The Egypt Coal Mine Jinx
Many lives have been lost and millions spent, but the Deep River coal still lies there.
By Lynn Brisson
Men, mules and coal carts deep inside the Egypt Mine, where tragic explosions time and time again closed down operations. (Photo courtesy of Harvey Kennedy of Sanford, N.C, whose family operated the general store in the mining community.)
A series of events and tragedies at the Egypt Coal Mine, on Deep River near Sanford, N.C. have convinced people near and far the mine is jinxed, and entrepreneurs think twice about mining this particular coal. And yet, experts have estimated at least one million tons of good quality coal still lie hidden here, even though the area was mined sporadically from the 1850s to the 1920.
Early settlers around Deep River discovered the coal and used it strictly for personal needs. During this early period of settlement a severe draught struck the area and most people in the immediate vicinity were affected, as their crops withered and died. One farmer, Peter Evans, was spared the devastating effects of the drought, so he sold his corn to the local residents. Caravans of buyers could be seen ambling toward his farm and as a result the area was dubbed Egypt and people would tell their friends they were going down to Egypt to buy corn — as in the Biblical story of Joseph. Therefore, when the Peter Evans farm was purchased by Brooks Harris and L. J. Houghten for the purpose of coal mining, the first mine to operate was called the Egypt Coal Mine.
The shaft for the Egypt mine, which was to be a commercial mine, was sunk in the early 1850s, but problems ensued in transporting the coal to Fayetteville, which was the nearest inland port. The state spent millions of dollars building an elaborate system of wooden locks and dams to make Deep River navigable, but they soon became inoperable. Also, during this time the mine exploded and three miners were killed. This was the first recorded accident of the mine, but not the last.
Blockade Runners Supplied
The next attempt to get coal out of the center of North Carolina was to extend the railroad from Sanford into the area of the Egypt Coal mine. The railway station was built near the mine and it stood there until it was razed in 1940. The extension of the railroad was completed during the Civil War and met with considerably more success than had the wooden locks and dams, and soon tons of coal were being shipped by rail. During the Civil War the Confederate army took over mining Egypt mine and the coal supplied blockade runners in Wilmington. Toward the end of the war, all mining was stopped in Egypt mine and its entrance was filled with small rocks and debris in case of enemy capture. In addition, Deep River swelled and flooded the entire mine.
Many people believed the Egypt area had a promising future even though Deep River seemed intent on plaguing the mine. In 1888 a map was constructed which showed plans for a town with extensive streets and lots to be built near Egypt mine. One can only guess why this town never materialized; it is presumed the reason is linked with the continuing problems of the mine.
In the early 1890s, the prospect became bright to put Egypt mine back into operation. The mine had changed ownership and eager, hard-working men laboriously pumped the mine free of water only to have the mine closed again within the year by a fire. This, however, only created a small delay. All went well for about a year until heavy rains flooded the mine once more. Spirits were dampened, but the miners were not to be outdone by nature. They again pumped the water out and commenced mining. Then another explosion occurred, leaving one dead and one seriously burned, but mining continued at full speed toward the worst tragedy of Egypt mine.
It is reported that in November 1895, a tramp came from Pennsylvania to Egypt mine with the ambition to be a miner. He observed the mine's operation and swiftly left for Alabama saying he was too alarmed about the careless way gas was handled to work there. Before leaving, he predicted the mine would explode and kill everyone in it. Less than one month later, on December 12, 1895, the open flame of a miner's light ignited coal dust and gas, which in turn triggered a simultaneous explosion of dynamite in the mine. The earth trembled under the force of the explosions and local residents thought they were experiencing an earthquake. The sad truth was learned as thirty-nine bodies were found and two were permanently missing.
Problems followed fast on the heels of the tragedy as victims' families sued, miners refused to work and money ran short. Then it happened again. On May 23, 1900, the mine exploded and twenty-three died. Bankruptcy followed within two years and again the waters of Deep River found the mine.
Tragedy At Coal Glen
There remained large amounts of coal in the area and men still dreamed of becoming wealthy. In 1915 the necessary steps were taken and the mine was reopened and operated sporadically until 1926 when another explosion killed two more. Ownership changed during the time to the Carolina Coal and By-product Co. and Egypt mine was merged with the nearby Coal Glen mine whose tunnels ran within six hundred feet of the tunnels of Egypt mine. Coal Glen had also suffered its share of tragedy, for on May 27, 1925 a series of explosions within the mine left fifty-three men dead.
It was the worst mining disaster in North Carolina's history and one which local residents still remember with sadness. Hopes ran high after the two mines merged, but two days before they were to open, both mines flooded. All the water was pumped out by March 1929 only to have them flood again. Discouraged men sought to pump the mines free of the ever-present water and one man died in the attempt. In October of the same year, water again claimed the mines. The Egypt mine was never reopened and the Coal Glen shaft has been flooded since 1953.
This was the scene at Coal Glen Mine after the series of explosions on May 27, 1925, which left 53 miners dead. The men congregated here are trying
to decide how to excavate the trapped miners. It was the worst mining disaster in North Carolina's history. (Photo courtesy of Harvey Kennedy)
Several studies have been made of the area around the Egypt mine, some private and some government funded. In 1883 a report was issued stating the area was rich in gold, coal, iron, copper, and soapstone. Although the supply of the other minerals has been virtually depleted, much of the original wealth of coal remains today.
Since the late 1920s the only substantial mining of the area occurred during World War II. Governor Melville Broughton fought hard in Congress for money to fund an exploratory mineral project in North Carolina and for development of the Deep River coal field. He and Congressman Harold D. Cooley convinced Congress that North Carolina's coal and minerals could help relieve the nation's grave steel shortage, and supply metal needed by the war department and by the nation's farmers.
The coal and minerals were expected to produce sponge iron, coke, gas, and many by-products. Congress listened and awarded the state $340,000. Subsequently, H. A. Brassert was employed to make a survey of the state's resources. After a preliminary study, Brassert decided the Sanford coal region should be given top priority in the investigation for state resources. By the summer of 1943, Brassert sent his first report to Governor Broughton.
The nation awaited Brassert’s report with great interest for people feared the steel shortage would extend the war. They had high hopes the coal in North Carolina could be used for coke to smelt iron ore. In his report, however, Brassert documented his expert opinion that the Sanford area coal would be more useful as fertilizer than for coke.
Despite the disappointment of that report, records show that approximately 11,000,000 tons of coal were mined from the extensive Deep River coal field in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the Egypt coal mine remained inactive.
No Future Plans
State geologists reported in 1971 that the coal of the Deep River coal field was good quality, but it contained an unusually high sulfur content. As a result, it was doubtful whether it could pass the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations concerning sulfur emission.
According to Benjamin McKenzie, current geologist with the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, the future is not promising for the Egypt coal mine. In lieu of the present energy crisis and the nation's rekindled interest in coal, the coal in North Carolina would be important principally to our area. The real future of coal is considered to be in the west where it can be located in vast beds forty to fifty feet thick. Also, the Deep River area is difficult to mine, due to extensive natural gas and faulting of the land. If the area is ever reopened to mining, the Egypt mine is not likely to be used since old mines are expensive and dangerous to reopen.
Currently funds are being sought to pilot a project to extract the natural gas, which was the cause of so many calamities in the past, from the mining area. A delay in this funding is occurring due to difficulties in obtaining lease rights to drill the necessary holes.
Although there are no future plans to reopen Egypt mine, many tons of coal still lie around and under Deep River. Many attempts have been made to extract this coal and many lives have been lost, but a fortune still awaits anyone who can break the seeming jinx of the Egypt Coal Mine.
Egypt Coal Mine, shown here, encountered problems from the time the shaft was sunk, in the early 1850's, until it was claimed by water and closed in 1929. More recently, government experts have explored the possibility of again putting the Deep River coal field to use, buit the future is not promising for Egypt Coal Mine. (Photo courtesy of Harvey Kennedy)
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