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EIU Teaching with Primary Sources

The Source


Kentucky coal miners, Jenkins, Kentucky


 Source Home  l   Introduction   l   Connecting to Illinois   l   Places to Go Primary Sources to See

TPS EIU Staff Pick   l  Primary Sources in the Classroom   l   l   PDF with Images

This publication is created to be a source of information and inspiration for teachers as they incorporate Library of Congress digitized primary sources and resources into instruction by Teaching with Primary Sources at Eastern Illinois University.


Coal Miners


Miner breaking coal off the face. Old Ben number eight. West Frankfort, IllinoisTurning on the lights in our homes, watching TV, working on computers, our days re filled with activities that use electricity. How this electricity is made and where it all starts rarely crosses our minds. Coal is a fossil fuel created form decomposition of organic material subject to geologic heat and pressure over millions of years.1 Because coal is created over millions of years, it is considered a non-renewable resource. It is estimated that there are over 861 billion tons of proven coal reserves worldwide.2 This means that there is enough coal to last around 112 years at current rates of production.2 The biggest reserves are in the U.S., Russia, China and India.2 The world consumption of coal is 5,8000,000,000 tons annual, 75% is used to create electricity.3 Being a non-renewable resource, we must closely monitor our use of coal. To make coal reserves last longer, other energy sources must be explored.

Getting coal from the earth is a dangerous, dirty and dark job. Coal cars take miners thousands of feet into the mine. Some mines have been operational for over a century, it all begins with a dynamite blast that breaks up the rock. Before dynamite, miners would start a fire at the face of the mine and keep the fire going for days.3 When the rock face was hot, cold water was poured on the mine face breaking up the rocks.3 The rock Coal minewas removed by hand. Today after the dynamite blast, a machine called a "mucker" similar to a bulldozer, puts the rocks in coal cars which remove the rock from the mine.3 After the rock is removed, tracks are laid for the coal cars.  

Creating a coal chute involves a high powered jackhammer to drill holes in the mine rock walls. The jackhammer creates holes for dynamite in about four minutes.3 Dynamite is placed in the hole to blast a place for the coal chutes. Before the technology of the jackhammer, one miner would hold a long metal rod and slowly turn the rod while another miner hit the rod creating the hole. When the coal chute is create, screeners break up large coal pieces so it can travel down the chute into the coal cars.3 This process is repeated over and over, becoming the job of a coal miner.

Connecting to Illinois

Illinois has a long history of coal mining. The first discovery of coal in North America was in Illinois byCherry mine disaster, crowd, including women, gathered around the scaffolding surrounding the main shaft of the St. Paul Coal Company mine after fire. Marquette and Joliet4 In 1673, they observed and recorded coal outcrops along the Illinois River.4 The outcropped coal was mined in the 1800s and used in blacksmithing and other domestic uses.4 It took longer for underground mining to start, but by 1848, Belleville became home to the first underground mining operation.4 Railroads flourished in Illinois during the Civil War, this helped coal mining in southern Illinois to boom. The first coal mines were tunnels widened into rooms that were mined by hand, this method is called "room and pillar".4 Coal has been mined in 73 counties in Illinois.5 More than 4,500 coal mines have operated since commercial mining began, today, fewer than 50 are currently active.5 

Mining was booming, people wanted coal for fuel. The goal was to mine as much coal as possible with little thought of the impact this would have on the future. Because these mines were not close to civilization, the Dinner 2 1/2 miles underground - miners with safety lamp, in soft coal mine, Illinoislong-term stability of the mines was not a concern.4 When the mines were "worked-out", the miners left the ground unstable with the possibility of the land sinking. The Illinois State Geological Survey estimates that approximately 201,000 acres of urban and built up lands in Illinois are close to mines.4 This affects an estimated 330,000 housing units making them vulnerable to sinking.4 

The worst mining disaster in Illinois history occurred in 1909 at the Cherry Mine in Cherry, Illinois.5 The mine produced 300,000 tons of coal a year.5 On November 13, 1909, 490 miners were 500 feet underground when a load of hay in the mine caught fire from a torch.5 The fire and poisonousCherry mine disaster, men looking at the destroyed top works of the coal mine in Cherry, Illinois, after a fire, with a crowd gathered in the background. gasses left 259 men and boys dead. Mining disasters are a risk every miner takes every day they are on the job.

The second worst mine disaster took place at the New Orient Coal Mine near West Frankfort in Southern Illinois.5 Sparks from electrical equipment touched off a pocket of methane gas, killing 119 miners.5 This resulted in the federal Coal Mining Safety Act of 1952, updated safety laws and provided more stringent inspections of mines.5

Places to Go & Primary Sources to See

Moweaqua Coal Mine Museum Although coal mining in Moweaqua dates back to 1891, the Moweaqua Coal Corporation was created by a group of local businessmen in 1932 in an effort to keep a coal mine operating in the town. The Moweaqua Coal Mine Museum is located 20 miles south of Decatur, Illinois. It houses a number of local mining artifacts from the Moweaqua Coal Mine, which ceased operation in 1935.The most remembered fact about the Moweaqua Coal Mine is the mine disaster; however pictures, newspaper clippings, coal mining tools and other mine related materials are also on display. There  is no charge for the museum, donations are accepted.

TPS EIU Staff Pick

Refuse heap behind company houses. Kempton, West VirginiaCoal mining is a touch and dangerous job. The balance between life and death weighs on every miner each time they head into the mine. Their families are affected by the suspense of waiting. When an accident happened, all wives and mothers could do was wait for news on their family members inside the mine. Mining has a dramatic history along with the danger. The Molly Maguires were a secret society that violently confronted mine owners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia between 1862 and 1877, and saw ten men hanged for murder.6

Country singer Loretta Lynn grew up in Kentucky, her father was a coal miner who raised eight children on three dollars a day.6 While working in the coal mines he contracted black lung disease and died.6 It is estimated that more then 100,000 miners have lost their lives in coal mining accidents.6 Over the years there have been significant improvements in coal mining safety but some dangers never go away for theCoal miner's family, Pursglove, West Virginia nearly 65,000 people today employed as hourly wage coal miners.6 Coal mining liberates highly combustible methane from the earth and coal dust itself is explosive.6 Explosions and disease are not the only worries, working deep in the earth always exposes miners to cave-ins.

Mining wives grew gardens for food and when times got tight, they would take in laundry, clean houses or babysit to earn extra cash. This money was necessary when mining was a seasonal job. In the summer less coal was needed, resulting in mining layoffs. In winter the demand for fuel from coal rose and miners would work long hours. Miners were paid by the ton, this system made it easy for National Child Labor Committee. No. 191. Frank, a Miner Boy, going home. About 14 years old; has working in the mine helping father pick and load for three years: was in hospital one year, when leg had been crushed by coal car.some coal companies to cheat the miners. When the miner's coal was weighed, they were sometimes told by a dishonest boss, there was too much rock in their load, this resulted in a lower paycheck for the miner.

The main job of a miner's wife was to take care of her husband, cook, clean, and raise the children who would become the next generation of coal miners. Children started working the coal mines during the Industrial Revolution. They started at a young age, picking coal pieces out of the chutes. By the time they were ten or eleven, they were working along side their fathers, brothers, uncles and other family members.

Primary Sources in the Classroom

Teacher's PageTeacher's Page The Library of Congress Teacher's Page offers classroom materials and professional development to help teachers effectively use primary sources from the Library's vast digital collections in their teaching.

Collection Connections Historical context and ideas for teaching with specific Library of Congress primary source collections.

History of the American West, 1860-1920: Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library This Collection Connection has a tab under History on Coal Mining.



American MemoryAmerican Memory American Memory provides free and open access through the internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that documents the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity.  These materials from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for educators and lifelong learning.

Photographs from the Chicago Daily NewsPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933 This collection comprises over 55,000 images of urban life captured on glass plate negatives between 1902 and 1933 by photographers employed by the Chicago Daily News, then one of Chicago's leading newspapers. The photographs illustrate the enormous variety of topics and events covered in the newspaper. Most of the photographs were taken in Chicago, Illinois, or in nearby towns, parks, or athletic fields. Images from the Cherry Mine disaster are found in this collection.

History of the American WestHistory of the American West, 1860-1920: Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library Over 30,000 photographs, drawn from the holdings of the Western History and Genealogy Department at Denver Public Library, illuminate many aspects of the history of the American West. Most of the photographs were taken between 1860 and 1920. They illustrate Colorado towns and landscape, document the place of mining in the history of Colorado and the West, and show the lives of Native Americans from more than forty tribes living west of the Mississippi River.

Built in AmericaBuilt in America The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) collections are among the largest and most heavily used in the Prints and Photographs Survey (HALS)has been added to the holdings. The collections document achievements in architecture, engineering, and design in the United States and its territories through a comprehensive range of building types and engineering technologies. Over 200 images of coal mines are featured in this collection.

Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West VirginiaTending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscapes in Southern West Virginia incorporates 718 excepts from original sound recordings, 1256 photographs, and 10 manuscripts from the American Folklife Center's Coal River Folklife Project (1992-99) documenting traditional uses of the mountains in Southern West Virginia's Big Coal River Valley. This collection focuses on the coal miner and his life and job.

America from the Great Depression to World War IIAmerica from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945 The images in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are among the most famous documentary photographs every produced. Created by a group of U.S. government photographers, the images show Americans in every part of the nation. In the early years, the project emphasized rural life and the negative impact of the Great Depression, farm mechanization, and Dust Bowl. In later years, the photographers turned their attention to the mobilization effort for World War II. The core of the collection consists of about 164,000 black-and-white photographs. This release provides access to over 160,000 of these images; future additions will expand the black-and-white offering. The FSA-OWI photographs also produced about 1600 color photographs during the latter days of the project.

Prints and PhotographsPrints and Photographs The collection for the Prints and Photographs Division include photographs, fine and popular prints and drawings, posters, architectural and engineering drawings.


Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscape SurveyHistorical American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscape SurveyA search for Coal Mining will result in images of company houses, coal mines and coal mining equipment.

Groups of Images (LOTS)Groups of Images This collection holds images of coal miners, their families and mining towns.

National Child Labor Committee CollectionNational Child Labor Committee Collection
Trapper boys, greasers and nippers are just some of the jobs held by boys in the coal mines.

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White NegativesFarm Security Information/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives Company stores and houses are found in this collection.

Miscellaneous Items in High DemandMiscellaneous Items in High Demand Coal miners and miners are found in this collection using the search word "coal mining".


Today in History Each day an event from American history is illustrated by digitized items from the Library of Congress American Memory historic collections.

September 2, 1885: The Rock Springs Massacre On September 2, 1885, a mob of white coal miners attacked their Chinese co-workers (both groups were employed by the Union Pacific Coal Company) in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, over a dispute on who had the right to work in a particularly lucrative area of the mine. The violence occurred after Chinese workers refused to participate in a strike for higher wages planned by the American miners. Twenty-eight Chinese were killed and fifteen were wounded; seventy-nine homes were set ablaze. The bodies of many of the dead and wounded were thrown into the flames. Several hundred Chinese workers were chased out of town and fled to the surrounding hills. Property damage was estimated at $150,000.


1. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Energy Coal, accessed 9.17.13

2. World Coal Association, accessed 9.17.13

3. Discovery Channel, Dirty Jobs, Season 2, Coal Miner, DVD, accessed 9.3.13

4. Illinois Mine Subsidence insurance Fund, History of Mining in Illinois, accessed 9.17.13

5. Mining, Illinois Mines, accessed 9.17.13

6. ABC News, Coal Mining Steeped in History, January 5, 2006, accessed 9.17.13








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