Being the south’s premier resource-rich paradise, North Carolina has enjoyed a long, profitable, mining history. The nation’s gold fever began here in the Old North State in Cabarrus County way back when in 1799 and spread west to CA and onward to the Klondike. We’ve also experienced a solid vein of the same job- and wealth-creating action towns like Monongah, Montcoal and Sago celebrate: the rewarding industry of coal mining. The book “Coal Men of America: A Biographical and Historical Review of the World’s Greatest Industry” published by the Retail Coalman, Inc in 1918 had this to say about North Carolina’s coal production:
North Carolina contains two coal bearing areas the Deep River and the Dan River fields. These fields are described by the United States Geological Survey as follows: “The coal in the Deep River field is in Triassic rocks and is of the same geologic age as the beds of the Richmond basin in Virginia. The Dan River field in Stokes and Rockingham counties is also of Triassic age. The coal bearing rocks eNtend from a point just north of the Virginia line southward through Leaksville Madison and Walnut Cove to Germantown, NC. Black slaty carbonaceous shale is common but coal occurs at only a few places Nowhere has a deposit of any commercial value been found. During the Civil War coal was mined near Leaksville and shipped by boat to Danville Va. The coal is semi anthracite but the lied is so thin so broken by shale partings and of so small lateral extent that mining is unprofitable Considerable prospecting has been done in the vicinity of Walnut Cove but the semi anthracite found which is nowhere more than one foot thick has no present commercial value.
The census of 1840 gives the first record of North Carolina production as three tons. While it is thought probable that small mines were in operation subsequent to that time no record antedating the Civil War has been found. Between 1861 and 1865 the Confederate government is estimated to have taken out 60,000 tons from the North Carolina mines but the close of the war saw a steady decline until 1874 when production ceased. Six years later mining operations upon a very small scale were resumed. In 1889 the Cummock or Egypt mines in the Deep River field were re-opened and continued a moderate and fluctuating production until 1906. During 1911 1912 a small production 320 tons was reported from Moore County The total output from 1802 to 1912 was only 477,122 tons.
As the Coalman’s Who’s Who has noted, several mining operations were developed in the Deep River Coal Field in Chatham and Lee counties throughout the mid-to-late 1800’s. Most prominent among these was Cumnock, which at it’s start was a thriving coal-mining town named Egypt. The community was supposedly named Egypt because large crops of corn produced in the area brought buyers from outside as in the Biblical story of Joseph.
In 1852 the first attempts at high production mining along the Deep River began. The main shaft of the Egypt mine was sunk. It struck a vein at 430 feet, mining operations were started and the first coal from the Egypt mine was brought up in 1855. The market for the coal was mainly to the east so work began on a slack-water navigation route through the Deep River. A railway, the Western Railroad of NC, was chartered to build a 43 mile line from Fayetteville northwest to the coalfields of Egypt, about seven miles beyond Sanford. Right-of-way was procured during a six year period, construction began in 1858, and trains were hauling coal to Fayetteville by 1861.
Then of course, came the war of Northern Aggression. During the Civil War, Deep River Coal shipped by rail to Fayetteville and to Wilmington by barge, where it kept locomotive and schooner boilers alive and powered Confederate Navy and blockade runners. At the close of the war in 1865, the Western Railroad suffered great damage at the hand of Union troops under General Sherman. They destroyed twelve miles of track, shops, depots, and railroad buildings near Fayetteville. However, the locomotives and rolling stock were spared, since the railroad had moved them to Egypt for safekeeping. Luckily, Sherman chose not to go there. The line was rehabilitated by 1868, but the damage was done and in 1870 Egypt Mine was bankrupt and closed.
In 1888, the Egypt Mine was reopened by Egypt Coal Company. Businessman from Philadelphia, PA, organized a new company, the Langdon-Heshey Coal Mining Company and vigorously proceeded to re-open the mines upon an extensive scale. Encountering many obstacles, the restoration and development proved slow and expensive, but Henszey’s determination won out and the mine production kicked into high gear. A newspaper from the time had this to say, “The underground works have been opened upon a large scale and in a most permanent manner for economical operation. The machine plant, both underground and on the surface, has been perfected with the most modern appliances for hoisting, pumping and ventilation, and every available safeguard for the protection of life and property has been introduced.”
The mine ran continuously until 1902 after multiple, sizable gas explosions. One, December 12, 1895 killed 46 miners and another on May 23 1900 killed 26 men. By 1902 the Egypt Coal Company was bankrupt, forcing the mine’s closure. In 1915, the Norfolk Southern Railroad obtained the property and ran the mine under the name of Cumnock Coal Company, the word Egypt having become synonymous with explosions and failures. The town was renamed Cumnock after Scottish mining settlement in the hope of breaking the Egypt coal curse.
Across the river from the Egypt Mine, a new mine arrived when the Carolina Coal Company was formed in 1921. The new settlement was called Coal Glen and while Norfolk Southern’s Cumnock Mine had to be closed after repeated flooding by the Deep River, the Coal Glen Mine shaft was sunk and operations began in full by 1923.
But as is often the case, progress and profit demanded more bloodshed.
At 7:00 a.m. on May 27, 1925, seventy-four miners descended into the abyss of the Coal Glen Mine. Shortly after they entered, the night shift, which is in charge of cleaning up the mine, and making it safe for operation, came to surface. At 9:40 a.m. the first explosion tore through the mine. Men working beyond the 1,800 foot level were contacted by telephone and reported that things at that level were all right. Ten minutes after the first explosion, a second detonation rocked the mine and then a third. Vibrations were felt as far as a mile away and some residents thought they were experiencing an earthquake. As officials rushed to the mine’s entrance a poisonous, yellow gas billowed forth, making rescue impossible. It took five days to pull all the bodies from the mine.
The Coal Glen Mine closed four years later. Rains swelled the Deep River in 1929 and the mine began to flood through an air shaft. Water was pumped out, but no precautions were taken against subsequent flooding. The mine flooded again in 1930 putting an end to the Carolina Mine, after less than nine years of operation. The flood waters, the prohibitive cost of transportation, accidents, and the stock market crash of 1929 had conspired to bankrupt the Carolina Coal Company. While another Deep River mine had closed in failure, today the secret horde of energy independence still sits in Lee County, waiting for more souls to consume.