Historical Markers
Coal Discovery Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Coal Discovery

Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
U.S. 15 just S of Blossburg (Missing)

Behind the Marker

While traveling through Pittsburgh in 1797, Captain Gilbert Imlay wrote, "This whole country abounds in coal, which lies almost upon the surface of the ground: the hills opposite Pittsburgh, upon the banks of the Monongahela, which are at least three hundred feet high, appear to be one solid body of this mineral." Although Imlay overstated how solid the veins of coal opposite Pittsburgh were, he correctly underscored how abundant bituminous coal was in western Pennsylvania. A few visionary people recognized the potential of these vast coal deposits. In 1800 Cornelius Woodruff, a tavern owner in Connellsville, foresaw, "For those who will come after us, will find vast and undeveloped mines of material for men to work upon, treasure of untold wealth that now are hid from us."

Most of the treasure of untold wealth, however, remained buried before 1850. Early hunters, trappers and settlers discovered bituminous coal in many places in western Pennsylvania, but sparse population and poor transportation greatly limited the production and marketing of coal. Competition from the forests of western Pennsylvania also limited coal production before 1850. Wood was cheap, easily accessible, and the region's most important energy source.

Map of the borough of Pittsburgh as laid out in 1795.
flip zoom
Pittsburgh as laid out in 1795
Europeans found coal in southwestern Pennsylvania as early as the 1740s, in surface outcroppings or in river beds. Settlers and others found more coal as they went into north-central Pennsylvania. It is claimed that Robert and Benjamin Patterson were the first to find coal in Tioga County, in 1792. The two men were guiding a group of 500 German and English immigrants from Williamsport to southern New York. As they cut a path through the forest, they came to the Tioga River at present-day Blossburg and camped. The Pattersons found coal in the nearby mountains. Following the first settlers, David Clemons came to the county in 1806. He found coal and about 1815 opened the county's first commercial mine.

Clemons's mine, like most mines before 1850, marketed coal mostly in local areas because poor roads and the cost of overland transportation limited how far coal could be transported profitably. Local consumers used much of the coal for home heating and cooking. By 1760 coal dug from Mount Washington in present-day Pittsburgh provided heat for soldiers garrisoned across the Monongahela River at Fort Pitt.

Locally mined coal became the primary fuel in Pittsburgh homes by 1800. Indeed, the thick smoke from coal fires led John Bernard, an English visitor in 1800, to label the town the "smoky city," reminding him of "many choking recollections of London." By the early nineteenth century coal largely replaced wood as the preferred household fuel in the Monongahela River valley. However, in other regions of western and central Pennsylvania, plentiful and cheap wood remained the principal home fuel.

An artist's rendition of Fort Pitt as it appeared around 1776.
An artist's rendition of Fort Pitt as it appeared around 1776.
Clemons's mine was a drift mine, one of a few basic methods that miners used to extract coal. Where coal seams outcropped at the surface, miners used picks and shovels to dig the coal without tunneling. Surface mining was the easiest and cheapest way to get coal. Drift mines were the simplest and earliest way to tunnel underground for coal. Miners opened a drift-mine tunnel where a seam outcropped from the side of a hill, and then dug a main tunnel, following the seam. They used drift-mine tunnels when the coal seam was nearly level and above water level, employing draft animals to pull coal-filled cars on rails out of the mine. They excavated most coal by digging rooms with pillars. From the main tunnel, miners drove side tunnels creating a series of rooms or chambers. As they dug each room, miners left pillars or columns of coal to support the overhead roof of rock.marker Map of underground mine tunnels at Darr Mine, from Report of the Department of Mines of Pennsylvania: Part II Bituminous, 1907

Before 1850, miners rarely employed slope or shaft mining, two other coal-extraction methods. Miners usually opened slope entries where a seam outcropped on the side of a hill, but unlike drift mines, they dug the main tunnel at an angle from the horizontal, following the inclined seam. In shaft mining, miners dug a shaft straight down to reach a coal seam, and then tunneled to the side of the shaft, following the seam. Miners had to transport coal out of most slope mines by using hoist engines to pull cars filled with coal up the inclines. In shaft mines, hoist engines lowered miners down the shaft and pulled miners and coal up. Shaft and slope mines were rare before 1850 because they were costly to dig, and hoisting equipment was expensive and primitive.

Miners in the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania used the same methods of extracting coal, but development of the anthracite fields followed a different course before 1850. At first anthracite mining lagged behind bituminous, but beginning in the 1810s, home heating and cooking became a major market for anthracite coal. Starting in the 1840s, anthracite-fueled iron furnaces also became a growing market. During the 1820s and 1830s entrepreneurs constructed canals, including the Lehigh Canal, to ship coal to markets. During the 1830s and 1840s a number of railroad companies, such as the markerDanville and Pottsville Railroad, built railroad lines to carry anthracite.

Unlike the bituminous coal fields, the anthracite fields had extensive transportation networks by 1850 to get coal to market. Initial exploitation of the anthracite fields proceeded more quickly than in the bituminous fields. In 1850 anthracite output reached 4.3 million tons, double the production of the state's bituminous mines.
Back to Top