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Southeastern Kansas Coal Field

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Population and industry

The population of the three southeastern Kansas counties, according to the 1930 census (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1930) is Crawford, 49,329 [38,242 in 2000, from Kansas Statistical Abstract, KU Institute for Policy and Social Research]; Cherokee, 31,457 [22,605 in 2000], and Labette, 31,346 [22,835 in 2000]. The density of population, in terms of people per square mile, in Crawford County is 81.5 [64.5 in 2000], Cherokee County 52.0 [38.5 in 2000], and Labette County 48.7 [35.2 in 2000].

Although Kansas is mainly an agricultural state, many people are engaged in mining in the extreme southeastern part. Figures obtained from the 1930 census (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1930) show that in Crawford County, 18 percent (percentage figures include both male and female persons 10 years old or over that are engaged in gainful occupations) of the gainfully employed population is employed in agriculture, whereas 22 percent is employed in coal mines. In Cherokee County 27 percent is employed in agriculture, 7 percent in coal mines, and 19 percent in other mines and quarries (principally in the zinc-lead district). In Labette County less than two-tenths of one percent is employed in coal mining, whereas 29 percent is employed in agriculture, and 16 percent is employed in steam and street railway industries (due in large part to the location of the offices of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad at Parsons).

Pittsburg is by far the largest city in the area and is the commercial center for the coal-producing region of southeastern Kansas and the adjoining part of Missouri. Its population in 1930 was 18,145 [19,243 in 2000]. Galena, which is in the zinc-lead district, is the next largest city in the area, with a population of 4,736 [3,287 in 2000]. Baxter Springs has a population of 4,541 [4,602 in 2000] and is also in the zinc-lead district. Columbus is the county seat of Cherokee County and has a population of 3,235 [3,396 in 2000]. Girard, the county seat of Crawford County, has a population of 2,442 [2,773 in 2000], and Oswego, the county seat of Labette County, has a population of 1,845 [2,046 in 2000]. Other towns within the area that have a population of over 1,000 are Chetopa, 1,344 [1,281] in 2000], and Cherokee, 1,158 [722 in 2000].

Great stretches of rolling prairie, with trees only along the creeks, greeted the early settlers of this region. Naturally, farming was the first industry, and until 1877 it was the only one, but with the discovery of coal, lead, and zinc, it ceased to be the only important industry in Crawford and Cherokee counties. With the advent of coal mining in Crawford County and coal, lead, and zinc mining in Cherokee County, farming was gradually surpassed as the principal industry. The price of land in much of the area is based upon its mineral value rather than the productivity of the soil. Many of the farms are owned by mining companies which lease the surface rights to tenants until ready to begin mining. The agriculture of the area consists mainly of farming, with corn, wheat, and hay the leading crops. In the early history of the region cotton and tobacco were grown with poor success. Flax for a time was a profitable crop. The total value of agricultural products for Crawford and Cherokee counties for the year 1929 was approximately $5,300,000, whereas the coal products for the same year in these two counties was approximately $6,400,000 and the combined coal, lead, and zinc value was approximately $17,400,000 (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1929, 1930).


A veritable network of railroads, representing a total of nine companies, is operated within the area. These lines are shown on Plate 1 and represent the following companies: St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co.; Missouri Pacific Railroad Co.; Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway; The Kansas City Southern Railway Co.; Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Co.; Kansas, Oklahoma & Gulf Railway Co.; The Joplin-Pittsburg Railroad Co. (electric); Northeast Oklahoma Railroad Co. (electric); and The Southwest Missouri Railroad Co. (electric).

Several north-south and east-west paved highways make this district readily accessible. There are also roads on nearly all section lines. Many of the roads are surfaced with gravel, with hard black shale, or with tailings from the zinc-lead mines that are locally known as chats.

Surface features

Although there are not many prominent features in the landscape of southeastern Kansas, the country does not give an impression of monotony and barrenness, for along the small streams and rivers trees are numerous and in addition many have been planted in clusters and along fence rows by the early settlers of the country. The total relief is only about 250 feet--that is, from about 770 to 1,020 feet above sea level, yet it is so distributed that one scarcely realizes that there is such a small departure from a plane surface. The lowest point in the area is on the Neosho River at the Kansas-Oklahoma line and the highest point is on the drainage divide southeast of Farlington, in Crawford County.

The area treated in this report lies within two physiographic provinces, the Ozark Plateau and the Central Lowland (Fenneman, 1928). The Ozark Plateau is subdivided into two sections, the Boston Mountains and the Springfield-Salem Plateau. The extreme southeastern corner of Kansas lies within the latter section, which includes mainly that part of Cherokee County southeast of Spring River. The plateau is moderately dissected. The Osage Plains, a section of the Central Lowland province, includes all the area described in this report, except for the small part in the Ozark Plateau. The Osage Plains extend south-southwest from Kansas City through southeastern Kansas and across Oklahoma into Texas and bevel strata which in southeastern Kansas are slightly inclined to the northwest. Several low southeastward-facing escarpments are formed by the beds of limestone which are more resistant than the intervening shale. The streams which flow upon areas of shale have rather broad valleys and floodplains, but where they flow on a surface underlain by limestone their valleys are narrower. A shale unit from a featheredge to over 500 feet in thickness comprises the surface formation in practically all of Cherokee County, the southeastern part of Crawford County, and the eastern part of Labette County. This area has been designated the Cherokee Lowland by Moore (1930). The Cherokee Lowland is a part of the Osage Plains, but in general it has less relief than the area to the northwest. The Cherokee Lowland has wide, shallow, flat-bottomed valleys, and the topography is gently undulating except for a few erosional remnants capped by resistant sandstone, such as the Timbered Hills. These remnants have been considered as part of a former erosion surface (Smith and Seibenthal, 1907).


The southeastern Kansas coal field is divisible into three principal drainage areas: The western half of the field, that is, that part west of a line between the towns of Girard and Columbus, which is drained by the Neosho River, a tributary of the Arkansas River; the eastern and southeastern part of the field which is drained by Spring River which joins the Neosho River in northeastern Oklahoma; the northeastern corner of the field which is drained by northward-flowing streams that empty into Marmaton River, whence they drain into Osage River, a tributary of the Missouri River. Most of the area is thus drained by southward-flowing streams.

Neosho River is the largest stream and drains about half the area described in this report. It heads in east-central Kansas and flows southward along or slightly west of the Labette-Cherokee county line in a broad and shallow valley. The Neosho has a low gradient--about 1.09 feet per mile--and occasionally floods the adjoining bottomlands. Consequently, many years ago it was the subject of a study to determine means for the prevention of damage by floods (Wright, 1908). The record (U.S. Geological Survey, 1935) of a gaging station located on the Neosho River in the NW sec. 22, T. 3,1 S., R. 21 E., shows that during the period from October 1921 to September 1933, a maximum of 48,100 second-feet was recorded on November 24, 1928 (gage height, 27.5 feet), and a minimum of 12 second-feet September 20, 1931. Bank-full stage is 24 feet. The average flow for the 12 years is 2,180 second-feet. The largest tributary of the Neosho from the west in Labette County is Labette Creek, with its tributaries, Hackberry and Turkey creeks. Lightning Creek is the largest eastern tributary of Neosho River within the area; it heads about 4 miles west of Farlington and flows southward until it joins the Neosho River about 2 miles east of Oswego. Cherry Creek is a shorter tributary, roughly parallel to and about 6 miles southeast of Lightning Creek.

Spring River heads in southwestern Missouri and flows westward and northwestward until within a few miles of the state line. It then turns abruptly and flows southwestward and enters Kansas in sec. 1, T. 33 S., R. 25 E. It flows south-southwest in a wide meander belt across the southeast corner of Cherokee County and crosses the south line of the state near Baxter Springs and continues southward in Oklahoma for about 15 miles until it joins the Neosho River. Shoal Creek is the largest tributary of Spring River. It also heads in southwestern Missouri and joins Spring River near Lowell. A dam just north of Lowell, in the NW sec. 29, T. 34 S., R. 25 E., impounds the water from both these streams and forms a lake about a mile long and half a mile wide. The record of a gaging station on Spring River near Waco, Mo (about 3 miles east of the Kansas-Missouri line), shows that in the period from April 1924 to September 1933, there was a maximum discharge of 57,400 second-feet on August 17, 1927, and a minimum of 22 second-feet on September 8, 1925 (U.S. Geological Survey, 1935). The gaging record of a station on Shoal Creek, about 4 miles south of Joplin (4 1/4 miles east of the Kansas-Missouri line) shows in the same period a maximum of about 17,200 second-feet on June 27, 1932, and a minimum of 8 second-feet on October 9, 1931. The flow here is regulated by the Great Falls hydroelectric plant and the minimum flow was recorded while the power plant was shut down. Cow Creek, with its tributaries, West Cow Creek and Little Cow Creek, drains a considerable part of the area, for it heads within 6 miles of the northern boundary and flows southward until it joins Spring River 1 1/2 miles south of Lawton, a distance of approximately 30 miles. It lies wholly within the area covered by this report, and drains that part from the Kansas-Missouri line westward to Girard, and northward to Arma and the divide, about a mile south of Farlington. The lower part of Cow Creek carries water throughout the summer, but becomes stagnant in prolonged dry periods. Shawnee Creek, which heads just south of Weir, and Brush Creek, which begins north of Columbus, flow southeastward and join Spring River in the southeastern corner of the area.

The northeastern corner of the field is drained by Drywood Creek and its tributaries, Cox Creek, Bone Creek, and the West Fork of Drywood Creek. Drywood Creek flows northeastward into Marmaton River, which empties into Osage River, a tributary of the Missouri River. The divide between the northward drainage into Osage River and the southward drainage into Spring River extends southeastward from Farlington through Arma to Minden.

Surface drainage in this area is generally good, except in lowland areas adjacent to major streams, particularly Neosho River. Subsurface drainage, however, is comparatively poor in much of the area because of a heavy clay-pan subsoil.


The climate of this area is mild, but is characterized by wide seasonable variations. About 65 percent of the rainfall comes in the growing season from April to September, inclusive, generally as thunderstorms of short duration, but gentle rains occur in the spring and fall. The most damaging winds are the hot winds that usually occur during prolonged dry periods and come from the south or southwest. In spite of an average annual precipitation of 41 to 44 inches, droughts are not uncommon, and crops frequently suffer from lack of moisture, due in large part to the high rate of evaporation and large proportion of sunshine.

The lowest temperature recorded, 30 degrees below zero, and the highest recorded, 114 degrees, give an absolute range of 144 degrees. The winters are usually open until December, and prolonged cold spells are extremely rare. The spring and fall seasons are commonly cool and dry. Outdoor work can usually be carried on throughout the winter with few interruptions. The average frost-free season varies from about 185 days in the northern part of the area to about 197 days in the southern, extending on the average from April 12 to October 20.

Normal monthly and annual mean temperatures and precipitation at Columbus and Fort Scott, Kansas (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1934)

Months Normal monthly and
annual mean temperatures
(Degrees F)
Normal monthly and
annual precipitation
Columbus Fort Scott Columbus Fort Scott
January 33.7 32.5 1.92 1.82
February 36.2 35.6 1.95 1.87
March 47.2 7.1 3.38 2.30
April 56.6 55.8 4.59 4.21
May 65.6 65.3 5.42 5.43
June 74.3 74.2 6.09 6.19
July 78.5 8.7 4.10 4.28
August 78.2 78.6 3.93 3.62
September 71.0 70.8 4.10 4.14
October 59.2 59.2 3.30 3.09
November 47.1 47.1 2.35 2.37
December 35.6 34.9 2.12 1.77
Annual 56.9 56.9 43.25 41.09

In 1934, the year in which the fieldwork for this report was done, the temperature was abnormally high and it was the fifth successive year with a deficiency in precipitation. The average temperature of Kansas for the year was 58.5 degrees, the highest since the statewide record was begun in 1887. July 1934 was the hottest month ever known in the state. The mean temperature of 87.2 degrees that month is 8.3 degrees above normal and 2.2 degrees higher than the mean for the previous hottest month on the state's record, which is July 1901. Extreme hot weather began about June 19 and continued with increasing intensity and scarcely a break until past the middle of August. Temperatures of 105 degrees to 110 degrees were common throughout this period.

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Kansas Geological Survey, Geology
Placed on web July 27, 2011; originally published Sept. 1938.
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