Annual Report for ... with Accompanying Papers 
By Iowa Geological Survey 
Published for the Iowa Geological Survey, 1909 



[pages 525-528]

Various sources have been utilized in the preparation of the following notes. A large part of the information has been gained by interviews and correspondence with the men who have been instrumental in the development of the industry, or from those who have seen its growth. The reports of the present Survey, as well as those of previous ones, have been used, as have also other publications of various kinds. No claim is made for the completeness of the history; only such salient facts are given as could be gathered together in the time at the writer's disposal. The accompanying data and tables on the production of coal in Iowa, prepared by Dr. S. W. Beyer, will, be 'found useful in illustrating the growth of the state's most important mineral industry.

So far as can be learned the first mining of any consequence in Iowa was done about 1840. The early settlers in many cases knew of the existence of coal beds but wood was so plentiful and offered so many advantages in the way of convenience and cleanliness that there was no inducement for using the less cleanly supply of fuel stored underground. In many cases coal was considered merely as a curiosity to be laid on the mantel. At about the date mentioned, however, the demand for coal had become great enough so that mines were opened in the eastern part of the state and within the next twenty years the industry had gained a foothold, although still a somewhat precarious one, over practically all the productive area of the state.

Van Buren County. Mr. Jacob P. Alfrey of Farmington, Van Buren county, who was the first white child born in Iowa, is authority for the statement that the first mine opened up in the vicinity of Farmington was operated by Lem Brattain in 1840. He ran the mine for a few years and then sold out to Samuel Knight who conducted the business until 1848 or 1850. During most of the period of Mr. Knight's operations there was no railroad into Farmington and hence his market was chiefly local. Some coal, however, was hauled as far as Keokuk by team. The steamboats which came up the Des Moines also used large quantities. The coal was of excellent quality and much desired for steam purposes. Mr. Knight finally sold his mine to the New York Coal Company who operated here for about twenty years. This firm worked the mine on quite an extensive scale for those days. From forty to fifty men were employed and the mine was connected by a switch with the Des Moines Valley railroad, which has since become part of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. In those days miners were paid about five cents per bushel for mining and the coal sold at the mine for from $2.00 to $2.50 per ton. During the fiscal year of 1854- '55 about 100,000 bushels of coal were raised in the Farmington district. This had an average value at the mines of six and one-fourth cents per bushel. At the Mississippi river markets it retailed at eighteen to twenty cents per bushel, or $4.50 to $5.00 per ton.

About the same time, during the later 40 's, coal was taken from' mines owned by Senator Eliab Doud, near the present town of Douds. The mines were managed by Mr. Van Side, who was an intelligent and enterprising mine operator, and coal was supplied to the steamers running up the Des Moines river.

In 1856 Alexander Findlay opened up the first mine in the Douds district to be operated on a large scale. This was a slope mine located northeast of Douds. It was run for several years and later shafts were sunk in the same vicinity. Before this time there had been a number of small openings in the hillsides, the first of which were opened about 1846 or '48. They were operated only during the winter months to supply the local demand. Alex. Findlay 's business was carried on by his son Hugh, who after the exhaustion of the old mines at Business Corners sank a shaft in 1892, about a mile and a half to the northwest: This was operated to supply the railroad chutes at Douds until it caught fire three years ago. Since then another shaft has been sunk. The Findlays have also done some mining near Cedar creek, three miles north of Birmingham. Mines have been run in this vicinity ever since.

When Dr. D. D. Owen made his studies in Iowa in 1849 he found quite a number of banks opened in various parts of the county. He states that the coal esteemed the best by the blacksmiths in the neighborhood of Bentonsport was that from Jackson's bank.

Worthen mentions several mines as being in operation when he visited Van Buren county in 1857. Among these were the Cox and the Martin banks north and northwest of Hillsboro, and several along the Des Moines river near Iowaville, a town which has since gone by the names of Independent and Selma. He states that one of the Hillsboro mines was working a seven-foot vein divided by ten inches of slate. According to this author the best coal came from Business Corners and Iowaville and was mined from the "second seam."

Another mine near Farmington was opened in 1844 by Mr. Slaughter. Ten years later- James Alfrey opened up the Alfrey mine which has been operated more or less up to the present time. At present there are five mines working in this district and about thirty men are employed.

In 1892 the Ratcliffe Coal Co. opened a mine one mile north of Douds and operated it about four years. They then abandoned this and worked one over at Business Corners, about a mile southeast. After working this out they returned to their former location and sank a new shaft adjacent to the old one. This is still in operation and is at present supplying coal to the local chutes of the Rock Island at Douds.

The Felmlee Coal Co. opened a shaft mine near the Findlay mine about four years ago and ship some coal from their mine.

When C. A. White inspected this region in 1868 he found that the McHugh mine at Independent had been running a long time and that there were other mines in the same locality which were supplying a local trade. In addition there were local mines in operation near Keosauqua which had been worked for many years previously. There were also several mines near Bentonsport. The Farmington mines had been operated extensively to supply Keokuk and other markets.

It will be seen that coal has been mined in nearly all parts of Van Buren county, but as this shares with the other marginal areas of the Lower Coal Measures the pockety character of the coal basins the county has not been able to keep to the front in the keen competition of recent years. After the Civil war the price of coal and the wages paid were about the same as at present. About ten cents per bushel or $2.50 per ton was the selling price at the mine and if a certain amount was sold a tax was laid on the output. Near Fairfield wages were sometimes as high as $2.00 per ton, owing to a bad vein, but near Douds the price was about $1.00, as at present. After the panic of '93, however, prices dropped until coal was mined for three and one-half to less than three cents per bushel, or ninety to seventy-five cents per ton, and sold as low as $1.25 per ton. In the Farmington district the current wage for mining is eighty-five cents and the selling price $3.00 per ton, delivered.

Miners at Douds are chiefly American and British. All of the Van Buren mines have been very simply equipped. Mule haulage and gin hoist has been the extent to which they have gone with one or two exceptions. In this they resemble most of the mines of the eastern coal counties. The beds are too local in extent and the market too limited to warrant much expenditure of labor or capital. As in other localities also much of the early supply of coal was obtained by stripping as well as by drifts. Shaft mines are shallow, ranging from thirty to seventy feet in depth.

Annual Report for ... with Accompanying Papers
By Iowa Geological Survey
Published by Published for the Iowa Geological Survey, 1909
Item notes: v. 19

Transcribed by Rich Lowe for the
Van Buren County IAGenWeb Project