Drive west on Virginia State Route 6 from Richmond and you’ll come to the fringes of suburbia where the signs announcing new subdivisions end and the scenery has blended into countryside. Somewhere near here, more than 300 years ago, a French Huguenot settler made a discovery that’s been largely forgotten today–though the traces of that important find remain.
What that settler stumbled upon a couple centuries ago was coal. What you’ll see there today is a landscape that still bears the scars of North America’s first commercial coal mines.
Old Coal Pit
We take for granted that our modern society was largely built on this black rock. In fact, much of what we do still relies on coal. Despite efforts to curb our reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels, the United States burns more than three tons of it annually for each man, woman and child.
Mention coal to average citizens, though, and their thoughts will turn westward to the vast reserves of Appalachia or the Rockies. Long before the first lump of coal ever rolled from a western portal, however, eastern Virginians were chipping away the seams beneath the Piedmont’s rolling terrain.
There’s a diamond-shaped coal basin beneath central Virginia. The first commercial coal mine opened west of Richmond near a small town called Manakin in 1748, decades before railroads connected Appalachia to eastern markets. The workings here were known as the Dover Mines.
Operations were at first primitive and not at all methodical. When French nobleman Duc de La Rochefoucauld stopped by the Dover Mines on a tour of North America in 1796, he found the owners “content to grope their way” through the intricate business of coal mining “without applying for advice to more enlightened men.” In fact, lamented the Frenchman, “there is not one person throughout America versed in the art of working mines.”
Early on, the coal mines–which miners and laymen alike called “pits”–were simple affairs, circular holes dug to access and remove the coal just below the surface. A northerner who bought coal mine properties outside Richmond just after the Civil War explained to traveling correspondent John T. Trowbridge how Virginia’s mines worked: “These Virginians would dig a little pit and take out coal until water came in and interfered with their work; then they would go somewhere else and dig another little pit. So they worked over the surface of the fields, but left the great body of the coal undisturbed. They baled [the water] with a mule.”
The earliest mines relied heavily on enslaved labor. Duc de La Rochefoucauld reported after his visit there that 500 African Americans worked the pits and an adjacent company farm. But these enslaved laborers weren’t just working at ground level; by the time the Frenchman wrote his observations of Manakin’s coal fields, owners had long since realized that surface mining wouldn’t cut it, and they’d begun to dig shafts to follow the coal seams deep underground.
The Dover Mines were also among the first in the Richmond basin to be abandoned, and in the many decades since miners left these pits behind, the land has concealed the shafts they dug to get at the coal. Find access to old Dover pits–they’re all on private property–and you get a good sense for how deeply blemished the landscape must have been.
A Portal? A Pit?
Deep dimples pock the ground–perhaps one of the earliest simple pits, perhaps the opening to a later, deeper shaft, they’re too far gone to tell. Trenches dug for some industrial purpose (drainage?…a makeshift railway?) slope away from the pitted earth. An uprooted tree lifts ground above the leaf litter, exposing the spot where miners dumped tailings–the worthless rock above and below the veins.
This landscape, here and now, is still dangerous and foreboding. One wrong step and you’ll snap an ankle, take a tumble down a slope from which it’ll take a while to recover. And this after the ground has had a century-and-a-half to heal. These old pits go to show how lasting an effect man has on the earth even with the most primitive of tools–in this case a shovel, pickaxe and strong back.
Tailings exposed by an upturned tree
Next week: Richmond’s worst mining disaster, forgotten in overgrown woods.