The history of coal mining in Utah is one of outside economic domination which has created a distinctive ethnic mix in the central southeastern area of predominantly Mormon Utah. The area was first controlled by major railroads, and, since World War I, increasingly by international energy companies.
However, Utah’s coal industry began under the aegis of the LDS Church, which reserved valuable local timber for building lumber, not fuel. This helped create demand for coal that was emphasized when the 1854 territorial legislature offered a cash prize (apparently never collected) for the first usable coal deposits found within forty miles of Salt Lake City. Initial discoveries ranged farther afield, usually in conjunction with infant iron industries encouraged by the Saints’ drive toward self-sufficiency. From the 1850s through the 1870s several coal prospects opened: one in the southwestern corner of the state, others in centrally located Sanpete County, and one at Coalville, Summit County, forty miles from Salt Lake City. The Mormons built a connecting railroad to the Coalville deposit, which (along with most other Mormon railroads) was quickly acquired by the Union Pacific (UP) after it entered Utah Territory in 1869. The UP then monopolized Utah’s coal supply. Its only completion came from wagon mines or “country banks,” where farmers would drive a wagon up to an exposed vein and load enough for their personal needs.
The UP’s monopolistic practices prompted Utah’s Mormons to cheer the construction of the competing Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW or Rio Grande), built from 1881 to 1883. This new railroad traversed the foot of the Book Cliffs, soon discovered to be Utah’s richest coal deposit. In 1881 a railroad geologist pinpointed a deposit suitable for locomotive fuel which soon became the Castle Gate Mine. In 1882 the D&RGW acquired the Pleasant Valley Coal Company and Railroad, founded by Sanpete Mormons in 1875. It completed its Book Cliffs coal and transportation combination with the acquisition of Sunnyside–the only Utah deposit of quality coking coal (a derivative used in smelting) in 1899.
However, this impressive industrial growth proceeded in the face of three major challenges. The first was labor. Most railroad workers were immigrants, lured by labor agents with false promises of wealth from Italy, China, Finland, Greece, the Balkans, Japan, and Mexico. Often brought in as strikebreakers, most remained, eventually joined the union, and helped give the area its distinctive ethnic mix. Miners complained about short weights (the basis for their pay); the necessity of living in company town and trading at the company store (where appreciably higher prices prevailed); safety concerns (in which the company was consistently exonerated by a pro-business judiciary); and the need for company recognition of the union. All these complaints led to repeated strikes.
The first local labor disturbance took place at Scofield (Winter Quarters) in 1883, a year after the D&RGW took control; this was followed by an 1899 walkout on the eve of Sunnyside’s opening. The recurrent demand for safer working conditions proved especially poignant as terrific explosions shook the Utah coal fields, beginning with the horrific Scofield Mine Disaster of 1900 in which approximately 200 men and boys were killed. There was a strike in 1901, followed by another unsuccessful miners’ attempt to gain the protection of a national union in 1903-04. A localized strike shook Kenilworth, Utah’s first independent mine, in 1910; and Utah’s coal miners joined another national strike in 1922. However, management prevailed, and local miners had to suffer another terrific loss of life in the Castle Gate Explosion of 1924, despite repeated warnings and basic safety practices initiated by the state coal mine inspector. Unionization by the United Mine Workers of America and the end of major abuses was finally achieved only after another national strike in 1933.
The second threat to railroad hegemony was legal. Until the passage of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, United States law allowed a maximum coal land ownership of 640 acres. This unrealistic amount was regularly exceeded through the use of “dummy” entrymen and the abuse of the state selections process. Federal trust-busting litigation against the Rio Grand consortium in 1906 through 1912 resulted in an out-of-court settlement that confirmed the land titles of the railroad and its subsidiaries, the Pleasant Valley Coal Company and the Utah Fuel Company. Several “independent” (non-railroad affiliated) developers, who had began new coal operations on the assumption that the Book Cliffs railroad-coal monopoly was over, were also indicted. The independents’ developments included mines initiated by brothers Arthur and Frederick Sweet, first at Kenilworth (near Castle Gate) and later on the Black Hawk vein in southwestern Carbon County, which proved a developers’ magnet from 1910 to 1917. A case involving the latter area still stands as the national precedent for state selection of mineral lands (U.S. v. Sweet, 245 U.S. 563 ).
The richness of the Book Cliffs areas attracted other developers. Mormon businessman “Uncle” Jesse Knight began work in the Spring Canyon district in 1912, where several others followed in the period up through World War I. This burgeoning growth–and later bust–exemplified the third challenge to the Utah coal industry: periodic production cycles triggered by outside economic dislocations. Expansions created by the heightened demands of World War I affected pre-established Book Cliffs areas. Meanwhile, the development of known deposits in Emery County to the south lagged behind because of the lack of railroad transportation.
Despite a nationwide mining depression beginning in the 1920s, a new mine opened east of Sunnyside and the Gordon Creek district also entered production. However, the depression deepened as railroads switched to diesel fuel and homeowners changed to natural gas. A few new owners acquired mines in the thirties to power industries still run on coal. Two decades of depression were relieved only when World War II demands caused Utah coal production to reach its zenith.
However, another economic setback struck Utah coal in the 1950s and 1960s. It was relieved only when the combination of the Arab oil embargo and the original Clean Air Act in the seventies resulted in coal mine acquisition by energy companies which use coal to generate electricity. Utah coal production reached an all-time high in the early 1980s, a trend that has again been reversed.
The recession of the 1990s, exacerbated by environmental concerns and growing mechanization, has increased local unemployment despite fairly steady production levels. The last coal company, Hiawatha, is falling to bulldozers. Paradoxically, Utah coal’s strengthening economic ties to the region and nation have lessened industrial involvement in Utah’s coal district, ending the local reign of “King Coal.”