Working in Jamestown's coal mines

JSSP Keith Norman Column Sig

For the early settlers, staying warm in the winter was always a challenge. The small homes and shanties didn’t have a lot of floor space to heat but they weren’t insulated either. Just keeping the contents of the water bucket from freezing overnight was sometimes difficult.

There were some local options. Stoves that burned dry hay and straw existed but required a lot of effort to keep enough fuel in the fire box.

Germans from Russia made a mixture of dry manure and straw into bricks called mischt. Historians say the mischt burned without odor but you wanted to be careful with the bricks in the house because dust from handling wasn’t an appetizing thought in the kitchen.

Other fuel sources included corn cobs and even firewood, if you lived near a river or creek where there might be a few trees.

Local residents could also buy firewood at $4.50 per cord. The wood was brought in by the Northern Pacific from Minnesota and sold at depots along the mainline.


But the favorite fuel for the settlers around Jamestown in the late 1800s was coal. In the late 1870s, the Northern Pacific hadn’t extended into what is now western North Dakota and Montana so the lignite coal fields of those regions weren’t an option. This left bituminous coal from places like Pennsylvania as the only, and rather expensive, option.

That is why a number of the early settlers, including the editor of The Jamestown Alert, did a little prospecting for black gold on the side.

According to a December 1878 edition of the Alert, coal had been found in at least four or five locations in the area and an exploratory mine shaft was dug in at least two location.

The report indicated folks sometimes found coal on top of the ground in an area north of Jamestown along the James River. Other sites with coal visible on the surface include along Beaver Creek about 15 miles south of Jamestown.

A Mr. Meade, no first name given, dug a 50-foot-deep shaft a mile east of Jamestown along the railroad tracks. At that depth, they used an auger to drill down another 45 feet when they struck quicksand and the hole they were drilling kept caving in.

Meade didn’t find any coal in 1878 but vowed to continue once he figured out a way to put a well casing down the hole they were drilling and found a way to vent the poisonous gas that kept accumulating in the shaft.

I found no reports of them ever returning to the project.

Another attempt at a coal mine was organized by a Mr. McKenzie with some partners. The attempted mine was said to be a mile or so south of Jamestown near the river. McKenzie and his partners hired a miner to dig a drift into a hillside looking for coal. A drift is defined by miners as a horizontal shaft.


After a couple weeks of work the miner produced some nice looking pieces of bituminous coal and likely got paid for his efforts.

When folks from the community went to Jamestown’s new coal mine to check it out, they didn’t find any coal or the hired miner.

By the early 1880s, the Northern Pacific had extended far enough to the west to connect to some real coal mines in the western part of the territory.

The coal was probably a little more expensive but it had to beat digging in well shafts full of poisonous gas looking for a little black gold.

Related Topics: HISTORY
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