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The path to 200 years: Coal mining has deep history in state

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Louis Joliet and Pere Marquette, returning from an expedition on the Mississippi River in 1673, were the first explorers to notice the combustible material that would shape the Illinois economy. The coal just sat there on the surface like low-hanging fruit near Utica along the Illinois River.

The first mine appeared near Peoria not long after, but it wasn’t until 1830, when coal from Belleville found a market in nearby St. Louis, that the industry took off, according to Keith Weil and Alvin K. Grandys, who wrote the 1976 Illinois Coal Digest, a publication from the Illinois Department of Business and Economic Development.

Coal grew by leaps and bounds over the decades. In the 1850s and 1860s, railroads opened lines to new customers and the Civil War. Later, Weil and Grandys write, the formalization of geology and the appearance of the steam engine made coal easier to find and dig.

The mines attracted tens of thousands of workers, many of whom were exposed to the dangers of an unchecked industry. As mine collapses and explosions claimed hundreds of lives, new vitality sprang into labor unions that went on to fight for better safety and health care.

Early mine collapses, the result of apathetic owners, encouraged miners to organize but still produced few gains, according to Rosemary Feurer, a history professor at Northern Illinois University. Reforms went unenforced, and even a nascent form of workers’ compensation, the victory of a particularly deadly episode in Cherry, in the northern part of the state in 1909, barely compensated widows from a legal judgment.

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