On November 8, 1810, the first recorded load of Illinois coal reached the market in New Orleans. The event may sound ordinary, but it represented a significant pivot in state history. Coal would go on to become an important business, particularly over the next 100-plus years, drawing immigrants of all kinds, helping to build towns, and diversifying the economy. Mines also provided battlegrounds for disputes between laborers and ownership and, as grimly, between factions of striking white workers and black strikebreakers, particularly at Virden and not long after at Pana; and during the 1922 Herrin Massacre.
Though the state’s shorthand history always mentions that outsiders moved to Illinois in search of farmland, the coal deposits underneath that farmland had actually attracted attention from the French in the late 1600s.
Bluffs near Murphysboro provided that first New Orleans-bound flatboat of coal. Early on, St. Clair County, fortuitously within carting distance of St. Louis, was a center for coal mining. By 1840, nineteen Illinois counties had coal mines, with strip mining a particularly popular (i.e. cheap, low-tech) method of extraction in counties—Fulton, Vermilion, Perry, and St. Clair among them—lucky enough to have seams of surface coal. The industry powered the expansion of Danville, Decatur, Peoria, and dozens of other towns and cities downstate. Meanwhile, the large Chicago and Wilmington Coal Company near Braidwood sent much of its annual haul of 230,000 tons of coal, much of it mined by Scottish and English immigrants, to keep the lights on in Chicago.
Coal mining became a harder dollar as mining efforts exhausted the coal nearest the surface. Though Illinois still boasts the third-largest reserves in the United States, much of the 200 billion tons of coal either sits under towns or cannot be extracted in any profitable way. Illinois coal also tends to have a high sulfur content that makes it too “dirty” for modern environmental laws.