Mining: Anthracite v. Bituminous Mining

Table of Contents

Anthracite (or “hard” coal), clean and smokeless, became the preferred fuel in cities, replacing wood by about 1850. The rich Pennsylvania anthracite fields were close to the Eastern cities, and a few major railroads like the Reading Railroad controlled the anthracite fields. Anthracite from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Coal Region (and later from West Virginia) was typically used for household uses because it is a high quality coal with few impurities and stoves and furnaces were designed for it. By 1840, hard coal output had passed the million-short ton mark, and then quadrupled by 1850.

Bituminous (or “soft coal”) mining came later. In the mid-century Pittsburgh was the principal market. After 1850 soft coal, which is cheaper but dirtier, came into demand for railway locomotives and stationary steam engines, and was used to make coke for steel after 1870.

In 1914 at the peak of mining there were 180,000 anthracite miners; by 1970 only 6,000 remained. At the same time steam engines were phased out in railways and factories, and bituminous was used primarily for the generation of electricity. Employment in bituminous peaked at 705,000 men in 1923, falling to 140,000 by 1970 and 70,000 in 2003. Environmental restrictions on high-sulfur coal, and the rise of very large-scale strip mining in the west, caused the sharp decline in underground mining after 1970. UMW membership among active miners fell from 160,000 in 1980 to only 16,000 in 2005, as coal mining became more mechanized and non-union miners predominated in the new coal fields. The American share of world coal production remained steady at about 20% from 1980 to 2005.

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