Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.
Commercial coal mining, which was underway in Chesterfield County by 1730, comprised not only the county’s first true industrial development but also the first such operations undertaken in North America. Coal was first discovered in Chesterfield during the early 1700’s near Manakin Town, a French Huguenot settlement. Later, several French Huguenot families such as the Trabues, Salles, Ammonettes and DuVals operated coal pits near Falling Creek and the James River. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, stated that the quality of Chesterfield’s coal was excellent. Eventually, mine workers settled in the vicinity of Midlothian, responding to the opportunity for employment in Chesterfield County’s coal pits. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century a number of private coal pits were operating on a commercial scale. Miners immigrated to Chesterfield from Wales, England and Scotland and the Heths, who were English investors, opened coal pits in the county. The Wooldridge family was among the first to undertake coal mining in the Midlothian area and it was likely that the mining community got its name.
During the Revolutionary War, Chesterfield County’s coal pits supplied the cannon factory at Westham (near Richmond) with fuel that was used in making shot and shells for the Continental Army. In 1781, British General Phillips and his men entered Chesterfield County; marched to the courthouse, which they set ablaze; and then continued on to destroy the county’s coal pits. This act attests to the importance of Chesterfield’s coal mining industry in the war for American independence. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the largest concentration of mines in the Richmond Coal Basin (a geological formation that extends across several counties, to the west of the James River’s fall line) was in the Midlothian area. The largest coal mines in the Midlothian area during the late eighteenth century were the Black Heath pits, which were opened in ca. 1788.
Coal mining quickly emerged as Chesterfield’s most important industry, enabling the county’s citizens to lobby successfully for publicly supported transportation systems. In 1802 Chesterfield’s coal manufacturers and residents petitioned the General Assembly for permission to construct a turnpike between Manchester and Falling Creek, using part of the old Buckingham Road. The thoroughfare was opened to travelers in 1804 and was the first lengthy road in Virginia to have a graveled surface.
Chesterfield County’s first railroad, which began operating in 1831, was the second commercial railroad to be built in the United States. It was a 13 mile long mule-and-gravity powered line that connected the Midlothian coal mines with wharves that were located at Manchester. The Chesterfield Railroad was supplanted by the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which reached Midlothian in 1850. The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad (chartered in 1836), the Winterpock railroad (chartered in 1840 to haul coal from southwestern Chesterfield’s mining district to the Appomattox River) and other rail lines were built to several coal pits. The Richmond and Danville Railroad, chartered in 1848, was in operation by 1849. Its tracks cut across the northwestern part of the county, passing through Coalfield (Midlothian).
During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Chesterfield County’s coal mines reached the pinnacle of their importance, thanks to modernized production techniques. By 1825, the Black heath, Railey, Stone Henge, Cunliffe, Wooldridge, Maiden Head and Union mines were producing a million bushels of coal annually. Industrial development in the northern United States provided markets for Chesterfield coal, as did local manufactories such as the Bellona Foundry, established in 1810. There were seven or eight major mines in the Midlothian area by 1835, where production reached an estimated 75,000 tons of coal annually. The most important of these enterprises was the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company. These mining facilities employed a large number of men (both black and white), whose pay infused a sizeable sum of money into the local economy.
Some mines, such as the Creek Company’s Green Hole pits, were worked by company-owned slaves; most mines, however, depended upon a combination of hired slaves, whites, and free blacks. The coal mining industry prospered during the 1840’s and 50’s and it was during these decades that Midlothian grew into one of the largest settlements in Chesterfield County. Henry Howe, who visited the Midlothian mines in the summer of 1843, described not only their productiveness, but the strangeness of the underground labyrinths in which the miners worked. He estimated the daily output of all of Chesterfield’s mines at approximately 250 tons.
During the mid-1850’s, the mines in the Midlothian area were rocked with a series of explosions that claimed many lives and caused earth tremors over a several mile radius. Such incidents caused an exodus of workers from the Midlothian mines and alarmed the local population. Sometimes, the earth beneath standing structures was undermined to the point that cave-ins occurred.
When war broke out between North and South in 1861, Chesterfield County’s coal industry was stimulated, for the fossil fuel was sorely needed by the Confederacy’s defense industry, especially in the Tredegar Iron Works, which produced heavy ordnance. Although the Union Army marched up the Buckingham Road and through Midlothian in May, 1864, intending to destroy the county’s railroads and prevent reinforcements from reaching the embattled Confederates at Drewry’s Bluff, no combat is known to have occurred in the immediate vicinity of the Mid-Lothian Coal Mining Company’s property. After the fall of Richmond, 100 troops of the 9th Vermont Infantry were detailed to guard the Midlothian mines and encamped in the vicinity of the Railey Hill pits for about a month. One of the 9th Vermont’s officers, who occupied the home of the mine superintendent, reportedly etched his name in a window pane in the parlor.
By the beginning of America's entry into World War II following December 7, 1941 sneak (now called pre-emptive) attack on American naval forces in harbor at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ... Western Pennsylvania coal miners, their sons, nephews and grandsons may have numbered half million strong to generate coal fired energy for the next 20 years at least.
Indeed, coal miners born in the generation of men like Lewis Martin and William Atkins generated the massive tons needed to enterprises, fuel homes, railroad trains, and ships; and certainly their loins generated at least a hundred thousand young men for America's fighting forces during World War II and the Korean War.