The Richmond Coal Basin, Part II – A Dear Price for Energy

On the forest floor behind a country churchyard near the forgotten village of Winterpock, Virginia yawn two deep holes. One is covered with a square frame of concrete and a metal grate. The bottom is underneath somewhere, but it’s concealed by the tapering shadow the shaft’s walls cast. The other pit is open and you can see where it ends, but that’s many body lengths down and the sides leading there are steep enough that you’re not inclined to get too close to the edge.

SAM_1602      SAM_1601

The Bright Hope Shafts

You’d not find these holes unless you were looking for them; there are no clues of their out-of-the-way existence. The dense thicket is almost impenetrable except in winter’s dormancy. The trees that have grown around them are still and silent, an anonymous woodlot. You’d never guess that here occurred the deadliest mining accident in Richmond’s history.

I wrote last week about the early efforts to extract coal from the little-known Richmond coal basin. The discovery of coal in the heart of Virginia’s Piedmont began a scramble for power and profit, and by the middle of the 18th century industrial operations rimmed the diamond-shaped seam near the capital city. Chesterfield County, south and west of Richmond, was the heart of Virginia coal country long before railroads opened the vast seams in Appalachia, and the traces that miners left behind sit abandoned, unacknowledged all over Chesterfield and adjacent counties.

SAM_1607

An explanation for why these mines are mostly forgotten lies in the joyless vocation they offered–especially for the slaves who worked them before the Civil War. Being sent to the mines was a punishment for recalcitrant slaves. Even after the Civil War men worked the mines because they had to, because there was little other steady employment in a landscape and economy that had suffered from long years of economic hardship.

With many of the near-surface deposits of coal worked out, mine shafts became deeper and miners picked at the seams far beneath ground level. In 1818, a scientific observer descended a 350-foot shaft in Chesterfield County owned by Harry Heth and described the layout underground: a principal gallery, or tunnel, of 1,350 feet was intersected at right angles by shorter galleries where miners chipped away with pickaxes at the face to remove the coal. The underground passages were dank and dismal, the black miners strange in dress and appearance.

Being in the mines was a constant threat to life and limb. Fatal accidents–roof falls and asphyxiation, for instance–were routine. Explosions often occurred when miners’ headlamps ignited the methane that hissed from the freshly-cut coal. In 1839, 55 miners died at the Black Heath pits in a blast so violent it blew the framing timbers that lined the shaft 100 yards from the mouth.

The two portals behind the church in Winterpock were once the rosily-named Bright Hope (or Brighthope) Shafts. Bright Hope coal was in demand; the rock stayed in large chunks and was ideal for cooking and heating. All that energy came at a dear price, though.

SAM_1591     SAM_1599

The Abandoned Landscape at the Bright Hope Shafts

Scores of miners descended these shafts daily, deep into the bowels of the earth. One of the vertical tunnels was near 900 feet deep, and a couple boilers at the bottom provided the power necessary to keep the mine functioning. Ventilation of the mines was a tricky task requiring engineers to open and seal off various underground passages. If some error, some obstruction compromised the movement of fresh air around the workings, volatile gasses accumulated with terrible consequences.

In 1859, nine men died in an explosion at Bright Hope. That death toll was merely a precursor to grislier episode, though; eight years later, in 1867, an underground blast killed 69 miners, the greatest single loss of life that the Richmond basin’s mines encountered over two-and-a-half centuries.

But you wouldn’t know it to look at Bright Hope today. There are no memorials, save the overgrown and caved in pits themselves. The grate, a protective covering, keeps some foolhardy thrill seeker, maybe, or some unknowing child from falling into the collapsed shaft. There’s no indication here of what a dreadful scene this must have been a century-and-a-half ago. There are pits like this where men died all over Chesterfield.

SAM_1590     SAM_1593

Some of the few reminders at Bright Hope…rocks miners left behind

There is, however, one memorial to the dear price men paid to extract Richmond’s coal. Mid-Lothian Mines Park opened in 2004 on the site of the ruins of the Grove Shaft, where miners once descended more than 1,200 vertical feet underground. The park holds the teetering ruins of the buildings erected to support the workings here. Towering piles of unwanted tailings line the paved and graveled trail. Someone threw his old Christmas tree in a rusted mine car. Even with the forest that has grown here for nearly a century it’s possible to get a sense for how drastically modified a landscape Richmond’s coalfields were.

SAM_1414      SAM_1401

Scenes from the Grove Shaft at Mid-Lothian Mines Park

Like Bright Hope, the Grove Shaft encountered its share of deadly explosions. 32 miners lost their lives in one blast in 1882. Poor ventilation and flammable gasses were the culprit. Families rushed to the shaft awaiting word of their loved ones, but when it became clear that rescue efforts were futile, families wailed and wept openly and a scene of harrowing grief blanketed the mine.

Unlike the Bright Hope pits, suburbia has fully enveloped these mines. Neat back yards jut up to the park’s boundaries, so close you can hear the electric hum of their air conditioning units. The coal that makes those machines run comes from distant mines despite billions of tons of it directly underneath them. Once railroads linked the Appalachian coalfields to the power-hungry consumers of the east, Richmond’s coal proved too costly in lives, money and effort to be a viable option for the energy that the growing suburbs demanded.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Ghost towns, Mines, Miscellaneous. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Richmond Coal Basin, Part II – A Dear Price for Energy

  1. Delores Bowles says:

    I am trying to find out if the names of any of the miners is availible. My Grandfather was born at Fendleys Station which is now located in Pocahontas State Park and his parents both died when he was a kid and he and his two sisters went to live with three separate families. I grew up near Winterpock and I am trying to figure if his father had something to do with the railroad maybe as Findley’s was just down the road from Beach Station which was founded by the Perdue’s which are also my family.
    Thank you
    Delores Bowles

  2. Ryan Cullen says:

    Hey Ben, do you know if this is on private property? I live about 5 minutes from here and have really been intrigued by your writings on this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *