Lignite coal made homesteading possible in frigid winter weather in western North Dakota. The region had little timber to heat with, and in the early 1900s, lignite was the main fuel. This coal, considered low-grade, less efficient than the medium-grade bituminous coal or the hard top-grade anthracite in other parts of the US, saved many from freezing to death. But obtaining the coal in mining operations caused deaths, too.
The earliest commercial lignite coal mine in North Dakota was in 1873 in Morton County (Bismarck area.) Steamboats and railroads used lignite to power their steam engines. By 1900, there were 70 mines in North Dakota. The picture below is the Slater mine in 1906.
(Photo from "Tales of the Might Mountrail," the historical society book of Mountrail County.)
The new coal industry grew fast with little regulation or miners' rights. The Slater mine pictured above, near White Earth, was next to the Great Northern railroad. The owner started with dreams of shipping coal, but the railroad spur did not get built. The workers protested their lack of wages, and in the end, blasted the entrance of the mine.
The Woodworth Mine. (Photo from "Tales of Mighty Mountrail.")
According to my uncle John Niemitalo, The Woodworth Mine was an underground operation near Epworth, southeast of Belden.
In 1920, General William Washburn founded the Wilton Mine, the largest in ND. The Wilton mine had an underground rail system for their "motor train." At this time, half of the mines were underground. Since the geology of the area has no hard rock layers to support the surface ground, these were dangerous. Cave-in's were deadly. By the early 1920s there were 250 lignite mines. Many "coal towns" sprang up then.
In the later 1920s, the steam shovel, used for surface mining, started to replace the underground mines.
This isn't a real clear picture, but it shows a vein of lignite coal on the left. (Photo from "The Tales of Mighty Mountrail.")
In the 1930s, coal had competition from the discovery of oil and natural gas. Demand for coal heat decreased, and many mines shut down.
In the 1970s, fuel shortages brought back the need for lignite. Large electricity-generating plants were built, requiring huge amounts of lignite.
In 1977, a law passed requiring "reclamation" of all surface mining. They pile topsoil separately, and after mining, put the land back as it was.
Today, there are no underground coal mines in North Dakota. The state has 20% of the world's lignite reserves, second only to Australia. The largest mine operating currently (largest in North Dakota, and also in the US) is the Freedom Mine near Beulah. Next largest is the Falkirk Mine near Underwood.
Because lignite has 30-40% water, electricity-generating plants are located next to the mines. (Little profit in hauling water, they say.)
On a personal note, our farm had a small coal mine in the pasture. Dad didn't use it anymore by the time I was around, but my oldest brother Jim remembers digging out coal with Dad, Herb Kannianen, and his father, Grandpa Louie. He said they stopped because the coal was too deep to dig out anymore.
Below, our daughter Jana is exploring this coal mine with me. The area is now overgrown with small trees and brush.
A wooden chute or trough lying in the bottom. (No idea how it was used.)
My uncle John Niemitalo said there were smaller mines around the area. He remembers going with his father Charlie to get a wagon load of coal from Charles Platt, who had a small mine northeast of the Lightfoot Schoolhouse (southwest of Belden).
Lignite coal had an important place in North Dakota's history, and continues to supply homes and businesses with power today.