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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


The mining industries helped pave the way for Oklahoma's future boom industries, including oil and natural gas, and in the process left an indelible print on this state's history. Oklahoma's mines provided the raw materials for a growing national economy and fortified economic growth in the state and regional economies while spawning the birth of new towns and businesses. Along with the financial gain that mining brought to Oklahoma, there was also a great cultural boost with the immigration of families from the British Isles, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Mexico, and other countries.

The two major types of mining towns in Oklahoma were coal and lead-zinc. The coal-mining regions cover much of the eastern half of the state, spanning over twelve thousand square miles. The most prominent coal-producing areas are in the McAlester and Coalgate districts of southeastern Oklahoma. Some of the more successful mining towns were McAlester, Krebs, Hartshorne, Adamson, and Lehigh.

Krebs provides a good example of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century mining town. In the late 1870s the Osage Coal and Mining Company leased the mine where Krebs developed. The company built and owned all the buildings. Oftentimes these companies paid early miners in scrip, forcing all transactions to go through the company store. The mine operators subtracted rent from wages, as well as payments for expenses, such as for the services of a company doctor. After over a decade of full company control, miners had saved money and, through organization, garnered rights. They began building or leasing their own homes, and outside businessmen operated independent stores and shops. Still, many miners could not break their debt to the company and patronized company stores. Socially these mining communities' diverse cultural makeup created lively night and weekend entertainment. Match racing, bocce ball, pigeon shooting, and baseball provided excellent diversions. These communities earned a well-deserved reputation for bootlegging and manufacturing choc beer. Most had a well-attended opera house and an organized community band. Religion held a strong place in these immigrant-laden communities. Hartshorne had a large Catholic seminary, convent, and schools, and the Russian residents built a beautiful, traditional cathedral, the Saints Cyril and Methodius Russian Orthodox Church.

The Oklahoma coal-mining industry experienced a steady growth from the mid-1870s to the 1950s, annually increasing from approximately one hundred thousand tons to almost five million tons by 1920, and eventually peaking at almost six million tons in 1981. This industry consistently averaged between a million to three million tons of coal for most of the early 1900s. In 1903 the coal output was 3.5 million tons, which was worth over $6 million.

For all the wealth generated by the coal industry, the lead and zinc mining industry of northeastern Oklahoma produced even more. Some of the more prominent mining camps in the Tri-State Lead and Zinc District of Oklahoma were Peoria, Commerce, St. Louis, Picher, Cardin, Quapaw, and Lincolnville. Of these communities, Picher became the leading lead-zinc mining town. By 1915 the Tri-State Lead and Zinc District had become the biggest zinc-producing region in the world, with more than half of the world's zinc being mined from the area around Picher. From 1850 to 1950 this abundance of mineral wealth produced more than $1 billion worth of minerals.

The ecological impact of mining in Oklahoma has paralleled the whole realm of environmental problems affecting the world at the end of the twentieth century. Water and soil pollutants still linger long after the coal, zinc, and lead mining has stopped. In the lead and zinc industries, water contamination, and mine shaft cave-ins have been very serious problems. Since the decline of lead mining in Oklahoma, the town of Picher has been affected severely by cave-ins. By 1950 the entire main business district of the city had been undermined, eventually forcing it to be closed off permanently. Soon after, other cave-ins caused some families and businesses to abandon the town. This trend continues into the twenty-first century in Picher, as the town contemplates whether to rebuild the city or to completely move the entire town to a new area.

Eric Goostree


Stanley Clark, "Immigrants in the Choctaw Coal Industry," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 33 (Winter 1955–56).

Arrell M. Gibson, "Early Mining Camps in Northeastern Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 34 (Summer 1956).

Arrell M. Gibson, Wilderness Bonanza (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).

Charles N. Gould, "The Mineral Wealth of Oklahoma and Indian Territory," Frisco System Magazine 4 (1905).

John W. Morris, Ghost Towns of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

Frederick Ryan, The Rehabilitation of Oklahoma Coal Mining Communities (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Eric Goostree, “Mining Towns,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=MI042.

Published January 15, 2010

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