Jump to Navigation

Kansas Historical Quarterly - The Impact of the Railroads on Coal Mining

in Osage County
1869-1910

by D. Lane Hartsock

Winter 1971 (Vol. 37, No. 4), pages 429 to 440
Transcribed by Marilyn Payne; HTML editing by Tod Roberts;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

Read this article online PDF version

Sketch of coal mine structure on top of an elevation

"Coal Mining Scene on the Prairies of Kansas" was the title of this sketch published in The Guide Board of April, 1873, a promotion piece of the A. T. & S. F. railroad. It illustrated an article relating to fuel and the "Osage Coal Fields."

THE LATTER half of the 19th century witnessed the disappearance of the frontier from Kansas and the phenomenal growth and spread of settlement. The population, which in 1860 had been only 107,206, mushroomed to 364,399 in 1870, to 996,096 in 1880, and by 1900 had reached 1,470,495. [1] Accompanying this expansion, and in no small way the cause of it, were the railroads. Not only did they become the major means of transportation, but they were also the colonizing agents, selling the extensive land grants received from the government and ultimately directing the course of the evolving settlement pattern.

Attending the early advance of railroads and settlement in Kansas was an increasing demand for fuel. Most energy sources were initially quite scarce in the state. Except along stream courses there was a paucity of fuel wood, and while coal had been discovered in the 1850s and 1860's, because of high transportation costs its exploitation was limited to the immediate area where it was found. As a result, many settlers had little recourse but to consume "cow chips or twisted grass for fuel."[2] The market for coal was certainly present and the level of technology was equal to the task of mining it, but until the advent of railroads and the consequent reduction of transportation costs, its distribution was economically infeasible.

Railroads were thus responsible, directly or indirectly, for the development of most local fuel sources, which wherever possible were coal. They required reasonably good quality fuel and coal was far more efficient than wood. Moreover, coal was found locally while wood in the quantities needed would necessarily be imported from farther east. All else being equal, it was also cheaper to develop local coal supplies than to import it. Finally, the rapidly growing populace would need coal for manufacturing and domestic heating. Thus, coal traffic would furnish the rail- roads with badly needed revenues.

One of the first coal fields in Kansas to receive a developmental push by a railroad was that of Osage county, and the agent of that push was the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. Construction on the line originated in Topeka in late 1868 and by September, 1869, was completed southward through Carbondale to Burlingame. The decision to build initially southwest into Osage county, rather than to Atchison, was prompted by the coal deposits located in the former. [3] Moreover, the line as it was originally proposed would have bypassed Osage county completely. This proposal projected the Santa Fe from Topeka across southern Wabaunsee county to Council Grove and westward toward the future Great Bend, The discovery of coal in Osage county, however, caused the course of the railroad to be diverted along a more southerly route through the Osage field, thence to Emporia and Great Bend. [4]

The dates of the original mining endeavors in the county are questionable, but some production occurred at least as early as 1867 from a strip pit near Scranton. [5] The discovery of coal early in 1869 by John F. Dodds at Carbon Hill, however, apparently was the catalyst that led to a rapid increase in mining activity. In that same year mines were opened in Osage City, as well as at Carbondale, and shortly thereafter development began at Scranton. [6] Mining was delayed at Burlingame until 1897 because the coal was considerably deeper and many felt that it did not exist. [7]

Before the arrival of the railroad the market area for Osage coal was quite restricted. Coal at that time was hauled exclusively by wagon and the market probably did not extend beyond a radius of 40 miles from the mining areas. Reference has been made to coal haulage from Carbondale to Topeka, a distance of 17 miles,[8] and before the completion of the railroad from Burlingame to Alma (38 miles) in 1880, quantities were transported to the latter. But in all cases the distances were relatively short and the coal amounts rather small. It remained for the railroad to expand the market.

In 1869 the Santa Fe railway penetrated the coal field of Osage county, and subsequently continued westward, reaching the Colorado state line on December 28, 1872. [9] Meanwhile, the line had been extended eastward to Atchison and connections were gained to Kansas City by 1875. At this particular time Osage coal was marketed in a narrow belt virtually across the entire length of the state. No significant competition had been met in the west because the railroad had not yet tapped the Colorado fields of Trinidad and Canon City. The strongest competition was found in the eastern part of Kansas. Here Bourbon County coal from the vicinity of Fort Scott captured a large part of the Kansas City market as well as other points farther to the north. [10] The southeastern field was not important at this time. It supplied a local market, and the first shipments to the outside were not made until 1876. [11] Thus, while Osage coal had to share the eastern part of the state with competitors, that part of the west penetrated by rails was virtually the sole realm of Osage county. No other coal field in the state could boast so large a market area. Moreover, this market was expanding as the railroad extended into new areas.

In the late 1870's and early 1880's the railroads built many lines in Kansas and the market area for Osage coal correspondingly in- creased. Competition from Colorado coal shortened the market area somewhat in the west, but this was more than compensated for by the broadening of the formerly narrow belt. The eastern terminus of successful Canon City, Colo., competition at this time was probably located at about Dodge City. Osage City was approximately 40 miles closer to this point and had a very small advantage in mine-mouth coal costs, but freight rates favored Canon City. Competition was also increasing in the east as southeastern Kansas began to enter the regional market. The expansion of this area, however, was largely at the expense of Bourbon county, which declined rapidly after 1880. [12] Thus, the position of Osage county in the Kansas City area was essentially unchanged. The main competitors had merely changed names. The rapid increase in population and the growth of industry greatly expanded the market, so that there may actually have been a small absolute increase of Osage coal moving into the area. This was the golden age of Osage county coal mining. As a result of this market growth and increased production a state mine inspector observed that "for years afterward Osage county was the leading center in point of quantity of coal mined and the number of men employed west of the Mississippi."[13]

In terms of coal consumption and transport, the Santa Fe was always the most important railroad through the Osage coal field, but it was not long the only line in the area. There were, for a time, three other railroads in the county.

The first of these additional roads was the Lawrence and Carbondale. Connecting these two towns, this railroad was built in 1872 expressly for the purpose of tapping the coal deposits of the Carbondale area. Most of the coal was moved to Lawrence, a distance of some 31 miles. However, because the line was short, the market and revenues small, coupled with the financial panic of 1873, the line was soon abandoned. [14] The railroad was subsequently rejuvenated as the St. Louis, Lawrence and Western, and became a branch of the Union Pacific. For a time it supplied all the coal used on the Union Pacific, Eastern division, which became the Kansas Pacific, later the Union Pacific. [15] The line was finally abandoned in the 1890's, by which time the Osage coal field was rapidly declining.

Another railroad of the county was the Manhattan, Alma and Burlingame which was completed in 1880. This road was built as a result of the coal discovery at Burlingame in 1879. [16] In return the railroad gave Burlingame an additional developmental impetus. The 57-mile line was eventually absorbed into the Santa Fe system and subsequently the Alma to Manhattan segment was abandoned.

The last railroad built across the Osage field was the Missouri Pacific. In terms of coal hauled and consumed it was second in importance only to the Santa Fe. Completed in the winter of 1886- 1887, this line opened some additional consumer territory for Osage coal. [17] This increased market came after the Santa Fe had begun to develop new fuel sources and helped to prevent an earlier production decline. The reprieve proved to be only temporary, however, because the Missouri Pacific was also developing coal fields in southeastern Kansas and western Missouri.

Although each of these railroads contributed to the prosperity of the Osage field, its economic well-being was overwhelmingly tied to the Santa Fe. Osage county remained the principal supplier of fuel to the Santa Fe from 1869 until the line opened its mines in Crawford county in 1886. [18] The influence of the railroad upon the coal field for most of that period was indirect, but in 1880 some 30,000 acres of coal lands were purchased and the Santa Fe companies were soon mining well over half of the county's annual production. [19]

The purposes of this venture into coal mining by the Santa Fe were to secure control of its own fuel supply and to boost production, which as Table 1 shows, was falling behind company needs. It appears that Osage county production was adequate for railroad requirements until at least 1877. The figure of 72,848 tons for that year represents only the amount of Osage coal transported by the Santa Fe. [20] Actual production was doubtless considerably higher and total tonnage was probably sufficient. By 1880, however, there was an obvious disparity between supply and demand. The railroad was forced to acquire increasing amounts of fuel elsewhere. Part of the fuel deficit was made up from the developing Colorado fields at Canon City and Trinidad and still more was imported from Missouri and elsewhere, but this was expensive fuel. Thus, railroad capital began to pour into the Osage county field in an effort to increase the supply.

TABLE 1 -- Osage County Coal Production and
Santa Fe Railroad Coal Consumption, 1874-1890

Year

Production (Tons)*

Consumption (Tons)†

1874

73,400

21,367

1875

123,400

38,996

1877

72,848‡

43,894

1880

130,172

159,884

1883

371,885

277,520

1885

425,834

354,781

1887

417,607

519,676

1890

468,622

1,303,265

* Kansas, State Inspector of Coal Mines, Annual Reports (Topeka, State Printer, 1883-1890). Walter H. Sohoewe, Coat Resources of the Wabaunsee Group in Eastern Kansas, State Geological Survey of Kansas Bulletin 63 (Lawrence, University of Kansas, 1946), p. 120. U. S. Bureau of the Census, Tenth Census of the United States: 1880. Report on the Mining Industries of the United States, v. 15, pp. 650-653.

†Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company, Annual Reports of the Board of Directors (Boston, George H. Ellis Press).

‡This figure represents Osage county coal hauled by the Santa Fe railroad in 1877. Total production for that year is unknown.

These efforts were to a degree rewarded, for production by 1885 had more than trebled that of five years earlier. Consumption, however, had also greatly expanded and supplies remained insufficient. Since the Santa Fe controlled only a fraction of the total production a considerable amount of the coal was sold elsewhere. The railroads were generally unwilling to pay the rates charged domestic consumers, so that many producers preferred the latter market. In consequence, the railroad had no recourse but to seek alternative sources of fuel. The Santa Fe soon extended its lines into Crawford county where vastly greater coal reserves were to be found, and in 1886 purchased some 6,000 acres of coal land. [21] This event was to signal the beginning of the end for Osage mining. Although production was to increase for a few more years, relative prosperity declined and the competing coal fields made rapid absolute and relative gains.

This period 1890-1910 was a time when coal mining in Kansas was generally prosperous, yet for Osage county it represented two decades of disaster. Conditions for mining in the county in earlier years had been relatively favorable, but only because other producers in the state were comparatively undeveloped. The disadvantages of the Osage field were at that time more potential than real. Mine-mouth costs were even then higher, but it was still more centrally located, accessible, and developed. In short, the economic situation may not have been the most favorable in some respects, but as long as the supply satisfied the market needs it was, at least in the short run, less expensive than developing an- other source. But well before 1890 Osage was unable to entirely supply its rapidly expanding market, so that other sources were necessarily developed. Its production became inadequate for even the Santa Fe railroad, not to mention other railroads, domestic heating, and so on. The major competitors which arose had vastly greater potential for production, mining costs were generally lower, and coal quality was superior. Thus, they not only supplemented Osage coal on the market, but gradually replaced it.

The growth of Crawford county was particularly damaging to the Osage field because it was in the former that the Santa Fe initially invested most heavily. Of course, once Santa Fe branch lines had been extended into Crawford county, and particularly after opening its mines there, it was to the company's advantage to use this superior and cheaper coal. When Crawford county development had proceeded to the point where supplies were sufficient for railroad needs, consumption of Osage coal was drastically reduced, and the sale of the Santa Fe properties there began. By 1898 the Santa Fe had disposed of more than half of its Osage coal properties. [22]

The Santa Fe was not the only railroad which made pronounced reductions in Osage coal consumption. The St. Louis, Lawrence and Western (by this time known as the Lawrence and Emporia) terminated regular operations even before coal production declined. [23] Contrary to the others, the Manhattan, Alma and Burlingame reached peak consumption of Osage coal after the decline began, in 1894. [24] The amount of coal involved, however, was quite small and was not significant economically except to the Burlingame area. The Missouri Pacific, because of extensive coal holdings in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and southeastern Kansas, was not an important consumer of Osage coal. It was more important as a carrier.

Osage county might still have remained a major producer had it been able to retain its manufacturing and domestic consumer market. But much of this market was lost, and again, the cause was the higher cost of Osage coal. Nevertheless, Osage county would have retained a larger share of the market had the railroad freight rate structure been equitable. The Osage field paid substantially higher freight charges for coal shipments than most major competitors. Table 2 shows the charges levied by the Santa Fe in 1893 on coal shipped from three of the fields to various Kansas markets. It can readily be seen that ton-mile rates on coal shipped from Osage City were notably higher than from Frontenac. In 1893 the average mine-mouth cost of Osage coal was $1.89, while in Crawford county the average was $1.25. [25] Thus, the total cost at each of the market points can be determined and the approximate market area can be mapped as shown in Figure 1. Based on total cost, the market for Osage coal lay principally to the north and west of the county. Most of the remainder of the state lay within the respective market realms of Crawford, Cherokee, and Leavenworth counties. Colorado coal completed successfully in the west, but had little effect on Osage county because of the great distance involved.

TABLE 2 -- Coal Rates Via the Santa Fe Railroad From
Three Competing Coal Fields to Various Kansas Market Points*

Market

Osage City

Osage City

Osage City

Frontenac†

Frontenac†

Frontenac†

Canon City, Colorado

Canon City, Colorado

Canon City, Colorado

 

Miles

Rate/Ton

Ton-Mile Rate in ¢

Miles

Rate/Ton

Ton-Mile Rate in ¢

Miles

Rate/Ton

Ton-Mile Rate in ¢

Lyndon

9

.50

5.55

145

1.30

.90

583

4.00

.69

Topeka

34

.60

1.76

177

1.40

.79

608

4.00

.66

Atchison

85

.65

.76

234

1.00

.45

659

4.50

.68

Kansas City

92

.65

.71

181

.80

.44

675

4.50

.67

Ottawa

35

.65

1.86

119

.80

.67

615

4.00

.65

Emporia

26

.60

2.31

126

1.50

1.19

549

4.00

.73

Newton

100

1.20

1.20

200

1.90

.95

475

3.60

.76

Hutchison

133

1.40

1.05

233

2.00

.86

442

3.60

.82

Abilene

109

1.30

1.19

208

2.00

.96

591

3.60

.61

Salina

131

1.30

1.00

230

2.00

.87

613

3.60

.59

Concordia

164

1.60

.98

263

2.20

.84

646

4.00

.62

Superior, Neb.

204

2.00

.98

303

2.40

.79

686

4.00

.58

* Kansas, State Inspector of Coal Mines, Sixth Annual Report, 1893 (Topeka, Hamilton Printing Company Press, 1894), p. 132.

†Crawford county, Kansas (about two miles north of Pittsburg).

Approximate market areas of Osage and Colorado coal, 1893

Figure 1: Approximate Market Areas of Osage and Colorado Coal, 1893

The motive for these discriminatory rates was to increase the market for railroad company coal. As the state mine inspector in 1893 put it:

The power of naming the rate for the transportation of coal is, under our present laws, lodged in the railroad companies. The railroads make such rates as will be of advantage to their auxiliaries, the railroad coal companies. They have adjusted transportation charges so as to bring coal fields into close and unnecessary competition in many markets. Their own companies are practically unaffected by the loss to any particular coal field of any especial market. Their loss in one locality is balanced by a corresponding gain in another, while the independent operator, losing for a time his entire market by a small change in the rates, or prices, is driven to the wall. [26]

The railroads, of course, were always interested in reducing fuel costs. By playing one coal field against another, which ultimately lowered prices, this goal could be realized.

 Figure 2: Railroads of Osage County

The ability of the railroads to manipulate these prices hung like an ominous cloud over a naturally high-cost coal region such as Osage county. Any reduction in freight rates or in the mining price in southeastern Kansas threatened not only a corresponding reduction of the mining price in Osage county, but until the inevitable adjustment it threatened also the loss of much of the county's legitimate trade, and a period of slack work and small pay. Evidence of the railroad's success is the reduction in miner's wages from $2.75 per ton in 1873 to less than half that amount in 1893. [27] Coupled with low output per man per day and a decreasing number of active days, the Osage miner was indeed forced to tighten his belt.

These devastating rates continued through the period in question, as evidenced by Table 3, and well before 1910 the area where Osage coal dominated the market was reduced to little more than the county itself. Considerable, but dwindling, amounts of Osage coal continued to be marketed elsewhere, but competitors dominated sales. Osage county was never to regain the position of importance it had held in earlier years. The loss of the market was permanent and eventually total.

TABLE 3 -- Comparative Per Ton Coal Rates From Osage City and Pittsburg, Kan.
to Stations in Kansas (AVERAGE OF ALL RAILROADS)*

 

Average Rates Charged

Average Rates Charged

Average Rates Charged

Average Rates Charged

 

From Osage City to Stations in Kansas

From Osage City to Stations in Kansas

From Pittsburg to Stations in Kansas

From Pittsburg to Stations in Kansas

Miles

Lump

Slack

Lump

Slack

50

$.72

$.72

$.71

$.71

75

.97

.83

.83

.83

100

1.14

1.05

.92

.92

150

1.53

1.50

1.26

1.20

200

1.88

1.75

1.54

1.23

250

2.05

1.93

1.92

1.34

300

2.43

2.25

2.18

1.67

350

2.48

2.48

2.24

2.09

* Kansas. Board of Railroad Commissioners, Nineteenth Report for the Years Ending November 30, 1905 and November 30, 1906 (Topeka, State Printing Office, 1906), p. 136. The railroads, particularly the Santa Fe, were thus largely responsible after 1869 for Osage county's growth as a major coal producer. Before their arrival both coal production and the market were small. The penetration of the field by rails opened a vastly wider market which at that time was unhindered by severe competition. As long as the coal supply kept pace with demand, there was no great incentive for the Santa Fe to develop other sources. Railroad capital poured into the Osage field and it soon enjoyed the greatest production west of the Mississippi river. Yet the field was unable to keep pace with even more rapidly expanding demands. Thus, the Santa Fe was also instrumental in the decline of Osage county as it turned elsewhere to satisfy its fuel requirements. Once other sources were developed these competing fields, particularly those in southeastern Kansas, were much preferable because the coal was both cheaper and of better quality. Moreover, productive capacity and reserves were far superior. Finally, in order to expand the market for its own coal the Santa Fe also came to favor the southeastern field with lower freight rates. Consequently, Osage county not only lost its most important consumer, the railroad, but much of its domestic market as well. Only by drastically reducing miner's wages could even a remnant of the market be retained. Not until 1914 did the Kansas Public Utilities Commission intervene on Osage county's behalf, and by then it was too late to restore production to its former level.

Railroad Stock Certificate

Stock certificate for a typical railroad-oriented mining company

Coal mining in Osage County KS

Coal mining in Osage county. Unfortunately this old photograph
offers no explanation for the white collar and cuffs.

Train explosion in Osage County, 1896

The engine of a Santa Fe passenger train which exploded near a Peterton coal chute October 4, 1896, causing several deaths. "The train must have been ill-fated," The Public Opinion of Osage City, October 7, 1896, commented. It was running late because of an attempted holdup in New Mexico. And to top it all a passenger committed suicide after the wreck. "He had a McKinley button in his pocket," volunteered the newspaper. Photo courtesy of O. A. Copple, Osage City.

Notes

D. LANE HARTSOCK, native of Maryland, received his M. A. degree from the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He presently is an assistant professor in the geography department at Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos.

1. These figures are taken from the 17. U.S. Census of Population for the years stated.
2. Carl Frederick Kraenzel, The Great Plains in Transition (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1955), p. 141.
3. Lawrence L. Waters, Steel Trails to Santa Fe (Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 1950), p. 39. Joseph W. Snell and Don W. Wilson, "The Birth of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad," Kansas Historical Quarterly, v. 84, pp. 123, 134.
4. George W. Glick, "The Railroad Convention of 1860," Kansas Historical Collections, v. 9 (1905-1906), pp. 476, 477.
5. Walter H. Schoewe, Coal Resources of the Wabaunsee Croup in Eastern Kansas, State Geological Survey of Kansas Bulletin 63 (Lawrence, University of Kansas, 1946), p. 117.
6. Ibid.
7. John E. Rastall, "Reminiscences of the Discovery of Coal in Burlingame," Osage County Chronicle, Burlingame, August 17, 1882.
8. Stephen Jackson Spear, "Reminiscences of the Early Settlement of Dragoon Creek, Wabaunsee County," Kansas Historical Collections, v. 18 (1913-1914), p. 860.
9. Snell and Wilson, "Birth of the … Santa Fe Railroad," pp. 353, 354.
10. Richard L. Douglas, "A History of Manufactures in the Kansas District," Kansas Historical Collections, v. 11 (1909-1910), p. 104. Bourbon County became important in the Kansas City market after its penetration by rail from the latter in 1869-1870. This importance was short lived and its fate was a preview of what was to occur somewhat later in Osage county.
11. Ibid., p. 108.
12. Ibid., p. 109.
13. Kansas, State Inspector of Coal Mines, Eighth Annual Mine Inspectors Report, 1895 (Topeka, Hamilton Printing Company Press, 1896), p. 17.
14. A. T. Andreas and W. G. Cutler, History of the State of Kansas (Chicago, 1883), p. 246.
15. "Carbondale's Infinite Wealth in Its Vast Coal Deposits " Topeka Daily Capital, June 14, 1888.
16. Rastall, in Osage County Chronicle, August 17, 1882.
17. From the personal files of Oscar A. Copple, president of the Osage County Historical Society and stationmaster of the Missouri Pacific depot at Osage City (April 29, 1969).
18. "Coal Deposits Brought Santa Fe to Crawford," Pittsburg Daily Headlight, May 19, 1926.
19. Sixth Annual Report of the State Inspector of Coal Mines, 1893, p. 129.
20. Since this figure represents 91 percent of the coal transported on the entire Santa Fe system in 1877, Osage supplies must have been adequate because very little coal was imported from elsewhere. &emdash;-Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company, Annual Report, 1877, pp. 55-68.
21. Pittsburg Daily Headlight, May 19, 1926.
22. W. R. Crane. "Geography and Detailed Stratigraphy of the Kansas Coal Measures: Description of Mines, Mining Methods, and Mining Machinery; Chemical and Physical Properties of Kansas Coals; Output and Commerce; Mining Directory; and Mining Laws," Pt. II in Special Report on Coal, The University Geological Survey of Kansas, v. 8 (Topeka, State Printer, 1898), p. 190.
23. Lawrence and Emporia coal consumption in 1888 was reported at 34 tons. Thereafter no statistics of that nature are given for this line. The tracks, however, were not taken up until 1899-1900 -- Kansas, Board of Railroad Commissioners, Sixth Annual Report, for the Year Ending December 1, 1888 (Topeka, Kansas Publishing House, 1888), p. 404.
24. Board of Railroad Commissioners, Twelfth Annual Report, 1894, p. 155.
25. Sixth Annual Report of the State Inspector of Coal Mines, 1893, pp. 23, 69.
26. Ibid., p. 133.
27. Ibid.