Historical Markers
First Mining of Pittsburgh Coal Historical Marker
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First Mining of Pittsburgh Coal

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Grandview Ave. between Ulysses and Bertha Sts., Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
April 18, 1985

Behind the Marker

A map of Coal fields in the 19th Century. Color codes the Bituminous, Anthracite, and the Pittsburgh Seam. Railroads provided service to all areas of the coal fields by the 1800s.
Pennsylvania coal fields

"Most of the hills on both sides of the Ohio are filled with excellent coal and a coal mine was in the year 1760 opened opposite Fort Pitt on the River Monongahela for the use of the Garrison."

In his account of his travels in western Pennsylvania, Captain Adam Stephen, who accompanied George Washington on a military expedition in the Ohio River Valley in 1754, noted the early mining of coal in the region.  Stephen, however, did not fully comprehend just how excellent the coal was. The coal used at Fort Pitt was part of the Pittsburgh coal seam or bed, which geologists have called "the world's most valuable single mineral deposit."

The Pittsburgh seam was the nation's principal source of bituminous coal production during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Pittsburgh-seam coal was ideally suited to making coke, particularly for iron blast furnaces. It fostered the development of much of southwestern Pennsylvania, particularly a section of the Pittsburgh seam known as the Connellsville district
 Coal being loaded into barges from a tipple.
No. 4 Vesta Tipple - 4th Pool, Richeyville, PA, circa 1916.

Exploitation of Pittsburgh-seam coal began slowly. At first blacksmiths and foundrymen made small quantities of local coal into coke to use in their hearths and small furnaces. In the early 1800s, entrepreneurs in western Pennsylvania adapted British coke-making practices to produce coke for local iron works and rolling mills. To do so, they burned the coal slowly in turf-covered "mounds," driving off impurities. It was western Pennsylvania ironmasters, including the owners of markerKarthaus Furnace, who pioneered the use of coke in iron blast furnaces. The adoption of beehive markercoke ovens, beginning in the 1830s, made better-quality coke than mounds did, and also spurred the use of Pittsburgh-seam coal in iron furnaces.

Pittsburgh-seam coal, especially the highest-quality coal found in the Connellsville district, was the best coal in America for making coke. When converted into coke, it was strong enough to withstand the weight of iron ore that was piled with coke inside iron furnaces. It also has a high proportion of carbon, which hastens combustion; a low proportion of impurities, including ash and moisture, which impede combustion; and a low proportion of sulfur, which is critical to making high-quality iron.

The Pittsburgh seam was located close to Pittsburgh, then the center of the growing American iron and steel industry. Coke had to be transported by water or rail to iron furnaces, and the Pittsburgh seam's proximity to iron furnaces gave the bed another competitive advantage over more distant coal seams that could produce coke.

Vesta tipple,with Trestle and Rail Loading Conveyor,  view from across river.
No. 4 Vesta Tipple with Trestle and Rail Loading Conveyor, Washington County,...
The mining of Pittsburgh-seam coal took off after 1860 as the rapidly expanding iron and steel industry adopted coke. Indeed, it was the close proximity of Pittsburgh seam bituminius coal that enabled Pittsburgh to become the iron and steel making capital of the nation.

To meet the soaring demand for coke, Pittsburgh-seam mines increased their production from 4.3 million tons of coal in 1880 to a peak of 40 million tons in 1916. Most of the growth in coal output before 1900 occurred in the Connellsville district, but the iron and steel industry's demand rose so rapidly that mine companies in the early 1900s also exploited the Lower Connellsville district of the Pittsburgh seam, adding greatly to total output. Pittsburgh-seam mining was so massive, and so intertwined with coke production for the iron and steel industry, that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has been called the "Golden Age of King Coal, Queen Coke and Princess Steel."

The huge expansion of coal mining spurred enormous changes in the region. In 1906 one writer summarized the recent changes in Fayette County: "Fayette County went ‘coal crazy!" Farms that had been considered only heirlooms of dead fathers and grandfathers suddenly blossomed into gold…. Farmers, suddenly enriched by the sale of the coal under their farms, went into the coke business themselves in many instances, and every rank of the professions was depleted to fill up the ranks of ‘coal men.'"

The new mines needed thousands of workers, fostering rapid population growth as miners and their families, including many immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, flowed into the region. In 1887 a Pennsylvania official noted that since 1876 "a poorly-paid, helpless band of workmen of ten years [has] grown into a vast army of 13,000 cokers." In markerFayette County, dozens of new coal towns rose to house and provide for workers and their families, and a web of railroad lines was constructed to transport coal and coke to market.

"This group picture was taken on the Vesta #4 Tipple. Left to right: 1) George Gibson, 2) Walter Qualk, 3) Batista Verino, 4) William Moyer, 5) Samuel B. Paxton, 6) James Darrock (boy in front), 7) William Penrod, 8) Wilbur Thompson, 9) W. D. Foster (back), 10) John C. Rohrer (front), 11) William Patterson and 12) R. J. Gregg."
Car Shop Crew - Vesta Mines, ca. 1909
The era of King Coal, Queen Coke, and Princess Steel did not last long. Beginning in the 1910s, important technological and industrial changes spelled the end of the Pittsburgh seam's importance. By-product coke ovens, which yielded more coke per ton from coal, replaced most beehive coke ovens from 1910 to 1940. By-product ovens utilized coal that was lower quality than Pittsburgh-seam coal, greatly reducing demand for Pittsburgh-seam coal.

Hit hard by the Great Depression, coal production in the Connellsville District collapsed, and Fayette County experienced some of the highest unemployment  and markerworst poverty in the Commonwealth. Pittsburgh-seam output continued to fall after a World War II surge as steel mills adopted alternative fuels such as natural gas and oil and improved the energy efficiency of iron furnaces. Another major blow came during the late 1970s and 1980s as the American steel industry closed many steel mills in the Pittsburgh region and elsewhere.

The decline of Pittsburgh-seam mining brought large-scale social and economic changes to southwestern Pennsylvania, as unemployment climbed, the region lost population due to out-migration, businesses dependent on coal miners' income folded, municipalities with declining tax bases cut back services, and churches and cultural organizations closed. The reign of King Coal, Queen Coke and Princess Steel had passed.
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