color photo of electric coal shovel dumping a load of coal

Coal Mining in Kansas

Coal mining in Kansas began in the 1850's, with shallow mines dug near Fort Leavenworth in Leavenworth County. In the 1850's, Missourians mined coal in Cherokee County near what is now Weir, Kansas, for use by blacksmiths.

Coal production was central to the development of railroading just before and after the Civil War. Because it burned hotter and was less bulky than wood, coal soon became the preferred fuel for the steam locomotives. To meet the demands of the railroads, strip mines were opened during the 1870's in Bourbon, Cherokee, and Crawford counties.

Coal was also mined in Osage County from 1885 to 1969. In 1889, Osage County had 118 coal mines, which employed over 2,200 people and produced almost 400,000 tons of coal. For many years this was the main source of fuel for the Santa Fe railroad, whose main line passes through Osage County.

In 1874 four brothers from Illinois, the Scammon brothers, pioneered new methods of mining coal in southeastern Kansas, digging the first mine shaft in Cherokee County. Although many doubted that their room-and-pillar system would work in such shallow mines, this Cherokee County mine was soon producing 40 carloads of coal a day. Within a few years, underground mining became the principal method of coal mining in southeastern Kansas.

The Scammon brothers mined coal from the Weir-Pittsburg coal bed. Over the years, the Weir-Pittsburg was the most extensively mined coal bed in Kansas history, producing over 200 million tons.

In the 1930's, strip mining (which began in Kansas in 1876) once again became the preferred method of mining coal in southeastern Kansas (though underground mining continued until 1960 in southeast Kansas and until 1964 in Osage County). Coal beds too thin to be mined underground were stripped by power shovels, some of which dug to depths of almost 100 feet. One of the world's largest power shovels, Big Brutus, was used in Cherokee County; it is now a museum with exhibits on coal mining and southeastern Kansas.

Strip mining leaves the land marked with deep ditches and high ridges. As the shovels removed the overburden, they created trenches up to 100 feet wide and as much as 100 feet deep. Before widespread land reclamation was required in 1969, this land was abandoned and left to grow back to trees and brush while the trenches filled with water.

Gob piles, the piles of discarded coal waste and fractured rock, are another problem associated with abandoned coal mines. These gob piles contain iron pyrite, sometimes called fool's gold because of its yellow metallic luster. Pyrite is iron sulfide; when exposed to water and oxygen, pyrite undergoes a chemical reaction that produces sulfuric acid, iron oxides, and hydroxides. The iron oxides and hydroxides, similar to commun rust, tint these gob piles red. Sulfuric acid, however, pollutes both the water and soil around the mines.

color photo of pile of black coal waste

Gob piles from coal mining in Crawford County, Kansas.

In 1969, the Kansas Legislature passed regulations requiring coal companies to reclaim the land. Subsequently, more stringent federal regulations were enacted. Today strip mines must be converted into useful productive land. Once an area has been mined, companies must smooth out the ditches, replace the topsoil, and plant grass or crops similar to what was present prior to mining. In theory, once the land is leveled, it can be used for farming or grazing, but pyrite left behind from the coal mining must be buried because exposed pyrite can increase the acidity of the soil, making it hard to cultivate.

Today the only active coal mines in Kansas are located in southern Linn County. These mines produce the Mulberry coal that is blended and burned with coal from Wyoming at the La Cygne Generating Station near La Cygne, Kansas.

Sources

Brady, Lawrence L., and Hatch, Joseph R., 1997, Chemical Analysis of Middle and Upper Pennsylvanian Coals from Southeastern Kansas: Kansas Geological Survey, Current Research in Earth Sciences, Bulletin 240, p. 43-59.

Buchanan, Rex C., and McCauley, James R., 1987, Roadside Kansas--A Traveler's Guide to Its Geology and Landmarks: Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 365 p.

Evans, Catherine S., 1988, From Sea to Prairie--A Primer of Kansas Geology: Kansas Geological Survey, Educational Series 6, 60 p.

Wilson, Frank W., 1978, Kansas Landscapes--A Geologic Diary: Kansas Geological Survey, Educational Series 5, 50 p.

Text by Liz Brosius, Kansas Geological Survey. Unless noted otherwise, illustrations by Jennifer Sims, Kansas Geological Survey; photographs by John Charlton, Kansas Geological Survey.

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