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Longwall Coal Mining in Minonk

Submitted by Jim Flynn - December 16, 2012

"You had to move a ton of rock to get a ton of coal." This quote was my father's. It was all done by hand at that time.

Longwall mining, as opposed to room-and-pillar mining, lent itself better to the Sutton mine, due to the small three-foot vein of coal. Farther south in Illinois, coal veins typically run 8 to12 feet in height. This is an overview of how it was done in Minonk.

Mine Layout

The main entrance railroad tunnel, that ran westward from the shaft, was called the motor road, due to the electric trolley tow motor that was used after the mine was electrified. The "motor", as it was called, towed coal cars back and forth from the shaft to the face (the long wall of coal that was being dug). Each one-way run was called a trip. When miners riding in coal cars were transported, it was a man-trip. The trolley lines carried 250 volts D.C., that was generated on-site. Mules were still needed to pull cars in and out of the entry, as is explained later.

When the mine closed, the motor road extended about a mile, to a point west of I-39. Those were 30-pound rails (weighed 30 pounds per yard), and were the only permanent rails in the mine. All others were lighter weight, and were taken up and reused as mining progressed.

The motor road could be thought of as the backbone of the mine. Entries branched off at regular intervals, both north and south, to provide access to the coal. At the time of closure, they were working in entry 8-south. All the coal had been mined from previous entries, both to the northern boundary (not-for-sale mineral rights in LaSalle and Marshall Counties) and to the southern boundary, Minonk itself. An agreement was in effect, that coal would not be mined under the town.

The 8-south entry rails were laid to terminate 7-south, because the face had advanced far westward, and temporary rail routes had become too long and cumbersome. A new entry was needed near the present face to expedite coal car traffic on and off the motor road. When it was completed, all rails were removed from 7-south. The coal had been mined out, and the area was abandoned.

The rails of 8-south were a lighter weight than the motor road rails. They extended the entire distance along the face, to the southern mine boundary. Every 36 feet, a rail spur branched off toward the face. They were lighter rails yet, as each provided coal cars to a single miner. Each spur marked the center of a "room", where a miner worked. He worked the face 18 feet (six shovel handles) on both sides of his spur. His room adjoined the next miner's room on either side. Track layers lengthened the spurs, as the face progressed ever westward.

The light-weight spur rails lacked movable switches where they branched off the entry rails. The mules understood "gee" and "haw", meaning to go right or left, respectively. The mule driver would shove the coal car to the right or left, to ensure that the wheels caught and followed the desired rails. This simple technique was more prudent than laying dozens of switches, that would all be torn out again later.

Coal Removal

Immediately below the coal vein was a layer of relatively soft soapstone. As the final work of each day, the miner, with pick and shovel, dug out that layer as far as he could reach under the coal, for the length of his room. He shoveled it into a coal car, which was hoisted, and the material dumped on the jumbo.

By the next morning, the tremendous weight above would often "crack" the unsupported coal, dislodging it, and making its removal easier. If it didn't crack, the miner had to drill it and blast it down with black powder charges. He broke it into manageable sizes with a sledgehammer, and loaded it into coal cars sitting on his spur. He had to shovel it as many as three times -- once or twice to move it to the car, and once more into the car. He wrote his name with chalk on every loaded car, so the scale man would know to whom to credit the coal.

Rock Removal

As the coal was removed, a foot of overhead rock was drilled and blasted down, to provide essential headroom, which even then, was usually no more than five feet. The only places miners could stand upright were on rail lines, since the mules required a higher ceiling. Everywhere else, they had to stoop. If the entire ceiling were made higher, tons more rock would have to be moved back out of the way every day. Coal production would decline from the extra hours spent moving rock.

As it was, the foot of rock that was removed was put to use as ceiling support, to prevent cave-ins. The miner built pillars immediately behind his work space for his own protection, and on both sides of his rail spur. In addition he occasionally "sounded" the ceiling above his work space by tapping it with a pick. If something sounded suspicious, he set a wooden prop under it. A large slab of rock dropping off the ceiling could be very injurious or even fatal.

Wooden props (posts) and large wooden wedges were supplied to the miners. A prop was selected or cut slightly short, so a wedge would fit above it. The wedge was inserted snugly, while the prop was held tilted from vertical. The miner then drove them upright with a sledge. That made them extremely tight.

Miners were paid only by the tons of coal that reached the scale. The rock work was an unpaid part of the job. There were no electric drills. Holes for blasting in coal or rock were made with a brace and bit or a large star drill (impact bit) and a sledgehammer. The latter was a two-man job. Miners in adjacent rooms helped each other. One held the large bit with both hands, while the other swung the sledge. They took turns, as a heavy sledge is tiring, and this activity might continue throughout the day. Sledgehammer use was so frequent, a miner's skill reached the level to where he never missed the mark. "When you're holding that bit for the other guy, you make damned sure you hold it dead still", was another of Dad's comments.


The 250-volt overhead trolley wires on the motor road were unguarded. That was a higher ceiling, and touching them accidentally was not likely, unless you were climbing in or out of a coal car, or such. A moment of carelessness could result in a very unpleasant reminder. Dad saw a mule knocked flat on its belly from contacting one of the wires.

It was necessary for the miners to advance their rooms at the same pace, to stay abreast of each other. If a miner fell behind, the coal would not crack so well in the rooms on either side of him, due to the adjacent coal that was still supported. That was a source of aggravation at times.

Small pieces of rock constantly flaked off the walls and ceiling of the motor road. Over the course of years, the rubble became so deep, it began to de-rail coal cars. Men were paid by the hour to shovel the material into cars, to be hoisted and dumped on the jumbo. Considering the length of the road, that was no small undertaking.

Being confined by the low ceiling and surrounded by endless darkness, while realizing you are deep in the earth, and that the exit is a mile away, were things not to think about. Miners certainly weren't claustrophobic.

The mile-long haul between the face and the shaft had become excessive. A new shaft was needed, if mining were to continue westward. But Sutton died, and the mine was offered for sale. There was at least one prospective buyer, who failed to arrange the required financing. Eventually, the decision was made to junk it.

As a result of the extremely strenuous labor day after day, miners were probably as hard-muscled and physically fit, as is possible for men to become. Over the summer shut-down, muscles became softer and callouses thinner. During the autumn start-up, blood could be seen on tool handles. The work went on anyway. They were hard men.

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Mine Subsidence

Folks were understandably wary of having the coal removed from beneath their property. That is the reason coal was not mined under Minonk. In some places, mine subsidence is a problem, due to factors unique to the location. In this area, only five feet of material was removed, at a depth of 550 feet. It will never cave in all the way to the surface. The entire town of Toluca was undermined, and half of Rutland. That was done a century ago, and subsidence has never occurred.