Return to NETL Home
Go to US DOE
Home > Key Issues & Mandates > History of Coal Use

Key Issues & Mandates
Secure & Reliable Energy Supplies - History of U.S. Coal Use
  Coal Pile

When America's founders first settled along the eastern seaboard in the late 1600s, little did they suspect that the land beneath them and to the west contained vast deposits of coal. In fact, in most of the Nation's larger cities, the first coal users – colonial blacksmiths – fired their furnaces with “fossil coal” or “stone coal” imported from England and Nova Scotia.

The first record of coal in the United States shows up in a map of the Illinois River prepared by Louis Joliet and Father Jaques Marquette in 1673-74 (they labeled the coal deposits “charbon de terra”). In 1701, coal was found by Huguenot settlers on the James River in what is now Richmond, Virginia. By 1736, several “coal mines” were shown on a map of the upper Potomac River near what is now the border of Maryland and West Virginia.

The first coal “miners” in the American colonies were likely farmers who dug coal from beds exposed on the surface and sold it by the bushel. In 1748, the first commercial coal production began from mines around Richmond, Virginia. Coal was used to manufacture shot, shell, and other war material during the Revolutionary War.

By the late 1700s, coal was being mined on “Coal Hill,” now Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dug from the steep hillsides, the coal was used by early settlers to heat their homes and sent across the Monongahela River in canoes to provide fuel for the military garrison at Fort Pitt.

By the 1800s, Americans had found a variety of ways to use the coal they discovered in larger and larger quantities beneath their expanding lands. In 1814, coal was burned to heat salt brines to provide a source of salt in southwestern Pennsylvania.

In 1816, the city of Baltimore, Maryland, began to light its streets with combustible gas made from coal. By the 1830s, coal was being used to make glass in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

The first major boon for coal use occurred in 1830 when the Tom Thumb, the first commercially practical American-built locomotive, was manufactured. The Tom Thumb burned coal, and in rapid fashion, virtually every American locomotive that burned wood was converted to use coal. America's coal industry had begun taking shape.

To meet the increasing demand for coal, the steam shovel was invented in 1839, beginning the transformation of the burgeoning coal industry to mechanized surface mining. In 1848, the first coal miners' union was formed in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania (the United Mine Workers of America would come into existence 42 years later).

The 1870s saw the next major surge in coal demand. In 1875, coke – a product of heating coal – replaced wood charcoal as the chief fuel for iron blast furnaces. Strip mining began in 1866 near Danville, Illinois, and by 1877, steam shovels were being used to reach a 3-foot thick coal bed in Kansas. With the rise of iron and steel, coal production increased by 300 percent during the 1870s and early 1880s. By the early 1900s, coal was supplying more than 100,000 coke ovens, mostly in western Pennsylvania and northwestern West Virginia.

The roots of today's primary use of coal – electric power generation – can be traced back to Thomas Edison. In 1882 Edison built the first practical coal-fired electric generating station, supplying electricity to some residents of New York City. In 1901, General Electric Company built the first alternating current power plant at Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania. The plant, designed to eliminate the difficulties in long-distance direct current transmission, was built for the Webster Coal and Coke Company.

By 1961, coal had become the major fuel used by electricity utilities to generate electricity, and a new era for coal began taking shape. U.S. coal production nearly doubled, increasing from 520 million tons in 1970 to one billion tons for the first time in 1990 and to nearly 1.1 billion tons currently. From its earliest use in colonial blacksmith shops, coal had helped wean larger cities from their reliance on imports from England and Nova Scotia, change the nature of transportation, and power an industrial revolution. Now it was the dominant fuel for U.S. electric power generation. It had become a solid cornerstone of America's modern energy mix.

  Coal Timeline, Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy
  Timeline of Coal in the United States, American Coal Foundation, 2003-2004
  History of Coal, Janet M. Geitner, St. Elizabeth Elementary School, PA, for the NETL, 1991
  A Brief History of the UMWA, United Mine Workers of America website