Michigan has small deposits of coal, although many of our coal deposits are in thin seams,
and not economically valuable for that reason.
The swamp forests of the Pennsylvanian
stored many forms of usable wealth. The sands at the bottom of the swamp, now hardened
into the Parma sandstone, are a prominent reservoir for fresh water in central Michigan
counties; in a small area natural gas has been obtained from it. The trees of the forest
died, were buried, and became the coal of the Saginaw valley, Grand Ledge, Shiawassee,
Ingham, and Jackson counties. The coal is a bit difficult to use in the ordinary furnace,
but with the proper type furnace and proper firing methods, it burns well.
What was the Pennsylvanian environment, during which these coal
deposits formed, like? Slow, gentle crustal movements caused the
Mississippian seas to almost retreat from Michigan, leaving a shallow pool in the central
part of the basin and cut off from the outside sea. The time was the Pennsylvanian, the
last 45 million years of the Carboniferous, and the time of the great coal swamps.
Sedimentation was partly marine, partly fresh or brackish water in swamps. A layer of
sparkling sand was first spread over the last Mississippian limestone and above this in
the shallow waters a luxuriant swamp forest flourished --- but the trees were quite unlike
our modern trees. They were giant fern trees, ground pines, and horsetail rushes that grew
to 10 meters or more in height. No birds or butterflies or flowers were there, but dark
loathsome amphibians and the earliest known reptiles crawled in the muds; giant scorpions
and dragonflies flew about. The climate was warm and moist. The swamp vegetation died and
fell to the swamp floor, layer upon layer of plant remains accumulated, changed to peat,
were buried under a blanket of dark muds which slow streams brought from forest covered
lands. Thus protected from oxygen, they have become the coal beds and shales of the
For the last time the seas rather hesitatingly invaded Michigan and a
layer of thin sands and marine shales was spread over the coal swamps. Hot winds of the
Permian time probably dried the last thin muds of the shallow seas and made a layer of
thin red shale with streaks of gypsum in it, covering the last Pennsylvania sandstone. The
Michigan basin was filled, the Paleozoic era was ended. The coal of
Pennsylvanian age lies under a large part of the central part of the Lower Peninsula. It
lies near the surface in Ingham and Jackson Counties, and the thin overburden of glacial
drift means that it can be (was) mined by open pit methods. In the center of the
coal-bearing area (in Midland County) coal is found at depths of about 800 ft.
The seams vary in thickness, but the major coal-producing strata are approximately 1 m
thick. The largest deposits found (and the most coal mined in the past) were in the
Saginaw Valley. The height of production as 2 million tons in 1907, but most mining
operations had stopped by 1920 except for some small-scale, open pit mining near
Williamston, which ended in 1952. The major problems are:
**the low quality of the coal, including a weak structure that makes
the coal break down into powder when transported
**the limited lateral extent of productive seams
**large amounts of overburden (glacial drift), which handicaps the
utilization of open pit methods.
It is estimated that the coal reserves of Michigan total 220 million tons, of which half
could be mined with the present technology.
History of coal mining in Michigan
The last deep coal mine in Michigan closed in 1952. However,
at one time more than 160 coal mines once were active here. Although coal is found
throughout the central part of the Michigan Basin, mining has mostly been concentrated in
the southern and eastern sections of this area, because here the coal seams are close to
the surface. Most of the mining activity was concentrated in Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola and
Coal was first discovered in Michigan around 1835 as pioneers built a
grist mill west of Jackson. In 1837, Michigans first geologist, Douglass Houghton,
who investigated the coal deposits, reported: "In the bed and bank of the (Grand)
River...at Jacksonburgh, the sandstone is seen to embrace a bed of bituminous
shale...intermixed with very thin layers of coal."
Much of the coal existed in outcrops, which made excavation easy. In
1840 settlers extracted 1,500 bushels of coal for local use. But because there were few
steam powered engines or large institutions to provide the markets essential for the
commercial development of coal mining, it would be almost 20 years before their needs
spurred the commercial mining of coal.
Jackson rests at the southern tip of the Michigan Coal Basin, which was
formed between 270 and 330 million years ago as the region fluctuated between swamps and
drylands. During the Pennsylvanian Period of the Paleozoic Era, oceans flooded Michigan,
then receded and dried out to become swamps. The process was repeated many times leaving
layers of decayed vegetable matter pressed between layers of rock. Eventually the
compressed matter became coal. It takes up to 60 feet of vegetable matter to create five
feet of coal. Most of Michigans veins of coal, which undulate like subterranean
waves, are less than five feet thick.
The coal near Jackson lay in seams that tapered off at both ends and
were broken into pockets by limestone and sandstone. These deposits were near or above the
surface because the Michigan Basin is tilted with its eastern edge, running between Albion
and Saginaw, closest to the surface. Most mining has been done along that edge; deposits
in Montcalm and Mecosta Counties, near the center of the basin, are too deep to mine
Following the Civil War, mines honeycombed the area northwest of
Jackson. Unlike latter-day Michigan coal mines, Jackson mines snaked haphazardly,
following the largest deposits of coal. Most Jackson mines were 30 to 50 feet deep, though
some were deeper. The Woodville Mine, which eventually covered several hundred acres, had
a 90 foot vertical shaft. The bituminous (soft) coal it produced worked well for lights
and as fuel to power locomotives and large factory engines. During the early 1860s half of
its coal went to Detroit, where its home offices were located. Its coal was also used to
light the streets of Jackson.
Jacksons mines included slope and vertical mines. In a slope mine
the miners walked into the ground, then rode cars down an incline to the coal seam. Most
of the mines, however, were entered by a vertical shaft.
Once the men were underground they lit lard lamps. Beneath their feet
pools of water covered the floor. The air was rank, despite ventilation shafts. The
galleries created as the coal was mined were reinforced with timbers. In the galleries the
miner walked---stooped over. Reaching the seam where the last mining had occurred, he
chipped away at the base of the seam and then drove a wedge between it and the limestone
ceiling to break out the coal. He loaded the coal into an iron car pulled through the
galleries by the underground mules. Many times miners chipped away at the coal seam while
laying on their bellies--in wet mud that made up the floors of the mines.
The iron cars were hooked to an "endless chain" that was
powered by the steam engine. Full cars, attached at any point on the chain, were emptied
into chutes that fed into railroad cars or wagons. Often railroad companies built tracks
up to a mine so that cars could be loaded directly. Wagons hauled coal into town, but most
of it was shipped by railroad.
The average miner mined 2.5 tons of coal a day. Jackson coal mines
dominated the Michigan coal market through the 1870s and into the 1880s. In 1870 the Jackson
Weekly Citizen boasted of "inexhaustible beds of bituminous coal, capable of
furnishing fuel to the fires of central Michigan for an unlimited number of years."
By 1880, the eight Jackson mines were producing 125,000 tons of coal annually, and
employed 250 men.
The coal, however, was not an unlimited resource. The Woodville Mine
near Jackson exhausted the seam of coal it had been following and closed in the mid-1880s.
Other mines suffered similar fates as advances in railroad transportation made it easier
and cheaper to import coal from outstate. In Michigan, coal mines in Bay and Saginaw
Counties, which opened in the late 1880s, offered better quality coal and were much larger
operations than the ones in Jackson County. In 1900, Bay and Saginaw mines produced almost
800,000 tons, while Jackson mined a meager 23,317 tons, only 3 percent of the states
Coal mining in Michigan reached its zenith in 1907 (see chart below).
The state produced 2 million tons in that one year, compared to 3.4 million tons during
the entire previous century. In Jackson, however, only a few small mines operated into the
early 20th century, and they produced only for local consumption.
Jacksons abandoned mines filled with water. People dumped rocks and dirt into the
shafts and covered them with timbers. Open flooded mines froze in the winter providing
children with skating ponds. Mine buildings were razed of left vacant, eventually
succumbing to fire or the weather. Equipment rusted.
In 1952, Michigans last coal mine-located in Saginaw
County-closed. In over a century of production Michigan mine had produced approximately 46
million tons of coal.
Today, over 300 million tons of coal remain beneath the Lower
Peninsula. An open-pit mine operated briefly in Ingham County in the mid-1970s, and in the
early 1980s mining operations leased thousands of acres of former coal mines in
anticipation of strip mining coal left behind by earlier operations. But the drop in coal
prices halted production before it began, and thus, current production of coal in Michigan
is essentially nil.
Some of the images and text on this page were taken from various issues
of Michigan History magazine.
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