and separated in the workplace before the coal was sent to a preparation plant. In later years, wood timbers were used for roof support. These consisted of vertical posts and what were called cross-bars were used to support the slate overhead. These methods were the best that were available at that time but still required much improvement.

Then, along came machinery which lifted these heavy wooden cross-bars to the roof and allowed the legs to be placed under these cross-bars to support the roof. The use of this heavy equipment for roof support became more sophisticated year after year. Heavy hydraulic equipment was developed and it diminished the amount of manual labor required. The timber, that was used in this method of roof support, required that many trees be cut. Handling the timbers was a tremendous job as was delivering them to the working place underground. At times, the weight of the slate roof, although supported by timbers and later, steel cross bars, was heavy enough to bend even the steel cross bars. When the slate would fall and a passageway was necessary, removing the slate became a difficult and challenging job. In the late 40's, steel roof bolts, which were similar to toggle bolts that you use around the house, replaced timbers. The steel bolts would penetrate the roof overlying rock. The laminated slate would be bound together by these roof bolts.

Drilling these holes caused a serious dust problem. Initially, respirators were used, and later, water was used while drilling to suppress the dust. In addition, dust collectors were installed to collect the dust through the steel and to help minimize the dust emission.

Wedge type bolts were first used for roof bolting. They were installed by pushing them in against the top of the hole. A roof bolt plate was, then, placed on the bottom of the roof bolt, and a nut was used to tighten the plate against the roof.

Subsequently, the development of equipment for drilling holes and the use of roof bolts advanced further. The collection of the dust or the use of water on dust collecting was a great improvement. Moreover, the use of this equipment accelerated to the point where today, massive pieces of equipment are used to install roof bolts, and two people can operate a dual roof drill in one working area.

Once the coal was extracted, the coal dust had to be rendered harmless by the use of pulverized limestone rock which is called "rock dust." And that was sprayed on the coal ribs and roof by the machinery, although, today, some of it is still applied manually. Rock dusting equipment has improved to the point where we, now, have much larger equipment that deploys larger amounts of rock dust very quickly.

When mining the coal, to avoid drilling a lot of holes and shooting the coal with less explosives, a second face was cut into the coal seam with a "cutting machine." Initially, the cutting machines were very primitive. They were built to cut another face into the coal. The original ones were called "bottom cutting machines", and they would make a six to eight inch cut, which would allow one to blast the coal more effectively. Later, they were developed into rubber tire mounted cutting machines which could maneuver about more easily in a mine. One could, also, rotate the bar to cut a vertical slice in a coal seam in addition to a horizontal cut. These cutting machines using rubber tire equipment were quite an improvement over what was used initially, but they still presented the problem of coal dust. To minimize the coal dust, water was piped directly into the working place and through the cutting machine.

As cited earlier, when preparing to shoot the coal, one had to drill a hole to insert the explosives. The first method was the use of the primitive coal auger, a manual method of drilling similar to a brace and bit in a carpenter's workshop. Then, electric hand drills were used. Steps were taken to introduce hydraulic hand drills which were operated off of a cutting machine or roof drill. Still more improvements were needed. This led to the development of a mobile coal drill which was rubber tire- mounted and maneuverable, and the operator could easily move it from working face to working face. It decreased the amount of manual labor, which was another advantage of this mechanized process.

As the coal drilling was completed, the person who shot the coal, a shot fireman, would insert the explosives. He would insert the explosive material in the holes, then, using a blasting unit, detonate this explosive, shooting the coal down, and making it ready to be loaded with a loading machine.

In those early days in low coal, one of the means of loading the coal was called a "duck bill," which was just a conveyor that would slide under the coal and shake it back in a pan down to a conveyor line. This method was further developed into what was was called a continuous haulage system. Instead of using shuttle cars, a continuous haulage system would shuttle the coal from the loading machine back to either a mine car or a belt conveyor. These continuous conveyors are still in use today, particularly, in lower coal.

The loading machine, which was developed in the 1930's and 1940's, loaded the coal in the shuttle cars and transported it from the loading machine to a point where the coal was hauled out of the mine. Most shuttle cars had four wheels that would support the shuttle car. Some were developed with six wheels. Today, shuttle cars have been developed to haul up as high as 15 tons of coal on each trip to a dumping point. The shuttle cars, in conventional mining or even with continuous mining, are still one of the essential pieces of equipment for hauling coal.

The coal is, then, dumped from a shuttle car onto a belt feeder, a machine that feeds the coal onto a belt conveyor. This stage of the process provides a uniform method of feeding the belt. In later developments, a crusher was incorporated on the belt feeder to break large lumps of coal and to prevent them from spilling off the belt conveyor. These feeder-breakers are in use today and are usually located where shuttle cars are dumping coal onto a belt conveyor. This is another example of how efficient the development of mining equipment has progressed in the haulage of coal.

Following conventional mining in the late 1940's, the development of continuous miners evolved to facilitate the cutting, drilling, shooting and loading. It incorporated all these steps into one process of just ripping out coal from the working face , loading it into a shuttle car, and hauling it back to the dumping point. Continuous miners have been built by manufacturing companies such as EIMCO, Joy, Jeffery, Fairchild, and Lee Norse. They incorporated many steps in the mining process to enable companies to remain competitive by achieving a higher percent of recovery while enhancing the safety of the miner.

Another innovation in continuous mining was the process of longwall mining. This entailed either a large shearing machine or a plow that just literally ripped the coal from the working face. A hydraulic shield roof support was designed for the machine which would protect the workers and equipment as the coal was being extracted from the working face and loaded onto a conveyor which transported the coal outside the mine. These hydraulic supports and longwall shearers are very expensive components. To buy units of equipment such as these, the cost could escalate to tens of millions of dollars. A large reserve of coal is required to justify the purchase and installation of these sophisticated machines. The oil wells and gas wells that are common throughout Appalachia do create a problem for longwall mining. Longwall mining simply shears or plows the coal from the face which creates again the problem of dust, a safety concern in mining coal.

Longwall mining just rips off slices of the coal face, approximately 3 feet thick. As the shearing machine advances, the support is the shield or the steel chock located above the operator and equipment. The shield advances with the equipment and provides protection for the miners from roof falls.

In summary, longwall mining advances and rips the coal from the face. A shield protects the workers and the equipment from roof falls during the coal extraction process. The coal is hauled on a belt conveyor where it is loaded into mine cars, transported to the outside, and finally, conveyed to the preparation plant. MECHANIZATION of the TRANSPORTATION of COAL. The modern conveyor today is quite an advancement from the primitive methods of the early days when coal was hauled by oxen teams, mules, ponies, or even " billy goats." The mine cars would hold about one to two tons of coal, and all of it was hand-loaded. Later, electric locomotives were utilized to haul these mine cars. Then, more progress was made with the introduction of larger mine cars that hauled ten tons as opposed to the two ton mine car, thereby, justifying the expenditure of installing a better haulage system. These cars were loaded directly from shuttle cars or from a belt conveyor at automatic loading points. Later developments introduced the twenty five-ton mine cars and the coal was loaded automatically into these cars. Still later, thirty-ton mine cars were introduced in an underground mine in Pike County, Kentucky.

To haul these cars, the old locomotives were redesigned to develop more haulage power, and in one case, three motors were tied together to pull larger cars. The largest locomotive ever used in an underground coal mine was initiated in Letcher County, Kentucky. It was a sixty-two ton locomotive which was duplicated and a sister model was placed into a mine in Pike County, Kentucky. These 30 ton 'nine cars and a 62 ton locomotive, probably, were the largest haulage units ever used underground in the Appalachian coal field.

To accommodate the use of these large cars, more space was required in the mines. It took a lot of rock excavation and tunneling to accomplish this. The rock had to be loaded as coal would be loaded. Moreover, the roof was reinforced by roof bolts to provide a safer haulage entry for these high capacity cars. Even the ingenuity and the creativity of the coal miners contributed to the progress. They suggested track mounted bulldozers for cleaning up roof falls and debris that falls off mine cars. As an effect, the mine cars hauling coal this way has resulted in a very efficient method of handling coal to get it to the preparation plant. Use of large locomotives and large mine cars was an exciting development in the coal industry.

PERSONNEL TRANSPORT. Hauling coal was not the only problem in transportation. Getting personnel to the working face posed another problem. Man-trip cars were used to haul workers, crew by crew, to the working places in the mine. In thin coal, even personnel mobility was a problem within the mine. Little units were called trikes, "t-r-i-k-e-s," and were used for individuals traveling around in low coal. The portal bus was developed to transport a crew of eight, independent of the other working crews. STRIP and AUGER MINING. Once coal was mined either underground or stripped, equipment was needed to clean up the working places. End loaders and scoops were used outside and were, also, used underground. In Appalachia, much of the coal was mined underground and one could get just so far to the out crop. In the mid and late 1940s, strip mine equipment included shovels, bulldozers, rock drills, and other equipment to mine coal that was left by underground miners. Strip mining, at the time, was and still is quite controversial but, nevertheless, was done. Then, the use of augering followed. Coal that could not be strip mined was augered. Angering is similar to the use of the brace and bit found in a carpenter's workshop. Augering would bring the coal to the outside where it was loaded onto trucks and taken to a preparation plant or railroad loading points. In the early 1950s, several attempts were made to auger coal underground, particularly coal that would not otherwise be mined. This has been attempted not only in Pike County, Kentucky, but also, in West Virginia. Several problems emerged with this method of mining, one of which was its high cost. It is not commonly used today.

One of the great concerns with strip mining was the reclamation of the terrain. Strip mining and reclamation has improved through the years but remains a controversial and emotional issue. Different methods have been used in reclamation and the problems presented brought about further advances in reclamation of mined land in Appalachia such as providing lakes and ponds of water, which in themselves were beneficial to the community, as well as flattened acreage of land for community development.

Enabling people to work in this mountainous terrain and getting them closer to the work face necessitated the building of roads, portal facilities for bath houses, shops, and supply houses. One of the first portals built away from the town was a portal on Marshalls Branch in Pike County, Kentucky. It included facilities for the workers and for equipment repairs.

WORK FORCE. The workers in the early part of the century unfortunately, included children which was a common practice then. In later years, the work force included not only laboring people, but also, engineers, well-trained technicians and capable persons who were independent and endowed with a great deal of common sense PREPARATION PLANTS. Once the coal was mined, quality improvements were made in the use of preparation plants. In the late 1940s, the Hendrix Preparation Plant on Rockhouse Creek near Jenkins, Kentucky developed a simple way of washing the coal to separate it from the slate with the purpose of providing a good quality of coal for the market.

Then in Pike County, Kentucky, the railroad was extended from Shelby Gap to Pigeon Creek to provide the loading facilities for coal from a new mine being built on Pigeon Creek. The first coal that was extracted from this seam on August 1, 1966 was by the use of a continuous miner, loading coal into a shuttle car. The mine was developed from this point on. The area around the portal was developed for large mine cars and a coal preparation plant, the bath house for the workers, the supply house, the machine shop, the office facilities, all together in this one location.

The preparation plant was a state of the art for 1966. Once the plant was built, the coal was processed, starting in January, 1967. This preparation plant was one of the better designed and installed preparation plants of the day. Two hundred and forty railroad cars could be placed up and the coal be layer-loaded into these cars without handling the railroad cars, which provided uniformity, good blending, and a good product for the market place.

SUMMARY. In summary, mechanization of the coal industry since the early 1900s in Appalachia contributed to the rapid industrialization of this nation. The development of the coal town of Jenkins, Ky. in the heart of Appalachia was used as a prototype for the mechanization of the coal industry in this country. During each phase of development, problems were addressed by more innovative mechanization and creative miners who encountered these problems. The use of technological advances in mining was briefly described as it developed throughout the twentieth century.

David A. Zegeer, P.E.

April 5, 1999






Copyright 1996-2008 Kentucky Foundation
All rights reserved. 
  Hosted and designed by
Mining Internet Services, Inc.