Mining: Pre-World War II Mechanization & the Decline of Coal

Table of Contents

Since its introduction, coal mining has played an intricate role in the economic stability of those who mined the coal itself and in turn the economic stability of the United States. This changed with the mechanization of the industry beginning in the early 1900s. Within the first forty years of the twentieth century, there was an increase of over sixty percent in the amount of coal that was loaded mechanically as opposed to by way of man power. This statistic clearly demonstrates that with the advent of mechanized mining, over time, less and less manual labor would be needed in the industry.

As this trend continued, the economic backbone of the coal-based economy that supported the miners began to crumble under their feet. As the miners began to see their livelihood being ripped from their hands, resistance to mechanization grew. As noted in historian Keith Dix’s article, “What’s a Coal Miner to Do?” one of the first machines to arrive at West Virginia’s Kanawha field had to be escorted by a group of armed guards. Dix also goes on to say that “The same machine introduced at a mine in Illinois was operated at a slow speed because the superintendent feared labor troubles.”

Mechanization of the US coal industry in the early 1900s put many miners out of work. In the first forty years of the twentieth century, the amount of coal that was loaded mechanically rather than manually increased more than sixty percent. Resistance to mechanization grew as the miners saw their livelihood threatened.

Despite resistance, mechanization replaced more and more manual laborers. For example, by 1940, almost seventy percent of coal loaded in West Virginia was done by machine. With the increase of mechanization came hard times for the former miners and their families. Many miners migrated to the Midwest to work in industrial areas such as Cleveland or Columbus, Ohio. Others moved further, to the rapidly growing Florida.

Eventually resistance of the miners was trumped by progress and mechanization gradually replaced more and more manual laborers. For example, by 1940, almost seventy percent of coal being loaded in West Virginia, one of the largest coal producing states at the time, was being loaded by machine.

With the increase of mechanization in the mining industry came hard times for the former miners and their families. With no place to turn for a steady income, and fearing the inevitable debt brought on by the exploitive scrip-based system put in place by mining companies, miners were forced to move to more urbanized areas and find steady jobs where they would be able to earn a living that could support their wives and children.

While economic prosperity brought on by the coming of the Second World War would eventually pull America and its former mine workers out of economic depression and presumably into the expanding middle class, the initial pre-WWII mechanization of the American coal mining industry without a doubt changed the life of the American coal miner forever.

As oil and its associated fuels began to be used as an alternative to coal from post WWII onward. By the late 20th century coal was for the most part replaced in domestic, industrial and transportation usage by oil, natural gas or electricity produced from oil, gas, nuclear or renewable energy sources. Coal remains an important energy source, due to its low cost and abundance when compared to other fuels, particularly for electricity generation. Although, claims that coal is the cheapest energy source in the United States often do not take into account these “externalized costs”. When they are not factored in, coal remains the cheapest energy source by a factor of 50% and even in many economies (such as U.S.) it is the primary fuel used in electricity generation.

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3 Responses

  1. Good article!! Hope to visit again.

  2. Excellent article. I am using it in my research as an example of robotics displacing man.

  3. I got this site from my pal who informed me on the topic of this
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