The State Magazine
June 1987 Issue
The Coal Demon
Of Deep River
Tragedy and failure have plagued miners' efforts for 200 years, but men are ready once again to try their luck.
By MICHAEL HETZER
Near the banks of the Deep River, six miles northwest of Sanford, a cycle is about to begin anew. There is coal here, 100 million tons of it, geologists estimate. For more than two hundred years men have been trying to bring it to the surface. Millions have been spent, more than a hundred lives have been lost and for all the cost less than 1 million tons of Deep River Coal has seen sunlight. Today a new generation of men with a new generation of tools are ready to try again. Strip mining operations by the Chatham Coal Company are scheduled to begin here in the near future.
There is a demon in the Deep River Coal Bed--or so we might believe. The history of mining here, the site of the only major coal mining operation in North Carolina history, is one of tragedy and failure. No one has ever made a profit from Deep River Coal. The demon has guarded its black treasure with all the ferocity of a dragon atop its mound of jewels. The graves that surround the Old Egypt and Carolina Mines can attest to that.
The Great Age Of Dinosaurs
The story of Deep River Coal begins 200 million years ago during the great age of dinosaurs. All the land masses of Earth were then joined in the super-continent of Pangaea. Much of the land that is today North Carolina was then blanketed by enormous swamps and chains of shallow lakes.
The climate was warm and humid. Plant life, especially ferns, thrived. But the normal cycle of plant decay / fertilization was being short-circuited in the soupy ground of the swamps. Fallen plants did not decay; they fossilized, storing in the ground the energy they had collected from the sun. These beds of fossilized plant matter grew in depth as century after century of plant life took root in the peat formed by its ancestors. These peat beds were the predecessors to all of the world's great beds of coal, including the Deep River Coal Field. All that was needed to convert the peat to coal was pressure.
It came in the form of weight. As time passed and the reign of the dinosaurs ended, a layer of sediment covered the peat, perhaps washed down some ancient river. This overlaying sediment was, itself, covered later with new sediment Pressure began to mount on the ancient bed of peat, now buried far underground. The peat was turning to coal.
In the beginning it was a very soft coal: sub-bituminous, geologists call it. But as the pressure grew it was squeezed even tighter into bituminous and then finally into anthracite coal. The western part of the Deep River Coal Bed was anthracite, the best coal. The eastern part was the lesser bituminous coal.
The Deep River Coal Bed awaited the coming of man.
It is unclear when mining began on the Deep River Coal Bed. it seems certain though that by 1775 at least one mine, the Horton Mine, was in operation near the present town of Gulf. Nearby, on land that is now the town of Cumnock, George Wilcox established a forge and bloomers along the Deep River. There is a report that Mr. Wilcox forged cannon balls and shot for the Revolutionary War but this has been questioned. What seems more likely is that the coal was mined in the area on a small scale for the next seventy-five years to supply local needs.
In 1852, with the Civil War just eight years away, 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 and mining operations were started. 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 was also begun from Fayetteville. The future looked bright indeed as the first coal from the Egypt mine was brought up in 1855.
But the coal came up slowly, transportation along the Deep River never materialized and the railway line was behind schedule.
Then came the Civil War. The Confederacy, in need of coal, expedited construction of the railway and brought it within two miles of the Egypt mine. Egypt coal finally had a market.
Day and night shifts were instituted in the mine. Miners were actually Confederate soldiers who could avoid combat by working in the mine--a job considered as dangerous as fighting. Other mines were pushed into operation as well: The Black Diamond Mine, the Taylor Slope and the Carolina Mine--the mine that would, in another sixty years, be the scene of the worst industrial disaster in North Carolina history.
The Endor Iron Furnace was built along the banks of the Deep River to forge cannon balls and shot for the Confederacy. The Furnace still stands today, crumbling from assaults made on it, not by Union Soldiers, but by flood waters of the Deep River. It can be found by following a short trail off the end of Iron Furnace Road. Squirrels and snakes now find refuge within the walls that have not known the glowing heat of molten iron for more than a century.
Deep River coal failed to live up to its early promise. Transportation costs drove up its price to a point where it couldn't compete on the open market. The coal that did find its way to Fayetteville was used by the Confederate Navy's blockade runners. But the coal had an unfortunate property: it left a trait of yellow smoke when burned. Stories abound of sailors who lost their lives after their location was disclosed by the dreaded yellow trail of Deep River coal. It would seem the wrath of the demon extended even into the Atlantic.
In 1870, after nearly twenty years of operation, the Deep River Coal Bed had failed to yield a profit. Less than a hundred thousand tons of coal had been produced. The Egypt mine closed, a failure.
But just eighteen years later the mine was reopened by a new company with new ideas. The mine began immediately to turn a profit. The mining town of Egypt, NC was proposed, looking like so many other mining towns in Pennsylvania.
The mine employed some eighty miners. Wages were considered good and miners from the great mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia moved south into the promising town of Egypt. About half the miners were black and another quarter were foreigners who came from Scotland, England, Italy and Poland. It may seem strange now, but the town of Egypt (later Cumnock) once had a very cosmopolitan air.
Many of the miners were "loaders." It was their job to shovel into carts the coal that blasted free with dynamite set by the engineers. Rooms were hollowed out and the coal carried away in carts pulled by mules. After a miner filled a cart, he affixed a tag which identified him to the clerks up top. Pay was by the cart load.
In 1895 the mine produced a personal record of $41,350 worth of coal. Then the demon struck back.
Egypt Mine Disasters
At 8:30 a.m. on December 19, 1895 an explosion ripped through the Egypt Mine. There were sixty-seven men in the mine at the time. The cause was almost surely natural gas ignited by a flame in a miners helmet. The dreaded after-damp, the miner's name for the suffocation that occurs after a mine explosion, did the rest. Forty-six men lost their lives that day.
The disaster crippled severely the Egypt Coal Company and it nearly went under. But the company limped along, its Coal of 500 tons per day still unachieved, when the demon struck again.
On May 22, 1900 an explosion similar to the one in 1895 killed another twenty-two miners. The set-back was too much for the ailing company. In 1902 the Egypt coal mine was closed once again.
The mine never again achieved the modest prosperity it knew during the few short years before the disaster of 1895. It was reopened in 1915 and operated in a small way by the Norfolk Railroad to supply the railroad until it was closed--this time for good--in 1922.
All that remains today of the Old Egypt Mine is a small crater located about five hundred yards from the Cumnock Bridge off Cumnock Road. The story of the Egypt Mine will end once and for all when it is swept away by strip mining operations this spring.
The Short Lived Carolina Mine
In 1921 one of the most important events that ever occurred on the Deep River Coal Bed took place. The Carolina Coal Company was formed with the intention of developing a mine near Farmville across the river from the Egypt Mine. The mining town that would arise was to be called Coal Glen. The Carolina Mine is often called the Coal Glen Mine, or the Farmville Mine.
The Carolina Mine was the most ambitious mining operation ever begun on the Deep River Coal Bed. In 1923, its first year of full-scale operation, its output more than doubled the best of the Old Egypt Mine. Once again the future looked bright for a mine on the Deep Rivet- Coal Bed. But the profits never came. In 1925 the demon dealt its most vicious blow ever.
At seven in the morning on May 25, the morning shift, numbering seventy-four miners, descended into the dark of the Carolina Mine. Two and a half hours later the first of three terrific explosions tore through the mine. Its vibrations were felt as far as a mile away. Families and company officials rushed to the mine entrance Poisonous, yellow gas billowed from the mine entrance, making rescue impossible. It took five days to pull all the bodies from the mine. The story made front page news all across the country.
Fifty-three men died that morning.
The Carolina Mine closed four years later. Ironically, it was not a mine explosion that closed the mine, but water and human carelessness. Rains swelled the Deep River in 1929 and the mine began to flood through an air shaft. The water was pumped free, but no precautions were taken against subsequent flooding. The mine flooded again in 1930 putting an end to the Carolina Mine, after less than mine years of operation. The flood waters, the prohibitive cost of transportation, the accidents, and the market crash of 1929 had conspired to bankrupt the Carolina Coal Company. Another Deep River mine had closed in failure.
The Carolina Mine was opened again between 1947 and 1951 but failed to turn a profit and was allowed to reflood. It has not been opened since.
The Demon And The Future
The entrance to the Carolina Mine can be found today in the parking lot of the General Timber Lumberyard off Farmville Mine Road. It has been incorporated into a garden near the company's office building. All that can be seen inside the shaft is some old equipment and a track disappearing into water about fifteen feet down.
The real testament to the tragedy history of mining on the Deep River Coal Bed is located three hundred yards from the Carolina Mine shaft, at the entrance to the lumberyard. It is the Farmville Cemetery. Miners who fell victim to each of the three major explosions are represented there. There is a plaque, dedicated to the victims of the Carolina Mine disaster, standing among the graves. Its engraving begins with the terrible date: May 27, 1925 . . .
Now men stand ready once again to mine the Deep River coal; drawn back by the black wealth formed there in the swamps some 200 million years ago. Will they succeed where so many others have failed? Will the demon allow it?
There are geologists who think the curse will continue. They cite the same problems that have always existed with this coal: abundant natural gas which is highly explosive, an unfortunate dip in the contour of the coal bed making it difficult to reach, and geological faults in the coal seams.
The Chatham Coal Company, like others before them, are confident they can surmount these problems; that they can best the demon of Deep River Coal. Maybe they will. For there will be no further tunneling into the coal bed here. This time the coal will be brought up using modern strip mining techniques.
We are left to wonder: What will the demon think of that?
[Click on the image to see a larger version.]
The once-mighty Endor Iron Furnace, where cannon balls and shot were forged for the civil War, stands crumbling near the banks of the Deep River. The cave-in on one corner is new, the result of flooding this winter by the Deep River. The Furnace was built by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Iron ore came up the Deep River during the short period when slack water navigation was possible. (Photo by Michael Hetzer) A miner inspects coal pulled from the seam In a cutting chamber of the Carolina Mine in 1949. Note the heavy wood timbers, cut from neighboring forests, that reinforce the roof. The entrance slope and the operating tunnel were reinforced with corrugated steel during this time. (Photo Courtesy of Hal Tysinger) Miners take a break in the Carolina Mine before the terrible explosions. Who would live? Who would die? (Photo Courtesy Hal Tysinger) Men and mules inside the Old Egypt Mine. Men were not the only workers in the mine with difficult lives. A Mule might spend its entire life beneath the Earth, engaged in the most strenuous labor, never seeing daylight. When he died the very tunnels he helped create became his tomb. (Photo Courtesy of Hal Tysinger)
HOPE ABANDONED FOR ENTOMBED MINERS
The picture and caption appeared in papers nationwide on May 28, 1925 when 53 men perished in an explosion at the Carolina Mine, and distraught families, rescuers, journalists, and curious spectators descended on the tiny village of Coal Glen. It was North Carolina's worst industrial accident. Gone but not forgotten. More than anywhere else on the Deep River coal Bed, the Farmville cemetery gives a true sense of the tragic history of mining here. It can be found at the end of Farmville Mine Road, near the town of Cumnock, It is by no coincidence that it is located only three hundred yards from the mouth of the Carolina Mine. victims of the 1985, 1900 and 1925 disasters are buried here, along with a plaque erected to memorialize the victims of the 1985 explosion. (Photo by Tamara D. Horne) A miner rides atop a cart of coal at the mouth of the Carolina Mine in 1949. This cart might have come from 1,500 feet under the Deep River. Though the mine entrance was on the Chatham County side of the Deep River, the coal was cut from Lee County--on the other side of the river. (Photo Courtesy of Hal Tysinger) All that remains of the once-bustling Carolina Mine, scene of the worst industrial disaster in the state's history. The entrance has been preserved in the parking lot of the General Timber lumber company. A look into the mine reveals some old workings and track disappearing into water about fifteen feet down. (Photo by Tamara D. Horne)
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