Coal was discovered in Southeastern Kansas even before the arrival of Caucasian settlers. The Indians that lived here knew that they could burn "black rocks" to make a fire when no wood was available (The Pittsburg Headlight-Sun, March 10, 1967, p.10B). Indeterminate amounts of coal were scavenged by the Indians, as well as by the first settlers who arrived between 1835 and 1850. Settlers also used pick-axes, sledge-hammers, pry bars, and shovels to break coal from outcrops (Matthews, 1968 and 1969).
The demand for coal for fuel and blacksmithing grew as more settlers arrived during the 1850s and 1860s, and the pioneers developed the first "gopher hole" mines. These so-called "gopher holes" were simply tunnels made directly into hillsides, which varied from three to 300 feet in length (Schoewe, p.211-212). Tree branches were cut and used for supports. Pioneers also conducted a rudimentary form of strip mining in which scrapers and plows pulled by teams of horses or mules were used to remove overburden from coal seams near the surface. Coal was then picked up and loaded by hand into wagons for removal. These first primitive strip mines probably employed several hundred people.
More and more settlers continued to come to the area, and the demand for coal grew along with the population. Therefore, it was necessary to develop more efficient methods of mining. The first underground shaft mine was completed in 1874 near the town of Scammon. A vertical hole or shaft was dug to the level of the coal seam, and then tunnels were excavated laterally. Hundreds of similar shaft mines were opened throughout the Cherokee-Crawford area during the late 1800's and early 1900's. The readily available employment attracted not only native-born miners from states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but also European-born miners from Italy, Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, England, France, and Scotland. Large numbers of these immigrants were housed in company-owned camps near the mouths of the shafts.
The development of the coal-mining industry led to the expansion of many other area industries. Several major railroads, including the Frisco, Santa Fe, and Missouri-Pacific, laid tracks through the area in order to transport coal to commercial markets. Lead and zinc smelters also operated near the coal fields. Industries which manufactured or repaired tools needed by the miners also expanded. Retail stores, as well as agricultural producers, benefitted from the large employee population.
The last major mining venture began around 1877, when a small steam shovel began to operate near Pittsburg. This mechanized strip mining did not threaten the prosperity of the shaft mines until the advent of the electrically powered shovel in 1918. The electrically powered shovel slowly replaced the steam shovel, and larger and larger electric shovels were brought to the area. In 1940, the Cherokee-Crawford coal field had the largest electrically-powered shovel in the world. These large shovels continued to operate through the early 1970's.
Coal production reached its peak in the Cherokee-Crawford field in 1914, and slowly declined thereafter. During the 1920's and 30's, shaft mining was adversely affected by labor conflicts, the Great Depression, and the emergence of mechanized strip mining. Mine camps were abandoned, and railroads were withdrawn. The last shaft mine in Cherokee County closed in 1955, and in Crawford County in 1960. Hereafter, mechanized strip mining was the only type of mining conducted in the area.
Strip mining continued through the early 1970's, when all mining operations finally ceased. The mining industry was responsible for the destruction of thousands of acres in Cherokee and Crawford county, and changed the landscape forever. Today, many of the trenches created by mechanized strip mining have filled with water, creating linear strip-pit lakes. The water in many of these lakes is extremely acidic because of the decomposition of mine waste materials, and many area streams have been polluted. Mandatory supervised mine reclamation was been enforced by the state and federal governments since 1969, but many environmental problems still remain.