Strip Coal Mining and Reclamation in Fulton County, Illinois: An Environmental History

By Hall, Greg | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Strip Coal Mining and Reclamation in Fulton County, Illinois: An Environmental History


Hall, Greg, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


THE HISTORY OF COAL MINING DATES BACK considerably in human history, but its use on a large scale is more recent in time. As its forests dwindled, Great Britain was one of the earliest countries to turn to coal as an important source of energy.1 In colonial North America, settlers discovered coal beds close to the surface, in colonies such as Virginia, and used them sporadically throughout the eighteenth century. In the following century, however, coal production in Pennsylvania and other regions helped to transform the United States from a predominately agrarian society into an industrial giant.2 Illinois was central to that industrial transformation with extensive underground and surface coal mining. Scholars, journalists, and other writers have explored a great deal of Illinois' coal mining history, especially in regard to economic development, mining town life, unionization of the work force, labor-management conflict, mining accidents, and state regulation. A prime example of this type of scholarship is Death Underground: The Centraba and West Frankfort Mine Disasters (2006) by Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney. Death Underground is a detailed account of these two mine tragedies of the mid-twentieth century when coal mining was a major industry in the state and a well-paid trade for Illinois' working class. The authors analyze the labor history of the mines, the state bureaucracy of mine inspections, party politics, and the lives of the miners and their families in their communities. This mode of scholarship is essential to our understanding of the economic, political, and social history of coal mining in Illinois.3 Nevertheless, the natural environment is largely left out of this type of traditional study. On the road toward addressing this gap in the current scholarship is Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (2010) by JeffBiggers. Reckoning is an unusually comprehensive history of coal mining in southeastern Illinois. Biggers examines traditional aspects of coal mining history, but in this study he treats the impact of coal mining on human health, community sustainability, and on the natural environment. The innovative historical perspective of Reckoning demonstrates very clearly that the history of coal mining does not end when coal production ceases.4

In an effort to continue in this vein of historical analysis of coal mining in Illinois, the following essay is an environmental history of strip mining in Fulton County. Although the county's coal mining history has been investigated, most of that history has fallen within the confines of traditional social history as in the work of John Hallwas in The Legacy of the Mines: Memoirs of Coal Mining in Fulton County, Illinois (1993).5 Unlike social, political, or economic history, an examination of the environmental history of the industry in the county-especially regarding surface or strip mining- provides in microcosm the consequences of the industry in the state of Illinois and an opportunity to assess the efforts, at the county level, to rehabilitate the land through reclamation laws and their implementation. The goal of reclamation of mined land, as understood in the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, is that the land must be returned to "the uses which the land was capable of supporting prior to any mining."6 The major question to be answered in this essay is whether reclamation has been successful in the county. An historical treatment of this type has rarely been undertaken and can be the basis for further investigation on a much broader level of the state's environmental history of coal mining. Moreover, this essay reveals an ever-present tension over strip mining in the state that began early in the twentieth century and continues to the present day. Nevertheless, Illinois' vast coal reserves are a tempting natural resource that can fuel the ever increasing energy needs of the United States.

Fulton County is located in the Military Tract of west central Illinois, and it has the duel distinction of being in one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world as well as resting upon one of the richest deposits of bituminous coal. …

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