Mining and the Pocahontas Coalfield

Recently, CONSOL Energy announced it would be open a new mining operation on the Itmann Mine in West Virginia, and I’ve subsequently been fielding reference requests for information about Itmann and other mines in West Virginia. I haven’t spoken much previously about our mine maps in the Pocahontas Mines Collection, Ms2004-002, and this seems like the perfect time. The collection documents the development of the Pocahontas Coal Seam in southwest Virginia an West Virginia by CONSOL Energy, Inc., and its predecessors in the area. I have been working with the collection since late 2014 and several SCUA staff had been involved with it since the collection first arrived in 2004. The collection is a behemoth with 7,000 maps, about 3,000 survey books and ledgers, numerous photographs, and much more. It totals over 600 cubic feet in almost 800 boxes (but it’s not the largest collection I’ve worked on here!) We also have over 3,600 digital files of mine maps and other documents that I’m still creating metadata for! 

Pocahontas Mines Collection at Library Storage Building
A student worker reviews a map from the Pocahontas Mines Collection at Library Storage Building.

When I was processing the collection a few years ago, I was very fortunate to have a student majoring in mining and minerals engineering here at Tech working on the project. Ryan Mair graduated in 2016, but before he left, he drafted a couple of blog posts about the collection, since he had extensive knowledge about it and the mining industry.

One of the blog posts by Ryan Mair, about the Itmann Mines, follows:

Consolidation Coal Company, Southern Appalachia Region Map of Itmann Coal Mines No. 1, 2, & 3. Pocahontas No. 3 Seam. 1983/03/04 Image: Con411.jpeg
Figure 1. Map of Itmann Coal Mines No. 1, 2, & 3, Pocahontas No. 3 Seam, Consolidation Coal Company, Southern Appalachia Region, 1983/03/04, CON411.jpg from the Pocahontas Mines Collection, Ms2004-002.

This map in Figure 1 is a production scheduling map of the Itmann No. 1, 2, & 3 Mines as operated by the Consolidation Coal Company. Maps of this type are used to depict the planned progression of mining operations with respect to a standard unit of time. This particular map progresses each future section of mining by year. The production schedule presented by this map was to start in 1983 and continue until the year 1992. The colored sections of the map represent what year coal production will occur in that area of the mine. the darker blue lines of the map depict the outline of the mine workings underground. Black lines are used to depict the property lease line and surface features, such as the buildings of the preparation plan. 

These mines extracted coal from the No. 3 seam of the famous Pocahontas Coalfield. Coal from the Pocahontas seams was highly sought after because of its rare quality. This coal contains low amounts of sulfur and hydrocarbons known as “volatile matter” and leaves behind less ash material than most other coals. Pocahontas coal was especially prized by the U.S. Navy because it produces high temperatures while emitting little to no visible smoke when burned. Using this type of “smokeless” coal makes it harder to spot coal burning ships on the open sea. During World War II, the majority of coal from the Pocahontas seams were used to fire coal boilers for the U.S. Navy. 

Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using room-and-pillar mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009.
Figure 2. Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using room-and-pillar mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. 000095012310019343/c55409e10vk.htm

The mines depicted in the Itmann map (Figure 1) use two different methods to extract coal from the earth. Mines No. 1 and No. 2 use a conventional method called room and pillar mining, as seen in Figure 2. Room and pillar mining entails the extraction of coal while leaving large columns or “pillars” behind to support the rock overhead which is called the “back”, “roof”, or “top”. The open area left around the pillar is called the “room”. The shape of the pillars is typically that of a square or rectangle. Pillar dimensions vary with every mine design but are are reliant upon the mechanical properties of the coal and the geological stresses present in the mine.

The No. 1 & 2 mines have completed their normal room and pillar mining operations and are recovering coal via a process known as “retreat mining.” Retreat mining is the selective excavation of the pillars to allow a controlled collapse of the mine roof while working towards the mine entrance. Retreat mining is done at the end of the life of a mine when the coal deposit had been depleted through normal room and pillaring. Normal room and pillar coal mines typically recover 40-45% of the coal located within the property. Mining the pillars upon retreat from a room and pillar mine allows operators to increase coal recovery to around 60%. Retreat mining is not always done due to the danger associated with it the unpredictable nature of the roof collapse. By removing selected pillars the mine roof or back is allowed to collapse while additional stress is placed on the remaining pillars. In some cases too much stress can be placed on a pillar. When a pillar reaches its maximum stress and fails, it shatters, sending rock and coal fragments violently through the air followed by the caving of roof around the area where the pillar once stood. This event is known as a pillar “burst” or “bump.” Many miners have died as a result of being near a pillar bump.

Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using longwall mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009.
Figure 3. Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using longwall mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. c55409e10vk.htm

The No. 3 Mine in the northwestern part of the Itmann map (Figure 1) employs some room and pillar mining but its main design employs a method know as “longwall mining”. Longwall mining involves the complete extraction of coal from the working area using a “shearer” or “sled” that mines into a large wall or “face” of coal while moving parallel to that wall. A diagram of this method can be seen in Figure 3. As the machine cuts the coal free from the working face, an armored conveyor running parallel with the face transports the coal away. As the cutting and conveyor system move forward, it leaves the unsupported rock layers above to cave in a controlled manner in an area behind the machine. This caved area of roof rock is call the “gob” or “goaf”.

To protect the longwall mining system and the miners at the working face, numerous large hydraulic shields support the roof near the working face. These shields advance with each pass of the cutting head across the face. Longwall mines have considerably faster production capacities than traditional room and pillar mining but have more delays associated with the step and transportation of the equipment.

A working section of a longwall mine is known as a “panel” and are typically 800-1,500 ft. in width and 9,000-15,000 ft. long. Before mining the panel must be developed by what are called the “bleeder” entries. The bleeders serve to open up a path to the area while providing pathways for the ventilation of fresh air to the area. The bleeders are especially needed in the case of mining coal that contains high amounts of entrapped methane gas which is highly combustible. With the bleeder it is possible to degas or render the gas inert with enough fresh airflow. The pillars in bleeder entries are often called chain pillars and are left intact throughout the life of the mine to protect the ventilation and passageways.

In the northern section of the Itmann map (Figure 1), there are two geologic features that are identified. The two areas shaded in red denote areas where the coal on the property is less than 36 inches thick. Areas of deep underground coal that are less than 36 inches of coal are essentially too thick to mine profitably. Additionally, such areas make it difficult for both miner and machine to maneuver effectively. The second feature, shaded in light blue, is an area of coal with what is called a “parting,” a layer of non-coal rock that formed within the coalbed and parts the coal seam. Partings can be less than one inch to several feet in thickness. Thick partings are areas of coal to avoid when mining since the harder rock of the parting can excessively wear or damage cutting heads and requires more intense processing of the coal material at the surface plant.

Diagram of explosion area of Itmann No. 3 Mine, Itmann, WV, December 16, 1972, from the Historical Summary of Coal Mine Explosions in the United States, 1959-81, by J.K. Richmond, G.C. Price, M.J. Sapko, and E.M. Kawenski, Bureau of Mines Information Circular 8909, 1983.
Figure 4. Diagram of explosion area of Itmann No. 3 Mine, Itmann, WV, December 16, 1972, from the Historical Summary of Coal Mine Explosions in the United States, 1959-81, by J.K. Richmond, G.C. Price, M.J. Sapko, and E.M. Kawenski, Bureau of Mines Information Circular 8909, 1983.

The Itmann No. 3 mine shown in this map (Figure 1) was the scene of a mine disaster in December 1972. On December 16th, 1972, eight day shift miners had finished their shift and were exiting their working area of the Cabin Creek 4-Panel via an electrically powered rail car known as a portal bus (Figure 4). Unbeknownst to the miners, highly explosive methane gas had built up in the section. While in motion the portal bus trolley wire harp, which transfers electricity from the trolley wire to the portal bus, briefly disconnected from the wire. Such disconnections are common and are part of the design of the system but often result in an electrical sparking. Within the first 1,000 ft of the miners’ journey out of the mine just such an electrical spark occurred. This electrical sparking caused the ignition of the surrounding methane gas and propagated into a explosive wave. The blast wave and flames killed five miners instantly and seriously burned the other three. The blast force was also strong enough to blow out 14 permanent stoppings of cinderblock construction in the section.


Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute: 1915

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is, geographically speaking, a large entity. We have campuses in multiple locations, research centers throughout the state, and Virginia Cooperative Extension (which includes 107 county and city offices, 11 agricultural research and Extension centers, and six 4-H educational centers). Here in Blacksburg, there are more than 135 buildings, an airport, acres of land, and a LOT of people. But, of course, it didn’t always used to be this way. In 1872, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College started with one building (the former Preston and Olin Institute) and around 250 acres of land purchased from “Solitude” owner, Robert Taylor Preston. By March of 1915, a little over 100 years ago, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute had grown…

Map of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 1915
Map of Main Campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, March 5, 1915 (click on the image for a larger version)

By then, it had 5 dormitories, 2 generic “academic” buildings and several identified academic buildings (Mining Hall, Science Hall, and Agricultural Hall), a library, a mess hall, machine and wood shops, a hot house, an administration building, a field house/track, and several utility buildings. This map, however, is also dotted with 19 private residences of faculty members, employees, and administrators. [Joseph Eggleston, then president of the university, lived in the Grove, which was completed in 1902, but it doesn’t appear on this map. It would be just off the south/south-east edge.] Most of these houses were on either side of the current Drillfield and this area was called “faculty row.”

If you look at this map in the modern age, some things may seem a little familiar: the old dormitory buildings are pretty much in the same location as the current Upper Quad (which has some neat history of its own); the current library building is on the site of the old one (#35 on the map); and the Agricultural Hall is the approximate site of the current Ag Quad. At the same time, there have certainly been some major changes: “Faculty row” houses have been replaced by academic buildings on one side of the Drillfield and dorms on the other; Miles Field is gone, replaced by a much larger athletics region a little further out; and the old Infirmary (#34) would be somewhere under Squires today. It’s all a matter of give and take over time, as our campus has continued to make way for what’s new.

Given the change of the last 100 years (and in the 43 years before that), it’s hard not to ask: What will happen in the next 100 years at Virginia Tech? Whatever happens, it’s bound to be exciting!

Exploring Virginia and America Through Time (with Maps!)

When determining a topic for this week’s blog post, I discovered very little has been written about Special Collections’ historical maps. We have over 800 individual maps along with special map collections, such as the Robert Holman Map Collection and the Pocahontas Mines Collection. (We are currently working on the Pocahontas Mines Collection of over 7,000 maps and will have posts devoted to it in the future, so keep an eye out!) The maps primarily document Virginia and the Appalachian region from the 18th to 20th centuries. But the maps I’d like to share with you date to the days of European colonization and American independence.

The above map, “Virginiæ partis australis, et Floridæ partis orientalis, interjacentiumque regionum Nova Descriptio”, is a reproduction of Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu’s 1640 map of the North American coast from Florida to Virginia. Marked in the upper right corner is “Chesapeak” or Chesapeake Bay and towards center left are the “Apalatcy” or Appalachian Mountains. The map also identifies different American Indian tribes, such as the Houstaqua – probably the Yustaga people of the Florida Panhandle – and the Powhatans of Virginia. The back of the map discusses Florida, showing that the map was once part of a Latin language atlas.

This map, “Virginiæ Partis australis, et Floridæ partis orientalis, interjacentiumque regionum Nova Descriptio”, is a reproduction of a map in Arnoldus Montanus’ De Nieuwe en onbekend Weereld, published in 1671 by Jacob Meurs. When compared against Blaeu’s map, very little has changed in the description of the land, although the visual depictions are fuller and more colorful.

Jump forward to 1784, and you get this more detailed, albeit less visually arresting, depiction of North America east of the Mississippi River. This reproduction identifies the boundaries of the United States as defined by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War. Like the other maps above, this one identifies American Indian tribes, but it includes new landmarks, cities, and states, showing how the changing political and cultural landscapes affect cartographic description.

As I mentioned, these are just a few out of hundreds of maps held by Special Collections. If you’d like to peruse more, check out those we’ve digitized and put up online or come in to the reading room and take a look at them yourself!

Montgomery County (Virginia): A 1784 Land Survey

Montgomery County, Virginia, wasn’t always what it is today. It used to be much, much, MUCH larger. A 1784 land survey in our collections show a portion of it that reached as far as Ohio, at one time.

Ms2011-023, Land Survey, Montgomery County, Virginia, 1784
Ms2011-023, Land Survey, Montgomery County, Virginia, 1784

The text at the top reads as follows:

I certifee that this is a Draught of thirty two thousand acres of Land Surveyed for M. Levi Hollingsworth merchant of Philadelphia in the year 1784, situate on Guyandotte river which falls into the ohio river between the great Ranhaway river, and the Caintucky river, on warrants and orders of Survey  (?) from the Land office of Virginia, which warrants with a draught of each thousand acres, and numbered as set down in this draught are returned to the Register Generals office for the said State of Virginia, that the said thirty two thousand acres are surveyed in thirty two Tracts of one thousand acres each in the manner herein delineated, that the whole of the titles are Indisputable. This Land is situated in a most agreeable Climate about thirty nine degrees north Latitude, is fertil well Timbered and waters, and produces many kind of grove(?). Tobaco, Hemp Peas. The river that passes through the Land is navagable into the Ohio, from which all produce can be taken to the best marketts by water, this Country abounds in fish and fowl, and is situated near that (?) and fertile settlement of Caintucky. that Tract of Land is well Timbered with Oak, Hickory, Walnut ash yew, is covered with under growth with Cain and pappaw, and is well watered with (?) (?) Springs.

In actuality, this land covers part of what we would now consider West Virginia. The Guyandotte River breaks away from the Ohio River at the border near Huntington, WV, not far from the Kentucky border. It’s not all that close to our modern Montgomery County, but it does show us how the name, location, and identity of a place can change dramatically with the growth of a nation.

You can read more about this land survey and then-owner of the property, Levi Hollingsworth, in the finding aid online. And if you’d like to see and learn more about historic Montgomery County, we have maps, books, and manuscripts that just might interest you. Feel free to stop by!