The Story of Coal in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is mainly referred to as the “Keystone State” and “Quaker State.” However, the Middle Atlantic state is also known by other unofficial nicknames: “The Oil State,” “The Chocolate State,” “The Steel State,” and “The Coal State.” As for the last nickname, coal was instrumental in driving Pennsylvania’s economy and is still very much used in several industries in the state.

Pennsylvania’s mining history dates back to the late 18th century when it was widely used as the primary source of light and warmth to numerous homes, power to the entire nation, and fuel for the burgeoning steel industry. In other words, Pennsylvania’s coal industry was one of the factors that sparked the Industrial Age in America.

The history of anthracite and bituminous coal mining in Pennsylvania spans over two centuries. Up to now, coal is still used to generate electricity more than any other energy source in Pennsylvania. As of 2014, coal accounts for 44% of the state’s electricity generation.

The history of coal in Pennsylvania

The Europeans first found coal in southwestern Pennsylvania as early as the 1740s, in surface outcroppings and river beds. Subsequent settlers found more coal as they moved into northern and central Pennsylvania. [1]

Bituminous coal mining history

Pennsylvania’s coal culture began in the mid-1700s when bituminous coal – also known as soft coal – was first mined in Coal Hill (Mount Washington), now located across the Monongahela River from downtown Pittsburgh. The coal was extracted from the drift mines in the Pittsburgh coal seam outcropping along the hillside. The extracted coal was transported by canoes to a military garrison not far away. [2]

By the 1830s, Pittsburgh had consumed over 400 tons of bituminous coal each day for residential and light industrial use. As for anthracite coal, it had been regularly shipped to urban areas like Pennsylvania and New York City by the 1860s. The growing coal industry helped fuel the American Industrial Revolution.

While the development of anthracite coalfields had become expansive, especially in eastern Pennsylvania, bituminous coal production progressed in western Pennsylvania. Consequently, it triggered population growth, expansion and development of the rail system and river transportation facilities in the west, and the rise of the steel industry. Towards the latter half of the 19th century, the demand for steel, generated by the meteoric rise of the railroad and shipbuilding industries, further impacted bituminous coal production in western Pennsylvania.

Until the advanced development of longwall mining in the 1960s, underground coal production in Pennsylvania almost occurred exclusively at room-and-pillar mines.

Over 73 million tons of bituminous coal were mined in Pennsylvania in 1997. More than 75% of Pennsylvania’s total coal production came from underground mines. [3] The total production from underground mines has risen steadily over the past decade and is currently at levels not previously experienced since the mid-1950s. Annual coal production from the underground mines was generally constant during the 1980s before experiencing a sudden and significant upswing in 1993.

On the other hand, production from surface mines has been generally on the decline since the late 1970s.

There have been active room-and-pillar mines throughout Pennsylvania’s bituminous coal fields since the late 1700s.

sketch coal mine

Anthracite coal mining history

Anthracite coal – also known as hard coal – was first discovered in 1762. Seven years later, Obadiah Gore and his brother Daniel were the first to burn anthracite coal for their blacksmith shop in the city of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. [4] The first anthracite coal mine was established in the city of Pittston, Pennsylvania, in 1775. [5]

The energy crisis hit Pennsylvania around the late 1800s, and even smaller towns were affected. The forests needed for charcoal were quickly diminishing, and wood was much harder to come by. The transport of wood or alternative fuel sources became very important to the people. It was cheaper to import bituminous coal from England than buy anthracite coal from Philadelphia because the supply was “chancy” and “unreliable.” However, due to an ongoing war, the United States was reeling from the British navy blockades. The locals decided to experiment with anthracite coal, which is more difficult to ignite than bituminous, by trying to burn it in a more useful way.

The first anthracite coal mining took place at Beaver Meadows in 1813. But because of the challenges of getting anthracite coal to Philadelphia and the fact that anthracite coal is pretty slow to ignite, it did not come into widespread use until after the War of 1812.

But the opening of the major canals Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Delaware & Hudson, as well as the development of railroad systems made transporting anthracite coals much easier and faster. By the 1820s, large quantities of anthracite coals had been shipped outside the region. After the American Civil War ended, the population rapidly increased along with the development and expansion of the mining and railroad industries.

The demand for anthracite coal further increased in the burgeoning iron industry in the 1800s. Due to anthracite coal’s widespread popularity, blacksmiths started experimenting with it as the source of fuel for forging metals. Before that, iron makers used coke (bituminous coal with the impurities burned away) as a source of fuel. However, iron makers later discovered that using anthracite coal saved them up to 25% in iron production. It was also more efficient to use than coke. In addition, the quality of iron came out superior. [6]

Because of its efficient heating properties, anthracite coal began to be used in more applications, such as crude oil production, the manufacture of metal machinery, and the conversion of water into steam for powering machinery.

The anthracite mining industry continued in the region until its decline in the 1950s. Strip mines and coal mine fires, mainly in the borough of Centralia, are still visible. Many violent incidents in the US labor movement history occurred within the coal region as this was the location of the Lattimer Massacre and the base of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish-American coal miners.

Here’s an image showing the distribution of bituminous and anthracite coals throughout Pennsylvania:

There are two major types of underground mining conducted in Pennsylvania:

  • Room-and-pillar mining – this type of underground mining consists of driving tunnel-like openings to split the coal seam into square or rectangular blocks. These blocks – the “pillars” – are built to provide support for the overlying strata. The open spaces are referred to as “rooms” or “entries.”
  • Longwall mining – this type of underground mining involves a long wall of coal mined in a single slice, usually 2 feet to 3 feet and 3 inches (0.6 to 1 meter) thick. In this system, the coal body is divided into rectangular panels or blocks, each of which typically measures 3 to 4 kilometers (1.9 to 2.5 miles) long and 250 to 400 meters (820 to 1,310 feet) wide.

Differences between anthracite and bituminous coals

The following lists the key differences between anthracite coal and bituminous coal:

anthracite coal for fuel

Anthracite coal (hard coal) – it is a hard type of coal. Although it is slower to burn and does not ignite easily compared to bituminous coal, anthracite coal produces more heat when burned. It also has fewer impurities and a higher carbon percentage. Thus, it burns more cleanly, unlike bituminous coal. Anthracite coal’s relative scarcity makes it more expensive than bituminous coal. However, it burns hotter and longer. In the long run, anthracite is arguably the more cost-effective fuel than bituminous coal.

coal in the hand of a worker

Bituminous coal (soft coal) – the traditional house coal, bituminous is the more popular and abundant coal. It has been used as a domestic fireplace fuel for many generations. As it is abundant, bituminous is a lot cheaper than anthracite coal. While it burns easily and effectively, bituminous coal has more impurities and a lower carbon percentage than anthracite coal; thus, it produces a thick, black smoke. There are several environmental concerns regarding the domestic use of bituminous coal. This has led to the possibility of phasing out this type of coal as part of the American government’s clean air strategy plan.

lehigh coal bldg

Pennsylvania’s “Coal Region”

The term “Coal Region” refers to a region in northeastern Pennsylvania known for having abundant deposits of anthracite coal in the world. The region has an estimated reserve of 7 billion short tons of anthracite coal.

Not surprisingly, the Coal Region is home to a rich heritage of coal mining in Pennsylvania. It was once a region full of active mining towns, but it has since become a popular tourist destination.

Except for only a handful of towns with significant coal mining activity, the coal mining industry has long left the region. However, its cultural roots are still very much preserved. A visit to the area gives tourists a peek at the state’s one of the oldest industries. You can visit some of the region’s 200-year-old mines that show the difficult and often hazardous working conditions at the time, which would never be considered acceptable by today’s standards.

The Coal Region is located north of the Lehigh Valley and Berks County, south of the Endless Mountains region, east of the Susquehanna Valley, and west of the Pocono Mountains. The region comprises six coal-rich counties:

  • Carbon County
  • Columbia County (particularly the southern tip)
  • Lackawanna County
  • Luzerne County
  • Northumberland County
  • Schuylkill County

jim thorpe pa

Here are some of the most notable Coal Region cities and towns:

  • Ashland
  • Centralia (a near-ghost town)
  • Jim Thorpe
  • Hazleton
  • Lehighton
  • Mount Carmel
  • Pottsville
  • Scranton
  • Shamokin
  • Shickshinny
  • Wilkes-Barre

Coal production in Pennsylvania and its impact on the state’s economy

lansford coal mine

How many active coal mines are in Pennsylvania?

Aggregate coal mine production for all coal in Pennsylvania, 2001 to 2020

Coal mining in Pennsylvania began as early as the 18th century and peaked during the early 20th century. But since after that, the coal mining industry in the state has been steadily on the decline. Today, there are still around 40 active underground coal mines and over 5,000 abandoned coal mines across Pennsylvania.

Due to the numerous mining sites scattered across the state, mine maps are vitally helpful for the mining industry and other industries (such as construction), homeowners, emergency workers, and other individuals and entities.

Data source:

Coal price investment going up

How does coal impact Pennsylvania’s economy?

Needless to say, coal is a vital contributor to the state’s economy. It has created direct, indirect, and induced impacts. Through its supply chain, the state’s coal supply has created jobs in related and unrelated industries, and some of these jobs would not have been created if not for the coal industry’s robust activity.

In a similar way, the wages paid to the employees working in the coal industry affect the broader economy as the employees spend their wages on goods and services.

Direct impact (direct effect): Mining coal.

Indirect impact (supply chain effect): Architecture and engineering services, barge transportation, commercial and industrial machinery manufacturing, contractors and drillers, government (inspectors and permitting), insurance, rail transportation.

Induced impact (consumption effect): Entertainment, food and drink, housing, travel, utilities.

anthracite coal mine in pa

The coal mining industry in Pennsylvania has created jobs and contributed to the state’s revenue. This 2014 data shows that:

  • The coal mining industry in Pennsylvania created around 36,100 jobs (both full-time and part-time), including about 13,000 in the coal mining jobs
  • It contributed $4.1 billion in total value added to Pennsylvania’s economy, $2.2 billion of this coming directly from the coal industry. This includes
    • Around $2.2 billion in labor income – $2 billion in employee compensation and $0.2 in proprietor’s income.
    • Property income contributed around $1.5 billion.
    • Indirect industry and business taxes contributed nearly $0.5 billion. [7]

Coal mining employment in Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2020

Data source:

coal region pa

Pennsylvania coal mining history and industry – quick facts

  1. Pennsylvania is the third-largest coal-producing state in the US, after Wyoming and West Virginia. [8]
  2. Coal was first found around the 1740s. However, some sources cite that coal might have been found in the area dating back to 1698.
  3. Coal has been mined in Pennsylvania for over 200 years.
  4. The first anthracite coal mining in Pennsylvania occurred in Beaver Meadows in Carbon County in 1813.
  5. Pennsylvania is also a major coal consumer. As of 2020, it ranks 7th among the states in total coal use.
  6. Approximately four-fifths of the coal consumed in Pennsylvania is used for electricity generation, while the rest is used in steelmaking and other industrial applications.
  7. Anthracite coal production is more widely spread in northeastern Pennsylvania (the “Coal Region”), while bituminous coal production is concentrated in the western part of the state.
  8. Pennsylvania has the largest anthracite coal reserve in the US.
  9. Pennsylvania is the second-largest coal exporter after West Virginia.

Centralia, PA

  1. Centralia (above picture), a nearly abandoned borough in Columbia County, north-central Pennsylvania, is famous for its coal mine fire that has been burning underground since 1962. The area is considered dangerous – the coal mine fire underneath can cause the ground to cave in (and it has, a number of times). According to the 2020 census, only five people resided in the borough. Centralia is a part of the “Coal Region” towns in Pennsylvania.
  2. Shamokin, another Coal Region city, is home to the annual “Coal Drop” on New Year’s Eve. Instead of the famous NYE ball in Times Square, New York City, New York, Shamokin drops a piece of coal for the big event. [9]
  3. Jim Thorpe, another one of the Coal Region cities, is known as the “Switzerland of Pennsylvania.” Its former name was Mauch Chunk until the city was renamed Jim Thorpe after the sports legend Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. It is the home of the courthouse where one of the trials of the Molly Maguires (a secret society of Irish-American coal workers) took place.


[1] Explore PA History, E. (n.d.). “Coal Discovery Historical Marker.” Retrieved September 14, 2022 from,in%20Tioga%20County%2C%20in%201792.

[2] Department of Environmental Protection, E. (n.d.). “Coal Mining in Pennsylvania: PA Mining History.” Retrieved September 9, 2022 from

[3] Department of Environmental Protection, E. (n.d.). “Coal Mining Pennsylvania: PA Mining History.” Department of Environmental Protection. Retrieved September 9, 2022 from,predominately%20from%20surface%20coal%20mines.

[4] Thomas, George E. (n.d.). “From Picturesque to Utility and Back”. Society of Architectural Historians. Retrieved September 9, 2022 from

[5] PennState University, E. (n.d.). “About the Anthracite Coal Mining Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania” (n.d.).  PennState University. Retrieved September 9, 2022 from,quantities%20out%20of%20the%20region.

[6] Adams, Sean Patrick (n.d.). The US Coal Industry in the Nineteenth Century. Economic History Association. Retrieved September 9, 2022 from

[7] Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh (March 2014). “The Economic Impact of the Coal Industry in Pennsylvania.” Our Energy Policy Foundation. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from

[8] US Energy Information Administration, E. (n.d.). Retrieved September 14, 2022 from:

[9] Krize, Nikki (2015, December 29). “Shamokin Prepares for Coal Drop.” Retrieved September 16, 2022 from