By Martha W. McCartney
Commercial coal mining was underway in Chesterfield County by 1730. It comprised not only the first such operations undertaken in North America but also the county’s first true industrial development.
Coal was first discovered in Chesterfield during the early 1700’s near Chesterfield County Seal Manakin Town, a French Huguenot settlement. Later, several French Huguenot families such as the Trabues, Salles, Ammonettes and DuVals operated coal pits near Falling Creek and the James River. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, stated that the quality of Chesterfield’s coal was excellent. Eventually, mine workers settled in the vicinity of Midlothian, responding to the opportunity for employment in Chesterfield County’s coal pits. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century a number of private coal pits were operating on a commercial scale. Miners immigrated to Chesterfield from Wales, England and Scotland and the Heths, who were English investors, opened coal pits in the county. The Wooldridge family was among the first to undertake coal mining in the Midlothian area and it was likely that the mining community got its name (Weaver 1961—1962: 41; 1969: 589—590; O’Dell 1983: 84).
During the Revolutionary War, Chesterfield County’s coal pits supplied the cannon factory at Westham (near Richmond) with fuel that was used in making shot and shells for the Continental Army. In 1781, British General Phillips and his men entered Chesterfield County; marched to the courthouse, which they set ablaze; and then continued on to destroy the county’s coal pits. This act attests to the importance of Chesterfield’s coal mining industry in the war for American independence. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the largest concentration of mines in the Richmond Coal Basin ( a geological formation that extends across several counties, to the west of the James River’s fall line) was in the Midlothian area. The largest coal mines in the Midlothian area during the late eighteenth century were the Black Heath pits, which were opened in ca. 1788 (O’Dell 1983: 83—84; Weaver 1969: 589).
Coal mining quickly emerged as Chesterfield’s most important industry, enabling the county’s citizens to lobby successfully for publicly supported transportation systems. In 1802 Chesterfield’s coal manufacturers and residents petitioned the General Assembly for permission to construct a turnpike be-tween Manchester and Falling Creek, using part of the old Buckingham Road. The thoroughfare was opened to travelers in 1804 and was the first lengthy road in Virginia to have a graveled surface (O’Dell 1983: 84—85).
Bishop James Madison (1807) in mapping the state of Virginia, identified prominently the coal mines that were in the vicinity of Midlothian and his successors, John Wood (1820) and Herman Boye (1825), portrayed the county in much the same way. When Boye’s map was republished in 1859 it showed the railroad lines that extended through Powhatan County enroute to Manchester and identified Coalfield Station, Midlothian’s earlier name.
Chesterfield County’s first railroad, which began operating in 1831, was the second commercial railroad to be built in the United States. It was a 13 mile long mule-and-gravity powered line that connected the Midlothian coal mines with wharves that were located at Manchester. The Chesterfield Railroad was supplanted by the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which reached Midlothian in 1850. The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad (chartered in 1836), the Winterpock railroad (chartered in 1840 to haul coal from southwestern Chesterfield’s mining district to the Appomattox River) and other rail lines were built to several coal pits. The Richmond and Danville Railroad, chartered in 1848, was in operation by 1849. Its tracks cut across the northwestern part of the county, passing through Coalfield (Midlothian) (O’Dell 1983: 84—85, 473—474).
During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Chesterfield County’s coal mines reached the pinnacle of their importance, thanks to modernized production techniques. By 1825, the Black heath, Railey, Stone Henge, Cunliffe, Wooldridge, Maiden Head and Union mines were producing a million bushels of coal annually. Industrial development in the northern United States provided markets for Chesterfield coal, as did local manufactories such as the Bellona Foundry, established in 1810. There were seven or eight major mines in the Midlothian area by 1835, where production reached an estimated 75,000 tons of coal annually. The most important of these enterprises was the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company. These mining facilities employed a large number of men (both black and white), whose pay infused a sizeable sum of money into the local economy. Some mines, such as the Creek Company’s Green Hole pits, were worked by company-owned slaves; most mines, however, depended upon a combination of hired slaves, whites, and free blacks (Weaver 1969: 590; O’Dell 1983: 84—85). The coal mining industry prospered during the 1840’s and 50’s and it was during these decades that Midlothian grew into one of the largest settlements in Chesterfield County. Henry Howe, who visited the Midlothian mines in the summer of 1843, described not only their productiveness, but the strangeness of the underground labyrinths in which the miners worked. He estimated the daily output of all of Chesterfield’s mines at ap-proximately 250 tons (Howe 1845: 229—232).
During the mid-1850’s, the mines in the Midlothian area were rocked with a series of explosions that claimed many lives and caused earth tremors over a several mile radius. Such incidents caused an exodus of workers from the Midlothian mines and alarmed the local population. Sometimes, the earth be-neath standing structures was undermined to the point that cave-ins occurred (O’Dell 1983: 85—86).
On the eve of the Civil War, the village of Midlothian had a large company-owned store, three or more privately owned stores, a hospital for miners, and, most likely, one or more taverns and other commercial facilities. Company-owned housing provided shelter for coal miners and their families. A Methodist church, popularly known as the Old English Church, was located to the east of Midlothian during the 1840’s and a Masonic Lodge was built in the village during the 1850’s. During the 1850’s, Midlothian became a regular stop on the Richmond and Danville Railroad line. Though no population figures exist for the village during that decade, the community is believed to have consisted of approximately 1,000 persons (O’Dell 1983: 85—86).
Industrial statistics for Chesterfield County between 1850 and 1880 underscore the importance of the coal mining industry in the state’s and region’s economies. The large number of men who were employed in the Midlothian mines contributed their income to local revenues and business enterprises and the literally millions of bushels of coal that were produced annually brought money to Chesterfield mine owners (Chesterfield County Industrial Statistics 1850—1880).
When war broke out between North and South in 1861, Chesterfield County’s coal industry was stimulated, for the fossil fuel was sorely needed by the Confederacy’s defense industry, especially in the Tredegar Iron Works, which produced heavy ordnance. Although the Union Army marched up the Buckingham Road and through Midlothian in May, 1864, intending to destroy the county’s railroads and pre-vent reinforcements from reaching the embattled Confederates at Drewry’s Bluff, no combat is know to have occurred in the immediate vicinity of the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s property. After the fall of Richmond, 100 troops of the 9th Vermont Infantry were detailed to guard the Midlothian mines and encamped in the vicinity of the Railey Hill pits for about a month. One of the 9th Vermont’s officers, who occupied the home of the mine superintendent, reportedly etched his name in a window pane in the parlor (Weaver 1961—1962: 44; O’Dell 1983: 85—86; 463, 473—475).
After the Civil War, coal production in Chesterfield fell off sharply and the Midlothian coal mines never again became a truly successful business enterprise. In 1882, when an explosion at Grove Shaft led to the loss of 32 lives ( a tragedy that was followed by an embezzlement scandal involving the company’s superintendent), the last large scale mining operation in Midlothian was shut down. During the late nine-teenth and early twentieth centuries, efforts were made to revive Chesterfield’s mining industry, but they never attained success. During the 1880’s the population of Midlothian declined significantly. A map of Chesterfield County that was produced by J. E. LaPrade (1888) reveals that a sizeable number of struc-tures were then present on the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s property (see ahead). In 1923, when Midlothian’s mining industry folded completely and its lumber mills closed, many residents of Midlothian moved away, especially blacks. Suburban growth came to the area after World War II, resulting in a proliferation of new construction (O’Dell 1983: 83—85, 87; Weaver 1961—1962: 44—46).
HISTORIC SITES IN THE IMMEDIATE VICINITY OF THE GROVE TRACT
The Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s Facilities
Members of the Wooldridge family had been major producers of Chesterfield county coal since the late 1700’s. by the 1830’s, the A. and A. Wooldridge Company had been established, utilizing the 404 acres on the south side of the Midlothian Turnpike, adjoining several other coal pits that had been worked previously by the Railey family, Nicholas Mills and others. Using the latest mining technology, they employed a steam engine to raise the coal and water of their pits. The coal was then sent to the river on a specially constructed tramway known as the Chesterfield Railroad (see ahead). The Wooldridge mines were estimated to produce 200 tons of coal every 24 hours (O’Dell 1983: 414).
During the mid-1830’s, the Wooldridge's founded the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company. It was chartered in 1835 and went on to become the largest and most successful mining syndicate in the region. In 1836, the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company issued 3,000 shares of stock which were offered for sale to prospective shareholders. Through the sale of a thousand shares of stock, $100,000 was raised. The newly formed company bought the equipment of A. and A. Wooldridge Company, including "one 30 horsepower Pumping and Winding Engine with extra parts, flat ropes, tools and fixtures thereto attached. Also the Buildings, Railroads, Bogies, Cranes, Corves, Slate Car, etc. at the Mid-Lothian pits." It also ex-pended funds in sinking shafts, procuring a 60 horse-power engine and boilers, purchasing mules, and constructing houses. Through a series of real estate acquisitions, the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company soon accumulated a total of 1,585 acres that were valued at more than $300,000 (O’Dell 1983: 414; Heinrich 1875: 308—316).
Initially, four shafts were sunk by the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company in an area that covered ca. 84 acres: the old Pump Shaft (which extended for 777 feet), the Middle Shaft (625 feet deep), the Wood Shaft (625 feet deep), and the Grove Shaft (622 feet deep). The White Chimney and Rise Shafts, which are located nearby, were built shortly thereafter (Heinrich 1875—1876: 308—316).
In Fall, 1839, a vein of coal 36 feet thick was struck in the Pump Shaft at a level of 716 feet. At that time, the other mine shafts were temporarily abandoned and the Wooldridge’s and Railey’s pits were deemed exhausted. In 1840 alone, 300,000 bushels of coal were extracted from the Pump Shaft with labor of approximately 150 men and 25 mules. The Pump Shaft’s annual output was estimated at 1,000,000 bushels per year. From the beginning, the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s operations were beset with accidents. In 1842, the Pump Shaft caught fire and in 1855, a serious explosion occurred, resulting in the death of 55 men. At that time, the lower part of the Pump Shaft mine, which was accessed by means of an incline, was flooded, thanks to an influx of water from the Chesterfield Coal and Iron Mining Company’s mines, which were located northeast of Midlothian (Heinrich 1875—1876: 308—316; Evanson 1942: 102—104, 108).
In 1856, attempts were made to procure water for use in mining by transporting it from the old White Chimney works, a relatively short distance to the northeast. But again, tragedy struck, for the water broke through, flooding the coal pit and drowning ten men. In 1858, efforts were made to drain the Pump Shaft by means of a 500 horse-power Cornish pumping engine, restoring the mine to use. But although the shaft was successfully drained, the mine caught fire and again had to be abandoned. In 1861, still another attempt was made to restore the Pump Shaft to use, but it, too, proved futile. It was at that time that all of the lower works were abandoned, including a column of pumps, a train with loaded cars, a fire engine and other equipment (Heinrich 1875—1876: 308—316; Buzzo 1858: 26—30).
During the Civil War large quantities of coal were extracted from the White Chimney shaft and a new shaft that had been sunk 825 feet to the west of the old Pump Shaft. The large amount of Confederate money that was in the possession of George S. Wooldridge at the end of the Civil War attests to the volume of coal that the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company had produced for the Confederacy (Davis and Evans 1938: 4). In 1863, when Chesterfield County was mapped by Confederate cartographers, an African church was shown in the vicinity of the Grove Shaft, to which a railroad spur extended. The residence of a Dr. Mills was shown a relatively short distance to the northwest. To the east, on the Railey’s Hill tract, was another structure (Gilmer 1863).
Post-war attempts to revive the mines’ productivity failed and the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining company fell deeply into debt. R. S. Burrows of Albion, New York, provided $180,000 in capital to fund the construction of the Sinking Shaft. No coal was found, however, and the mine’s superintendent was killed in an accident at the bottom of the shaft. Finally, in 1869, Burrows purchased the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s properties at a public auction. During the 1870’s, Burrows and company officials ex-plored the feasibility of reopening the mines, in order to exploit the vast reserves of coal that were thought to be present. The methods and technology used by Oswald J. Heinrich, the mining engineer who was employed to restore the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s facilities to productivity, were described in detail in research papers he presented to the American Institute of Mining Engineers (Davis and Evans 1938: 77; Heinrich 1871—1873: 346-364; 1873—1874: 105-117).
In April, 1873, part of the Grove Shaft was cleaned out and re-timbered. New borings were made, rock tunnels were driven, an air return constructed, and a new engine house, platform and pit head were erected. New engines, boilers and other equipment were installed, making use of the latest technological advances. By 1876, the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s mines were productive. By that date, a rail-road spur had been built, connecting the mines to the Richmond and Danville Railroad’s main line, which was only a half mile away. This enabled coal to be transported to the James River at Richmond or to West Point on the York River, where it could be loaded aboard seagoing vessels (Heinrich 1875—1876: 308—316).
Despite these assurances of success, tragedy struck again in 1876 when a gas explosion in the Grove Shaft claimed several lives. Oswald J. Heinrich, the mines’ superintending engineer, reported that this had occurred despite earnest attempts to create a free-flow of air. The accident signaled Heinrich’s departure from the company (Heinrich 1876—1877: 148—161). In 1877, when a riding accident disabled the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s owner, R. S. Burrows, his administrator assumed control of his business operations. That individual allegedly embezzled an estimated $8,000,000 in personal property from Burrows’ business operations (Davis and Evans 1938).
In 1882, a mixture of gas and dust in the Grove Shaft exploded, resulting in the death of 32 men (Weaver 1961—1962: 40—47). Later, a Pennsylvania syndicate took over the company’s property and commenced prospecting for coal in the area to the east of the Grove Shaft. They, in turn, went bankrupt. In 1888, when J. E. LaPrade prepared a map of Chesterfield County, he identified Railey’s Hill, Grove Shaft, and the railroad that ran to the shaft. Also scattered throughout the company’s property were a number of other structures (LaPrade 1888). In 1900, when a plat was made of the Mid-Lothian Coal Company’s land, a vast amount of acreage on the south side of Buckingham Road was in its hands, property that had been used for coal mining for many decades (Chesterfield County Deed Book 285: 193). Identified were the individual tracts of subunits that contained the company’s mines, along with groups of buildings at various locations. One of these clusters was situated at the site where the root cellar and well have been identified archeologically. The Grove Shaft railroad and the trace of the old Chesterfield Railroad were also in evidence. In 1905, the James River Coal Corporation, headed by Meriwether Jones, built a new incline shaft with a double track railroad only 900 feet south of the Grove Shaft. During the 1920’s , the Murphy Coal Corporation of West Virginia took over the operations of the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s facilities. In 1923, their assets included 1,900 acres in the Midlothian area, 3 acres of deep water river frontage at Richmond, 33 houses and miners’ dwellings, and a store and 2 acres of ground on the Midlothian Pike (Davis and Evans 1938: 5).
According to architectural historian Jeffrey O’Dell, the ruins of the Grove Shaft complex’s main building, to which he assigned a construction date of 1835 to 1870, is the only surviving structure that is associated with coal mining in the Richmond Coal Basin. He noted that physical evidence of mining activity is distributed over several acres, punctuated by numerous slag heaps, ponds, pits, tipples and stone or concrete abutments. He stated that the bed of the old railway that conveyed the coal to the deep water landing at Manchester survives, as do the foundations of workers’ houses and various subsidiary buildings. A two-story stone structure that housed steam boilers, hoisting equipment and shaft ventilating fans were still in evidence in 1983 when O’Dell visited the site. He described the structure (three of which walls still stand) as being built into the slope that was defined by a 100 foot long stone retaining wall and noted that it was constructed of roughly dressed blocks measuring up to 3 feet in length. Although the original purpose of the stone building is unknown, O’Dell proffered that it may have housed a ventilation fan of hoisting apparatus. He noted that an 18 foot diameter fan, driven by a 150 horse-power steam engine, was used to force fresh air into the mine and speculated that extensions to the main stone building most likely held additional steam boilers and equipment (O’Dell 1983: 413).
The Chesterfield Railroad
Although by 1807 a 13-mile long turnpike had been constructed between the headwaters of Falling Creek and Manchester, for the expressed purpose of accommodating the coal trade, hauling coal to market proved to be extremely burdensome. By 1824, an estimated 70 to 100 wagons, each of which was loaded with four or five tons of coal, made a daily trip on the turnpike, transporting to Manchester the million or more bushels of coal that were produced in Chesterfield County each year. Wagon travel was both time-consuming and costly, taking a sizable amount of the colliers’ profits from marketing their coal (Coleman 1954: 4).
In 1825, Nicholas Mills and Beverley Randolph, who owned coal mines in the Midlothian area, resolved to build a tramway in order to provide a more efficient and less costly means of transporting their coal to points where it could be shipped to market. Two years later, Claudius Crozet, then the state engineer, surveyed the route that was proposed for the construction of the railroad, and deemed it suitable. In 1828, Mills and Randolph obtained a charter for the Chesterfield Railroad Company from Virginia’s General Assembly and within a year, they began offering to prospective investors stock in the railroad. Ap-proximately half of the $100,000 worth of stock that was sold was purchased by Chesterfield County’s colliers, whereas the remainder was bought by Richmond area investors. Two years later, the amount of the railroad’s capital stock rose to $150,000, to meet unanticipated construction costs (Coleman 1954: 4—7).
Mills and Randolph hired Moncure Robinson, a European-trained engineer whose principal inter-est was railroading. He designed a single-track tramway (on which wooden rails were overlaid with strap iron) that took advantage of the sloping grade between the coal pits and Manchester. By June, 1831, construction of the Chesterfield Railroad was complete and the rail line was fully operational. Mules, horses and gravity propelled the coal-carrying cars down the Falling Creek Valley; simultaneously, an ingenious drum and rope device raised two empty coal cars 80 feet within a distance of 1,000 feet up the western slope of the Falling Creek Valley. Ropes that led from a large drum were attached to ascending and descending cars; as one rope wound, the other unwound, enabling two loaded cars to descend while two empty ones ascended. The eastern side of the creek valley was so steep that double and treble teams were required to pull the loaded cars upgrade.
From the onset, the Chesterfield Railroad was financially successful and it reduced by two-thirds the cost of transporting coal from the Midlothian pits to Richmond. During 1831, a total of 160 coal cars were in operation and in the following year the number of cars moved was almost doubled. Inmates of the Virginia State Penitentiary and the D. I . Burr Company of Richmond were kept busy manufacturing tramway cars. The company became increasingly successful. During 1836, the Chesterfield Railroad Company reportedly hauled 84,976 tons of coal in 25,903 cars and had received $83,409 in gross revenues. It was reputed to be the most profitable railroad in the world (Coleman 1954: 4—7).
In 1844, the Chesterfield Railroad Company repaid its stockholders’ original investment and came under the regulation of the Board of Public Works. At that time, the charge of for carrying coal was reduced from 6 cents to 3 cents. Six years later, the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which was steam-propelled, commenced its operations. Its increased efficiency rendered the old Chesterfield Railroad obsolete. Shortly thereafter, the Chesterfield Railroad’s owners petitioned the legislature for permission to dispose of its property. In 1851, company officials filed their last report with Virginia’s Board of Public Works (Coleman 1954: 4—7). The Chesterfield Railroad Company’s reports to shareholders document it success and detail its operations.
Virtually all of the historical resources that have been identified archaeologically are associated with Midlothian’s coal mining industry and therefore are related thematically. As the Midlothian coal pits were the principal source of coal that was produced in the Richmond Coal Basin, these cultural resources constitute a critical part of the region’s heritage. During the American Revolution, coal produced in the Midlothian coal pits supplied the cannon factory at Westham, near Richmond, where it was used to produce shot and shells for the Continental Army. During the Civil War, the Midlothian coal pits provided critical support to the Confederate war industry. In peace time, coal from the Midlothian mines was consumed along the east coast.
As Jeffrey O’Dell pointed out in his history of Chesterfield County, the main building of the Grove Shaft mine is the only currently surviving structure that is associated with coal mining in the Richmond Coal Basin. Nearby is a surviving section of the Chesterfield Railroad, a 13 mile long mule-and-gravity powered rail line that was operational by 1831, constituting the second commercial railroad to be built in America. Archival records pertaining to the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s development of its property are extensive, providing an exceptional opportunity for scholarly research into America’s early coal mining industry. Likewise, documentation of the Chesterfield Railroad’s operations also are available. Historical maps also suggest that in addition to the mining-related sites that are described above, other currently unidentified archaeological sites are likely present.
As noted by Virginia’s State Historic Preservation Officer in March, 1989, the coal mines of the Midlothian area and the Richmond Basin, when considered as a class of related resources, represent the earliest systematic exploitation of fossil fuel in the United States. Coal mining in the Midlothian area also was highly influential in the development of transportation systems that served the region. The architectural, archaeological and engineering data that are present at these sites collectively constitute a critical repository of historic and scientific data.
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Coleman, Elizabeth Dabney
1954 Forerunner of Virginia’s First Railway. Virginia Cavalcade. Winter: 4—7.
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1907 Chesterfield County, Its History and Present. Williams Printing Company, Richmond, Virginia.
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1938 Report on Richmond Coal Basin, 1916. In the Richmond Coal Basin, A Compilation in Three Parts. Manuscript on file at Virginia Electric and Power Company.
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"The Mid-Lothian Miner" by Tom Garner
I step in the cage and whisper, “Goodbye,
Blessed earth underfoot, the sun and the sky.”
My mates are from Cornwall and Scotland and Wales,
From England and France and slavery sales.
My life will depend on these dozens of hands,
Whose rearin’s and tongues are from faraway lands.
But soon all our faces will blacken by coal:
Eyes, muscle and heart must stand for our soul.
Gotta trust in the hoist man as we drop like a stone,
And the sides of the shaft blur by as I moan.
The dank air below wafts up at my knees,
While I savor the soothe of a last coolin’ breeze.
Bright light up above has now shrunk to a dot
While eerie glows dance from a flame in a pot.
I unlock my knees and prepare for the jerk
As the cage hits the bottom and I stumble to work.
The forge roars like a tempest as it sucks the abyss
And seeks out the fire damp and its deadly hiss.
The mules are awaitin’ with nary a bray;
Soon the coal they’ll be haulin’ will earn ‘em some hay.
The blackness bears down on our flickerin’ spheres
That shadow our shovels and allay our dark fears.
But the dust dims our eyes and charges our lungs
And gristles our sweat while it thickens our tongues.
So strike with those picks, men, and mine out this hole!
And fill up the trams with Mid-Lothian coal!
If we dodge the roof falls and cheat the damned damps,
We can rise out of this hell hole and blow out our lamps.
And we’ll wash off the grime and conjure our faces,
Return to our home folk, religions and races,
And eke out a livin’ by earnin’ the wage
Of a Mid-Lothian miner goin’ to work in a cage…
Just a Mid-Lothian miner goin’ to work in a cage.
By Tom Garner
About the author:
Martha W. McCartney, a research historian, is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. She was employed at the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology for thirteen years and, as a historian, coordinated the state's archaeological National Register and its review and compliance programs. From 1986 on, she has worked as an independent scholar, providing research support to Virginia's archaeological community. As a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation consultant, she was project historian for the National Park Service's Jamestown Archaeological Assessment. She is the author of four books, plus numerous published articles and reports, and has received five historic preservation awards. Her book, Jamestown Island: An American Legacy, was chosen by the National Park Service as "best in the field" in the book/cultural history category. Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary is her most recent work.
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