Utah Fuels the West

Utah's coal industry and the railroads that served it

This page was last updated on August 10, 2019.

(Return To Utah Coal Index Page)


From the time of their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley the pioneers recognized the importance of coal. Brigham Young knew that if the Saints were to ever become self-sufficient, they would need a source of coal for both home heating and for industrial purposes. One of the first uses for coal in Utah was in the early, iron manufacturing industry in southern Utah. The lack of adequate iron-making technology, along with a source of nearby coal of good enough coking quality prevented the growth of Utah's iron industry, at least until the early 1920s. The smelter industry in Utah began with the earliest silver smelters of the early 1860s, and the new industry needed fuel for their steam boilers, the source of mechanical power for the stamp mills. Smelting of gold, silver, lead and copper needed coke, a fuel made by burning the combustibles and impurities out of the coal and leaving a very high carbon-content fuel that makes for the very hot fires needed by the industry's smelting fires. There was great pressure to locate a source of coal that could be made into coke.

During 1875, coke was being imported to Utah's, and Nevada's, silver smelters from Pennsylvania. The 2,000-mile transportation of the much needed commodity forced the price per ton of coke up to $35 to $40. (Engineering and Mining Journal, September 18, 1875, p. 288)

Early transportation, or rather the lack of it, was one of the major obstacles, if not the greatest obstacle, in the development of Utah's coal resources. As coal was found throughout the territory, the discoverers soon found that the absence of low-cost transportation also prevented commercial development. The growth of the metal mining industry was stifled by both the limited supply of coal for its smelting furnaces, available only in wagon load shipments, and the lack of transportation to move the products of its smelters to East Coast refineries.

Utah's coal production in 1902 put the state at number nineteen in the nation, producing 1,574,521 tons, one-half percent of the national total. Production for 1896 was for 418,627 tons, somewhat less than a third of the 1902 total. Machine mining came to Utah in 1901, when thirteen "pick", or puncher mining machines were introduced. That quantity remained constant through 1903, with as much as 75,000 tons of coal being mined by the use of machines. These undercutting machines were used to remove the coal from the working coal face, with the coal still being loaded by hand. The use of pick machines were easier on the miners, over the use of a hand pick, and reduced the breakage of the coal, allowing for increased sales of lump coal. (USGS: Mineral Resources, 1903, pp. 381-383)

The coal that is mined in Carbon County is a good hard bituminous type that is clean and stands up well to storage and shipping. In many places the mining takes place with 1,500 to 2,000 feet of cover material over the mines themselves, which forces the mines to all be underground. Most of the coal comes out of what is called the Main Coal Horizon formation. This geologic layer varies from 200 to 500 feet thick and contains two, sometimes three, workable coal seams of five to twenty feet thickness. The coal in Spring Canyon is mined out of the Sub Coal Horizon, which is between 100 and 160 feet thick. The seam in this Horizon is usually thin in other parts of the region but becomes thick enough to be workable in the Spring Canyon area. The coal seams themselves are either level or are inclined at ten to twelve feet per one hundred feet of run. The coal in the Sunnyside area was of very good coking quality. The actual mining of the coal throughout the Carbon County region was done by the room and pillar method, meaning that rooms 30 feet by 350 feet are located with pillars of 30 to 50 feet square between them to support the roof of the mine. The coal was mined using both manual and new machine undercutting and blasting methods. The loosened coal was gathered in wooden cars with from one to three ton capacity and hauled over tracks with gauges varying from thirty-six to forty-two inches. The method of propulsion was by both large horses and later by electric locomotives. The larger mines used electrical main haulage locomotives with weights from six to fifteen tons. All of the mines by 1913 had a steam power plant which produced electricity used for hoisting, in-mine rail haulage, and lighting. After being wrested from the ground, the coal was generally graded into four differing grades, with each mine at times differing in the point of division between coal grades. Lump, the largest grade, was anything larger than 8-1/2 inches, domestic lump was anything between 8-1/2 and 4-1/2 inches. Egg was coal between 1-5/8 inches and 4-1/2 inches in size. Nut coal was between 3/8 inch and 1-5/8 inches, pea coal was less than less than 3/8 inch, and dust coal was just that -- dust. (Watts: Carbon County, pp. 401-404)

In 1916 Utah produced a total of 3,567,428 tons (compared with its first recorded year of production, 1870, with 5,800 tons). Utah's production in 1916 was about a third of Colorado's, and about a fifth of Wyoming's. (Salt Lake Mining Review, September 30, 1918, p. 30)

In August 1918 the state's monthly production was broken down by individual mines. The Cameron Coal Company at Cameron, near Castle Gate, produced 12,000 tons. Carbon Fuel at Rains produced 25,000 tons. Independent Coal & Coke at Kenilworth produced 35,000 tons. United States Fuel at its three mines, Hiawatha, Black Hawk, and Mohrland, produced 128,000 tons. Liberty Fuel at Latuda produced 15,000 tons. American Fuel at Neslen produced almost 16,000 tons. (Salt Lake Mining Review, September 15, 1918, p. 30)

Prior to the enactment of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, coal lands in Utah, and other western states, had to be purchased from the United States government in tracts of a maximum of 160 acres, the size of a homestead. In order for a coal, or any other, company to acquire sufficient land to allow development of coal lands, including tipples, power houses, employee homes, and even railroads, several individuals would associate themselves, each purchase the 160 acres of land, and then lease the land to the coal company through an agent of the lessee, usually the general manager of the coal company. (Gibson: Sunnyside, p. 206)

In the 1930s, coal mining in Utah changed, with the construction of new-design tipples and loading stations, following the adoption of machine mining."Years ago, when coal was mined by pick and shovel, the quality was generally satisfactory because the impurities were not loaded, but the productivity per man was low. Mechanization improved productivity but impurities increased to the extent that some form of cleaning became necessary. The transformation from hand loading to mechanical loading was quite radical during the mid-thirties. Tipples and earlier type cleaning units became inadequate almost overnight. Coal quality was jeopardized, until adequate cleaning could be installed, by the adoption of full-seam mining throughout the industry." (1973 edition of Practical Coal Mining)

1948 to 1958
During the period from 1948 to 1958 the coal industry was on the decline. However, from 1959 forward there has been a considerable upsurge, notwithstanding that domestic consumption declined, railroad use declined and general manufacturing use of coal declined; consumption of coal in the electrical utility industry increased markedly. This increase in consumption (by electrical utilities) was considerable--86 million tons in 1947 to 272 million tons in 1967. This phenomenal increase in sales to utilities has been attributable to more efficient coal production methods, including mining techniques and general mechanization. Transportation methods have also improved, and the net result has been that the coal industry has been able to compete successfully with gas and other energy sources for use in the generating plants. (Kennecott Copper Corporation Vs. Federal Trade Commission, Docket 71-1371, United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, September 15, 1972; F.T.C. 467 F.2d 67, 1972)

In a report prepared by Hill & Associates, and published to AOL news on March 5, 2001, the prospects of coal mining in Utah was included:

"The Outlook For U.S. Steam Coal Long-Term Forecast to 2020"


* Short-term, some market share has been lost as eastern cyclone boiler customers have found ways to increase their use of lower-Btu Powder River Basin coal without derating their boilers, according to the study. Production was off in 1999 due to lower export demand and a fire at the RAG American Willow Creek mine.

* Mid-term, resumed production at several idled mines and expansions at existing mines could increase production capacity by 2007. While "production costs (at resumed and expanded mines) would be similar" to the current cost structure," demand might not support such cost levels, Hill says. The caveat: The state's governor plans to expedite permitting and construction of three new power plants, which could significant increase mid- and long-term demand for Utah coal.

* Long-term, a favorable market will allow Utah mines to thrive, Hill says. There are a couple of negatives. Some new production would have a higher sulfur content than existing production, and other mines will be located further from existing rail access.