Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
“No Peace and Quiet”
Coal companies plow up central Illinois
July 25, 1980
Coal mining is nearly dead in Illinois, but 40 years ago it was still hale enough to make plans to buy up and lay waste to chunks of central Illinois that lay atop strippable coal seams. Other parts of Illinois by 1980 had learned not to trust the industry's word, but central Illinois landowners happily sold to the coal firms and local governments happily sold out to them.
This version is edited for clarity.
The other day, the New York Times published a brief dispatch from the Associated Press. It seems Supreme Court Justice Stevens had postponed the effect of a June ruling in an Indiana court that would have invalidated parts of the 1977 federal Strip Mine Conservation and Reclamation Act that pertain to the restoration of mined farmland until the full Supreme Court could settle the status of the law once and for all. The story got exactly thirty-four lines in the Times—they don’t do much strip mining on Manhattan, though parts of the Bronx look like it—but it got hardly a line at all around here.
That’s too bad. Illinois has a lot of coal and a lot of prime farmland, and through what looks like a geologic practical joke much of the former lies just below the surface of the latter. Decisions about how, to what standard, within which time span, and at what cost prime farmland will be reclaimed after mining are issues which are likely to be argued about a lot in central Illinois in the next decade.
Central Illinois used to be coal country, which is usually news to the tourists. The No. 5 (“Springfield”) and the deeper, thicker No. 6 (“Herrin”) coal stretch beneath this part of the state like fillings in a continental layer cake. There are still miners alive who remember the days in the 1920s when Sangamon County led the state in coal production, and since 1952 Peabody Coal has been hauling coal out of a hole in the ground near Pawnee and feeding it into the hot belly of Commonwealth Edison’s Kincaid power plant at a rate as high as five million tons per year.
There are those—many of them newspaper feature writers—who recall those days fondly. Coal did mean money and jobs hereabouts; much as state government is today, it was the place where thousands of semi-skilled people could make more money than they ever dreamed possible. But coal also meant funerals and broken backs, union fights, midnight ambushes and dynamited coal trains, National Guard scab herders, black lung, falling roofs, poisoned streams, gob piles that lay like bloated whale carcasses beached on the countryside, summer layoffs and winter weeks of never seeing the sun except—a cruel pun—on Sundays. When Springfield’s last big shipping mine closed down in 1952, the newspapers mourned the passing of an era. Instead of mourning, people should have been dancing in the streets.
But that was a long time ago, and now the only time most of us think about coal is when we worry about how to pay our electric bills. But coal is still down there after 120 years of digging, and if the people around here haven’t paid much attention to it, the energy companies have. Coal that was too deep or that sold too cheap to mine can today be mined because both the machines and the money are better.
In 1978 it was revealed that Consolidation Coal, the nation’s No. 2 producer, had bought coal rights to 4,500 acres of Sangamon County land. It was also revealed that a consortium of natural gas companies had bought coal reserve leases on 150,000 acres between. Springfield and Decatur (more than one billion tons in all) which would supply a two- million-ton-per-day deep mine to be operated by the Chatham Coal Co. A year before that, representatives of Chicago’s Commonwealth Edison had announced that ComEd had bought 18,800 acres of land in Cass, Sangamon, and Menard counties since 1969 (most of it through agents), enough to make the company the biggest single landowner in Cass County. Plans remain indefinite, but the likeliest use for the land would be as a home for a mine-mouth electric generating station.
More recently, a small mine has opened in Brown County in an operation which owners hope will eventually recover the estimated 2 million tons of coal under 1,000 acres there. Amax and North American Coal reportedly have been negotiating coal leases in western Macoupin County, and Freeman United has received permits to mine nearly 2,700 acres in McDonough and Schuyler counties. Most recently, Shell Oil announced plans to open a mine to tap the 17,000 acres of coal it owns in Logan County near Elkhart, coal which seems likely to be sold to Springfield’s City Water, Light and Power Department.
Most of these proposed new mines are in parts of the state that have not been intensively mined in the past. But they are unique too in that, unlike most of the mines of central Illinois’s mining heyday, they will be strip mines. I do not mean to say that there has been no strip mining in Illinois’s fertile midsection; perhaps the most heavily stripped county in the state is Fulton, and Knox and Vermilion (where the nation’s first commercial strip mine is said to have opened in the 1860s) have likewise been gnawed at with enough violence that citizens of each county have organized guerrilla resistance, although these days aggrieved citizens lob lawsuits instead of grenades.
Indeed, much of the current federal law on strip mining of farmland owes its substance and its inspiration to these dogged fighters who, as has been true of prophets going back to Matthew, have been more honored abroad than in their own country. Battle-tested veterans of the strip mine wars in Knox County have done their best to spread the alarm; just the other day one told a McDonough County audience, in effect, to get the kids indoors and load up the muskets.
The big worry among these mostly farm people is what strip mining might do to the soil. Of course strip mining is a reformed character, no longer the ravager of land it once was. In fact, the mixing of soil horizons that follows mining sometimes can actually improves poor soils. But central Illinois’s prime soils present a more delicate case. Though research continues, it is by no means clear that such soils can be reclaimed to their pre-mining productivity within five or even fifty years.
But coal companies are not a benign presence even when they live up to the promises of reclamation law. Strip mining doesn’t disturb just the soil ecosystem but the social ecosystem as well. Money has a lot to do with it; when our Knox County Paul Revere rode to McDonough County she warned, “Every family will be torn apart between people who want and don’t want to sell. There will be no peace and quiet.’’
That ancient arrangement by which rubes exist to be fleeced by city slickers still stands in many a rural retreat. Coal companies can hire lawyers who are smarter and better prepared than the county boards who are supposed to oversee such things as reclamation plans and property tax assessments. Coal buyers (sometimes the companies themselves, sometimes their agents) have more tricks to get their way than a legislative conference committee.
Checkerboard leasing is one, by which they make it impossible for competing companies to acquire contiguous blocks for mining. Or they offer ignorant land owners ridiculously low prices for coal rights (1.75 percent of the coal value in Richland and Lawrence counties last year, according to one report). Even farmers who pride themselves on their sharp eye for a barter came to Springfield to ask for protection in the form of a guaranteed five percent coal royalty.
Coal companies are fond of saying that strip mining is only a temporary use of land, and they are right, but. then so is war, even (within a less myopic time scale) suburbs. I suspect that it isn’t the destruction of the land that people fear so much from strip mining. Farmers are ruining the land anyway, by degrees, and the same people who cheer the federal strip mine law bridle at any hint of legal restraints on farmers’ profligate ways with the soil.
The 1977 federal strip mine law has provisions for ruling certain lands unsuitable for mining, including prime farmlands; those provisions will go into effect this fall or winter, if they survive the various legal challenges to them being argued now in Washington. But stopping the shovels won’t be easy. Coal still means money and jobs. When Logan County residents worried out loud about the dirty air and the drop in water tables that might reasonably be expected to attend the opening of Shell’s new mine, Shell officials told them everything would be all right, as if they were calming a child frightened by thunder. In the end the county board voted in favor of the 500 jobs and $200,000 in taxes the mine would bring, and approved the mine unanimously. Like they say in Knox County, it ultimately gets down to those who want to sell and those who don’t. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
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A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
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Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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