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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Surface mining involves the removal of a valuable rock and/or mineral after it is exposed at the land surface by scraping off the overburden. It may also be called strip mining, quarrying, open-cast mining, and/or open-pit mining. Before European settlers arrived, American Indians harvested salt exposed on salt plains in northwestern and southwestern Oklahoma. They also quarried flint and chert from many localities for arrow and spear points, blades, and scraping tools, and they dug minerals such as hematite, limonite, and galena for use as coloring agents. In the mid-nineteenth century active exploration for useful minerals and rocks in Oklahoma began. Salt, lime made from limestone, and coal were some of first materials mined.

As early as 1850 salt was recovered from natural saline springs in the Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma. In 1824 lime mortar, made by burning limestone and then slaking the resulting quicklime, was used in masonry construction at Fort Towson in Choctaw County. Mortar also was made from local limestones for building five other Oklahoma forts through 1869. In 1719 French explorers made the first record of coal deposits in present eastern Oklahoma. At that time there were few inhabitants, and virtually no use was made of the mineral. By the middle part of the nineteenth century American Indians utilized local coal. They mined it by hand and sold it by the bushel. Large-scale commercial development of Oklahoma's coal resources in the McAlester area began in the 1870s after completion of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway line from southeastern Kansas through Indian Territory into Texas. From 1872 through 1880 the McAlester district produced a half-million tons of coal.

Strip mining and other forms of open-pit mining have occurred in Oklahoma since pioneer days. As early as 1838 trappers and traders hand-dug galena ore, a principal source for lead shot, in northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri. In the early development of Oklahoma's coal fields, plows, scrapers, picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and wagons were used to surface-mine the mineral. After horse or mule-drawn plows and scrapers removed rock layers covering the coal beds, the coal was shoveled into carts or wagons pulled by oxen or horses and transported to market. From 1872 to 1940 most of Oklahoma's coal production came from underground mines.

Large-scale quarrying and open-cast mining for stone, sand and gravel, asphalt, and other non-coal resources began in the late 1800s with a great influx of people settling in Oklahoma and Indian territories. Significant strip-mining activity in the eastern Oklahoma coal field began about 1915. Large-scale surface mining commenced in the 1920s with the development of mechanized earth-moving equipment. By 1940 half of Oklahoma's annual coal production was recovered by surface mining, and at the end of the twentieth century 95 percent of the state's coal production came from surface mines. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, except for one underground limestone mine in Sequoyah County and one underground coal mine in Le Flore County, all other rock and mineral commodities in Oklahoma (gypsum, limestone, coal, sand, gravel, etc.) were recovered by surface-mining methods.

Surface mining has several benefits when compared to underground mines, including higher rates of mineral recovery (80 to 90 percent) compared to about 50 percent in underground mines, lower production costs, and less danger to the health and safety of miners. The principal negative impact of surface mining is disturbance of the land and, in the past, leaving spoil banks and other evidence of mining. Furthermore, acidic waters were produced locally when sulfides and other minerals were exposed to the atmosphere. Oklahoma laws now require all lands disturbed by mining to be reclaimed and restored to their original conditions or to a beneficial use.

Kenneth V. Luza and Kenneth S. Johnson


Edward Everett Dale and Morris L. Wardell, History of Oklahoma (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1948).

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

William E. Ham, "Coal, Metals, and Nonmetals in Oklahoma," Oklahoma Geological Survey Semi-Centennial Report, 1908–1958 (Norman: Oklahoma Geological Survey, 1958).

John W. Morris, ed., Drill Bits, Picks, and Shovels: A History of Mineral Resources in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1982).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Kenneth V. Luza and Kenneth S. Johnson, “Surface Mining,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=SU012.

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