Nearly 300 years ago, French Huguenots wishing to escape religious persecution made their homes on an 8 million year old coalfield that would help shape not only the history of Chesterfield County, but also that of the New World.

The first commercially mined coal in this country came from Midlothian, where the fossil fuel is believed to have been discovered near the Huguenot settlement on the James River about 1701. It was dug for local and domestic use for several years before it was first commercially mined in the 1730s. William Byrd II, who purchased 344 acres of land over the coalfield noted in a 1709 diary entry that "the coaler found the coal mine very good and sufficient to furnish several generations."

By the end of the Revolutionary War, coal mined in Chesterfield was being shipped to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Thomas Jefferson noted the mines in operation in his "Notes on Virginia" and said the coal produced there was of excellent quality. He also ordered coal from the Black Heath Mine in Midlothian for use in the White House.

The earliest commercial mines in the area were near Manakin and Huguenot Springs, though those in the Midlothian village area--near the eastern end of Falling Creek--were in operation by the mid-1700s, followed by the mines in the Winterpock area, which opened in the early 1800s.

Commercial mining in Chesterfield did not hit its stride until the 1800s because of competition from foreign mines and because local residents still used wood for heating purposes. A 1794 tariff on foreign coal dramatically increased demand for coal mined in this country. By 1835 there were seven or eight major mines in the Midlothian area.

Interstate coal production was interrupted during the Civil War, when coal from Chesterfield was sent to Tredegar Ironworks, which manufactured munitions for the Confederacy.

The earliest mining technique involved digging shallow pits or trenches, though later inclines were dug to follow coal deposits 100 to 200 feet down. Shaft mining was dominant by the mid-1700s, and heavy timber supports or brickwork were used to reinforce the shafts.

Coal was raised out of the mines in large boxes on ropes drawn by mule-driven windlasses and later steam engines. Similar techniques were used to pump out water and keep the mines from flooding. Mules also were used to haul coal inside the mines and were housed there as well. Reports say the animals appeared healthy due to good care and the stable underground environment.

The mines were in operation 24 hours a day, with workers putting in 12-hour shifts Monday through Saturday and turning out 200 tons of coal a day. Most of the workers were slaves who had been hired out to work the mines, though free blacks also were employed. Mining engineers from England and Wales were hired to improve mine operations and safety, and miners from Britain were attracted to Virginia by the promise of jobs with good wages, favorable conditions and limited hours and the opportunity to buy land and build their own homes.

But while working the mines in Chesterfield seemed a golden opportunity to some, it was a risky business. Records of the number of miners killed or injured in accidents are incomplete, but at least 30 men and boys lost their lives in cave-ins and explosions or were asphyxiated by coal dust or poisonous gasses.

"The force of a gas explosion is terrific," read one Richmond newspaper account of an 1855 disaster in which two men were killed. "It shivers wood into smithereens, and the strong timbers in the Raccoon Pit, at the point where the explosion occurred, are now reduced to toothpicks. Besides this, thousands of tons of coal have been reduced to dust and huge boulders of granite shaken loose, filling up the chambers of the mine, . . ."

The decline of coal mining in Chesterfield began after the Civil War, when the mining companies were critically affected by economic devastation and the loss of slave labor. Newer mines in Appalachia had more advanced technology and produced cleaner-burning anthracite coal, as opposed to the softer bituminous coal of the Richmond coalfield.

Attempts were made to resume operations in many of the mines, but the post-war operations did not last long into the next century. The cost of extracting coal simply was too great to allow a reasonable gain, and numerous explosions claimed many lives.

Most of the mines were abandoned, and during the 1930s, the state allowed citizens to carry away free coal to heat their homes.

In the county's mining heyday, the demand for coal from Chesterfield brought about some significant transportation improvements intended to help move it from the mines to shipping ports on the James River and other locations.

In 1804, a toll road was built from Falling Creek to Manchester to ease traffic on what is now Old Buckingham Road. It was paved in 1808, making it Virginia's first paved road, and today it is known as Midlothian Turnpike.

The James River and Kanawha Canal and the Tuckahoe Canal also were built for transporting coal and other goods, and an incline railroad--believed to be Virginia's first railroad--began operating in 1831. It used gravity to move coal cars from Falling Creek to Manchester and mules to pull the empty cars back. When steam railroad lines were laid on the canal towpaths and across the state, rail became the prevalent shipping method.

An exhibit on local mining history in the Chesterfield Museum includes a length of iron rail from the incline railway, a chunk of coal from one of the Midlothian mines, the head of a mining pick, a small oil lamp that was attached to a miner's cap, a token from a mining company's store, the skull of an unfortunate miner killed in an explosion and another's pocket-size New Testament.

Today, many of the mines are near developed areas of Chesterfield, and some that have been discovered have been sealed or otherwise secured in the interest of public safety.

But the Chesterfield coal miner remains a visible piece of county history to this day. In 1870, the first action of the county's first Board of Supervisors was to commission a county seal depicting "a coal miner leaning on his pick under a pine tree with a flowing river at his feet."

From a brochure from the Chesterfield County Office of News and Public Information Services, by Pam Wiley

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