Coal Mining

Coal lands in the public domain were governed by special legislation and were not subject to the same right of location as hard rock and petroleum deposits. In 1866 Congress determined that tracts of land embracing coal beds were to be sold to the highest bidder at $20 an acre. In 1873 Congress limited purchase amounts to 160 acres for individuals, 320 for associations, and 640 for associations who had already spent at least $5,000 in improving a coal mine. This law set the stage for railroad ownership of Utah's coal lands. This in turn led to the development of mining camps where mine safety and labor unrest became issues of ongoing concern for State government. (See sources used in compiling this research guide. See series holdings.)

Ownership of Coal Lands

Coal was not commercially mined in Utah until after the coming of the railroad because of the difficulty of transporting it by wagon. The first commercial company, Pleasant Valley Coal Company, opened a mine at Winter Quarters in 1875. Since coal mining and the railroads were highly interdependent, the Union Pacific and the Denver and Rio Grande Western competed to own the tracks and control the rich coal fields of eastern Utah. Through 'dummy' entries the Denver and Rio Grande Western was able to purchase extensive coal lands, and in 1887 their subsidiary, the Utah Fuel Company, consolidated with the Pleasant Valley Coal Company to form a monopoly on coal mining in Utah. Nineteen years later (1906) successful litigation over the Denver and Rio Grande Western's illegal purchase of coal lands broke up the monopoly and allowed new companies to enter the market.

Mine Safety

The Pleasant Valley Coal Company, Utah Fuel, and subsequently incorporated independent coal companies built mining camps such as Scofield, Clear Creek, Castle Gate, Sunnyside, Kenilworth, and Hiawatha. The coal companies held paternalistic control over the mine workers, not only by dictating wages and working conditions, but also by forcing mine workers to live in company housing and shop at the company store. Most mine workers were immigrants from countries such as Finland, Italy, Greece and Mexico. Coal miners faced numerous challenges, but the coal company's disregard for safety was a chief complaint. In 1896 the Territorial Assembly addressed this issue by passing laws to regulate mine safety and appointing a coal mine inspector to see that safety regulations were carried out. Problems with mine safety persisted. In addition to numerous accidents involving one or a few individuals, mining explosions killed 200 at Winter Quarters in 1900, and 172 at Castle Gate in 1924. While no statewide effort was organized to assist dependents of Winter Quarters disaster victims, Governor Charles Mabey organized a relief effort to assist the families of Castle Gate victims. (See online exhibit documenting the Castle Gate Relief Fund Committee.)

Labor Issues

During the early 1900s the labor movement in the United States experienced significant growth. Labor conditions in Utah's coal mines provided fertile ground to support that growth, and national labor organizers helped give Utah's immigrant coal miners a voice. Strikes and threats of strikes plagued the mines for decades. The United Mine Workers of America provided funds and organizers for a strike in 1903, which lasted more than a year. The Utah Fuel Company argued that miners had no real grievances, but were just following outside leadership. They evicted striking miners from company housing and refused to recognize the union. Conflict between miners and the company was exacerbated by prejudice against immigrant groups. The threat of violence prompted Governor Heber M. Wells to call out the National Guard to keep peace in the coal fields. During a similar strike nineteen years later (1922), Governor Charles Mabey once more called out the National Guard to keep peace.

Series Holdings

Several record series at Utah State Archives document the coal mining story. These include:

Bureau of Immigration, Labor and Statistics  
Letterbooks, 1906-1917 Series 1267
Reports, 1895-1915 Series 1268
Castle Gate Relief Fund  
Committee case files, 1924-1936 Series 19626
Correspondence, 1924-1936 Series 19423
Financial statements, 1924-1936 Series 19625
Minutes, 1924-1936 Series 1207
Reports, 1924-1936 Series 19624
Inspector of Coal and Hydrocarbon Mines  
Administrative records, 1898-1915 Series 23010
Biennial Reports, 1896-1916 Series 83919
Correspondence, 1898-1916 Series 1283
Letter books, 1896-1915 Series 23009
Record book, 1896-1912 Series 1284
Reports, 1898-1904; 1914-1916 Series 23008
State Board of Equalization and Assessment  
Mine net proceeds returns, 1900-1918 Series 2439
State Planning Board  
Mining Studies, 1929-1941 Series 1175
Utah. Governor (1917-1921: Bamberger)  
Coal shortage investigation records, 1917 Series 21962
Additional records may be located in Governor's papers at the time period in which events occurred.
Utah National Guard  
Adjutant General's records, 1895-1965 Series 6308
Carbon County coal strike records, 1903-1904; 1909 Series 6306
Carbon County Firearms Confiscation Correspondence, 1922-1931 Series 10113
Utah State Tax Commission. Property Tax Division
Natural resources annual property returns, 1910-ongoing Series 2476
Natural resources assessment records, 1909- Series 2496
Occupation tax and net proceeds returns, 1938-1986 Series 14266

Sources used in compiling this research guide:

Alexander, Thomas G. "From Dearth to Deluge: Utah's Coal Industry," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1963). Pp. 235-247.

"An Act for the Disposal of Coal Lands and of Town Property in the Public Domain" (July 1, 1864). The Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations, of the United States of America, vol. XIII. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1868.

"An Act to provide for the Sale of the Lands of the United States containing Coal" (March 3, 1873). The Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations, of the United States of America, vol. XIV. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1873.

Laws of Utah, 1896. "An Act for the protection of the Lives of Coal Miners, the Appointment of a Coal Mine Inspector. . ." Chapter 13, pp. 346-352.

Papanikolas, Helen Z. "Utah's Coal Lands: A Vital Example of How America Became a Great Nation," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring 1975). Pp. 104-124.

Powell, Allan Kent. The Next Time We Strike; Labor in Utah's Coal Fields. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1985.

Watt, Ronald G. A History of Carbon County. Utah Historical Society, 1997.

Page Last Updated August 26, 2002.