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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Home of a coal miner near Vinita, 1900
(14876, Heye Foundation Collection, OHS).

Coal mine at Henryetta
(16242, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS).


Oklahoma lies in the Western Region of the Interior Coal Province of the central United States. In Oklahoma coal of the bituminous variety was first mined commercially in 1873. Most, if not all, of the coal produced in the state has been mined from a 14,500-square-mile area extending from Kansas through northeastern Oklahoma and eastward through central Oklahoma to Arkansas. Over the period of years from 1873 through the 1980s twenty-four named beds were identified in nineteen counties of eastern Oklahoma. Underground or shaft mining predominated from the 1870s through the 1960s. Heavy production resulted from shaft mining in Coal, Pittsburg, Latimer, Haskell, and LeFlore counties. From 1974 through the twenty-first century surface or strip mining has prevailed, primarily in Rogers, Nowata, and Craig counties. Overall, from the 1870s to the 1980s more than 200 million tons of coal came out of Oklahoma's mines.

If the development of Oklahoma's coal-mining industry can be attributed to a single person, that person was James J. McAlester. Early histories of Oklahoma successfully turned him into a nearly mythical character. After finding coal on his property and acquiring a map revealing the location of valuable coal deposits, in 1872 McAlester married into the Choctaw tribe in order to gain legal access to the deposits. He then began commercial exploitation of Indian Territory's coal deposits. Although the presence of coal had been known for decades, McAlester's contribution was that he was the first to find commercial markets for the product.

In Indian Territory commercial exploitation arrived with the railroads. When McAlester learned that the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway (MK&T, or Katy), a southern branch of the Union Pacific, was contemplating building a track through "Cross-Roads," where the California mail and stage route crossed the Texas Road, he promptly displayed a wagon load of the area's coal to officials of the railroad at Parsons, Kansas. The rising entrepreneur had considerable investments at "Cross-Roads," which was later to become the town called McAlester. J. J. McAlester planned to convince the railroad's management of the superior nature of the region's coal, hoping it would weight the scales to his advantage. Congressional subsidies and McAlester's alluring offer of high-quality steam coal made the decision easy for the company's officials.

First penetrating the region in 1872, the railroad quickly came to dominate the Indian Territory coal industry. The Katy became part of a complex web of railroads controlled by Jay Gould. In fact, Gould's domination of the Indian Territory coal industry was so complete that a joke circulating around Wall Street at the time referred to "Jay Gould's railroad, his Territory, and his Indians." Loosely allied with Francis Gowen's Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf Railroad, which opened up the coalfields between McAlester and Fort Smith, these railroads were a potent force in the regional coal industry. Still, their dominance was not absolute. The Choctaw Nation's financial records indicate that by 1883 at least six railroads were doing business in Indian Territory.

The MK&T controlled the two largest mining companies in the Indian Territory coal industry. In the early 1870s McAlester sold his Oklahoma Mining Company to the Osage Coal and Mining Company, a larger concern that he and several partners had founded. Soon thereafter, the Katy acquired an interest in the firm and by 1888 owned it outright. The Osage Coal and Mining Company developed mines at Krebs and McAlester. The company sold its product to the Katy and had a virtual monopoly on commercial coal mining in Indian Territory until 1881.

The second major producer during the 1880s was the Atoka Coal and Mining Company (AC&MC). Also owned by Gould's Katy Railroad, the AC&MC operated mines at Savanna and Lehigh, supplying locomotive coal to Texas railroads that Gould also owned. The company's operations at Savanna ceased after an explosion there in 1887 that killed eighteen miners. After the disaster the company moved its entire Savanna operation, including 135 company houses, to Lehigh.

Indian Territory coal production increased substantially in the 1880s. In 1881, when the AC&MC was established, annual production was estimated at 150,000 tons. By 1887 mines in the Choctaw Nation were annually producing more than 600,000 tons. Development of the Indian Territory coal industry continued into the 1890s at a rapid pace.

In 1885, after a field survey disguised as a turkey hunt, Edward D. Chadrick, a financier from Minneapolis, persuaded another titan of the railroad industry, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, to build a line that would tap the coalfields around Wilburton. The result was the incorporation of the Choctaw Coal and Railway Company in 1887 and the construction of a sixty-seven-mile line between Wister and South McAlester that was completed in 1890. This road permitted development of the coalfields at Wilburton, Alderson, and Hartshorne. Reorganized in 1894 as the Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf Railroad Company, the line remained the territory's largest producer until acquired by the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad in 1902. Its mining subsidiary, the Rock Island Coal and Mining Company, continued to be one of the most powerful entities in Oklahoma's coal industry until the Great Depression.

By 1900 a well-developed railroad network criss-crossed Indian Territory. The Fort Smith and Western entered Indian Territory from Fort Smith shortly after 1900. The railroad's first subsidiary, the San Bois Coal and Mining Company, operated mines at McCurtain, first known as Chant. When the Denison and Washita Valley Railway Company completed a spur between Lehigh and Coalgate in 1889, it allowed the Southwestern Coal and Improvement Company to develop coal properties at Coalgate and Midway. Later, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway extended its lines to Lehigh and acquired an interest the Coalgate field, one of the most important in the territory. One smaller-scale line was referred to as the Split Log Railroad, which ran from Siloam Springs, Arkansas, to the Indian Territory coal-mining communities of Panama, Poteau, Howe, and Heavener. The railroad, which became the Kansas City Southern, traversed a wooded region that supplied lumber for use in the coal industry as timbering material and railroad ties.

Smaller-scale independents operated among the huge railroad-associated mining companies. One of the most successful was Dr. Daniel M. Hailey, who owned and operated mines at Wilburton and Haileyville. Naming communities after themselves never troubled the coal barons, for they had few inhibitions about trumpeting to the world their role in the development of the region's coal industry. In fact, many coal towns were named after the owner or operator of the local mine. Haileyville, Dow, Wilburton, Adamson, Alderson, and Phillips are only a few examples. Located on lands leased from the Choctaws, these towns were beyond the reach of government in many respects. For all practical purposes, the coal barons were the law in Indian Territory coal towns.

Well established by 1900, Oklahoma's coal industry prospered until the 1920s. A total 1891 production of one million tons rose to two million in 1901, to three million in 1903, and reached a peak of four million during World War I. A downturn after 1920 continued intermittently until World War II.

Steven L. Sewell


I. C. Gunning, When Coal Mining Was King: Coal Mining in the Choctaw Nation (N.p.: Eastern Oklahoma Historical Society, 1975).

Michael J. Hightower, "Cattle, Coal and Indian Land: A Tradition of Mining in Southeastern Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 62 (Spring 1984).

Donovan L. Hofsommer ed., Railroads in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977).

Philip A. Kalisch, "Ordeal of the Oklahoma Coal Miners: Coal Mine Disasters in the Sooner State, 1886–1945," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 48 (Autumn 1970).

Frederick L. 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:
Steven L. Sewell, “Coal,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=CO001.

Published January 15, 2010

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