Michigan 1800s History including Coal Mining

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Date: 1800 to 1950
Location: Michiganmap
Surnames/tags: Wittbrodt Michigan_History
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The history below includes the salt and coal mine industries where many Michigan families had a family member employed as a coal miner.

History of Coal Mining in Michigan
The last deep coal mine in Michigan closed in 1952. However, at one time more than 160 coal mines once were active here. Although coal is found throughout the central part of the Michigan Basin, mining has mostly been concentrated in the southern and eastern sections of this area, because here the coal seams are close to the surface. Most of the mining activity was concentrated in Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola and Genesee Counties.

Coal was first discovered in Michigan around 1835 as pioneers built a grist mill west of Jackson. In 1837, Michigan’s first geologist, Douglass Houghton, who investigated the coal deposits, reported: "In the bed and bank of the (Grand) River...at Jacksonburgh, the sandstone is seen to embrace a bed of bituminous shale...intermixed with very thin layers of coal."

Much of the coal existed in outcrops, which made excavation easy. In 1840 settlers extracted 1,500 bushels of coal for local use. But because there were few steam powered engines or large institutions to provide the markets essential for the commercial development of coal mining, it would be almost 20 years before their needs spurred the commercial mining of coal. [1]

One area of coal mining was Bay City, Michigan.

Bay County Coal Mine with Shaft House Conveyors & Yard Inventory

Photo full caption: CEN Bay City MI Eureka or Monitor Coal Company Horse & Delivery Wagons loading at Bay County Coal Mine with Shaft House Conveyers & Yard Inventory, photo by Dan Harrison, Flickr CC

"Bay City was once the camping ground of the Sauk, Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians. "The artifacts of the settlements have been unearthed along the Saginaw River causeway."

The natural geographical configuration of the Bay City area led to the economic base for the county which included lumber, coal, salt, sugar beets, potatoes, soy beans, wheat and oats, chemical manufacturing, knitting mills, automotive manufacturing and boat building.

The lumber industry started in Bay County in 1844 when a mill was constructed at the mouth of the Kawkawlin River. Millions of board feet of lumber from Michigan's pine and hardwood forests would pass through the mills of Bay County in the ensuing years. The county was aptly named the "Lumber Capitol of the World."

The salt mines were tapped as early as 1850. The Michigan Mine in Monitor Township began mining coal in 1897. The Monitor Coal Company was the last coal mine in the county to close in 1947. [2]

Bay County and Area Mines, Michigan
In successive waves Bay County was settled by numerous ethnic groups. The French came from Canada and Southern Michigan, ...German immigrants settled Frankenlust and Monitor Townships in the early 1850's. In the 1870's through the early 1900's Polish and Jewish immigrants arrived.

But to return to the discovery of a paying vein of soft coal underneath Bay County, and its development. The Michigan mine was quickly followed by the sinking of the Monitor mine shaft. Expert coal miners were brought here from Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and coal leases were sought among the farmers of that vicinity with feverish flurry. At first the coal mining rights were sold outright by the farmers, but of late years the farmers merely execute long term leases, with a proviso, that they get a royalty on all coal mined.

Driver boys, Michigan coal industry, St. Louis, Gratiot County, Michigan

Handy Brothers established the first mine in Bangor township, following it soon after with a second shaft in the same vicinity.

Then E. B. Foss and George D. Jackson sank a shaft on the historic ground of Oa-at-ka Beach, near the mouth of the Kawkawlin River. Here they found the finest vein of coal in all Bay County, and it is to this day one of the most productive mines in Michigan. The great danger is the flooding of the mine, as the bay is but a few hundred yards to the east. The last time this happened was in April, 1905, when the mine had to be shut down, owing to the rush of waters. This mine is splendidly equipped with all modern appliances, and its pumping apparatus would keep an ordinary mine clear at all times. The flow of water gradually recedes, and then mining is resumed.

The Pittsburg mine shaft was sunk near the pretty village of Amelith, the Valley mine near Frankenlust, where are also the Bay mine No. 2, the Hecla mine and, still nearer the city limits, the Central mine, while the Salzburg mine is located near the very center of that suburb, and the United City mine is also within the city limits on North Union street. The Wolverine mines Nos. 2 and 3 are in Williams township, the farthest west of the city, and the new Auburn mine is located in the same vicinity. An excellent vein exists thereabouts, and the Midland Branch of the Michigan Central Railroad furnishes easy transportation to the miners and the coal.

The latest working addition to Bay County’s mines is the What-Cheer mine in Merritt township, 10 miles southeast of Bay City, located and operated by E. B. Foss. So confident is Mr. Foss in the excellence of that East Side vein, that he is even now arranging with other capitalists to build a railroad through the “Thumb” to Port Huron, to handle his coal. Rights of way have been secured, as well as an entrance into the lake harbor at Port Huron, with terminals in this city, so that this mine will mean the fulfillment of a long cherished wish to have railroad connection with Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron and St. Clair counties.

Central Coal Mine, Bay City, Michigan, Salzburg

The government geological survey for 1904 gives the coal area for Michigan at 11,300 square miles. The coal output in Michigan for 1898 was 315,722 short tons: 624,708 in 1899: 849,475 in 1900; 1,241,241 in 1901; 964,718 in 1902; and 1,367,619 in 1903. The falling of 1902 was due to the strike of the coal miners, which for many weeks closed down all the mines. The value of the output at the mines for 1903 was given at Washington as $2,707,527. Owing to the shortage of the fuel supply in 1903, the price of this coal advanced from $1.71 in 1902 to $1.97 per ton in 1903. The miners averaged 171 days in 1902, against 247 working days in 1903. The average number of men employed in Michigan was 2,276 in 1901; 2,344 in 1902 and 2,768 in 1903. The average production per miner was 494 tons in 1901; 411 tons in 1902 and 545 tons in 1903. The working day in all the Michigan coal mines has been from the first eight hours.

Auburn Coal Mine, Rock House German, Polish, Prussian Immigrants

Wolverine Mines in Williams County, Michigan
Wolverine mine No. 3 is one of the best in the country, having just put in a new electric light plant, new boilers, new guides in hoisting shaft, new cages and a new motor to haul coal to pit bottom. Fire wiped out all above the ground recently, but the buildings are being put up again as quickly as possible. The working force is composed of 126 miners, 30 day men, three trappers and seven machine men. R. M. Randall is manager and Alex McElwain superintendent. Wolverine mine No. 2 has increased hopper and otherwise improved mine capacity: employs 127 miners, 30 day men, three trappers, and 60 machine men.

1930s, Wittbrodts at the Gold Star Saloon, near the Wolverine Coal Mine #3

Many Disasters in Coal Mining Industry, Health Issues
ACCIDENTS In coal mines of the United States during the last calendar year resulted in the death of 3,125 men and Injury to 6,314 more, according to statistics made public by the geological survey. The death record among the coal miners during the year was greater by 1,033 than in 1906, and is said to have been the worst year in the history of the coal-mining industry.The figures do not represent the full extent of the disasters, as reports were not received from some states having no mine Inspectors.

  • Statistics do not bear out the popular idea that most mine disasters result from explosions. Of the total number reported during the last year 947 deaths and 343 Injuries resulted from gas and dust explosions and 201 deaths and 416 Injuries were caused by powder explosions. . .
  • The chief cause of death among the miners, the report explains, was due to the falling of mine roofs and coal. Such disasters caused 1,122 deaths and 2,141 Injuries. E. W. Parker, chief statistician of the survey, asserts that much benefit will result from the action of congress in appropriating $150,000 to investigate mine disasters. He says one of the greatest needs' of the coal-mining industry is the enforcement of military discipline in the operation of the mines. [3]

Bay County Mining Dangers
While the mining in Bay County is not surrounded by the dangers of other coal fields, the deadly mine gas being entirely absent here, still accidents are numerous. On December 29, 1903, John Simmons, aged 35, single, was killed at Wolverine mine No. 2, by falling rock.

On January 16, 1904, Thomas Brown, aged 25, single, was killed by a premature explosion at Wenona mine. On May 14, 1904, Fred Serva, aged 28, married, was similarly killed at Wolverine mine No. 2. On October 26, 1904, William Western, age 42, married, was killed at Wolverine mine No. 3, by falling slate. Joseph A. Wittbrodt also died from a slate collapse in Williams Township at the age of 33.

Joseph A. Witbrodt, Whitbrodt, Mining Accident, Bay City, Michigan

A dozen miners were injured by similar causes, though not fatally. Andrew Stevens, State mine inspector, reports all mines having mine ventilators, driving the fans at a speed insuring at least 100 cubic feet of air for each miner per minute, and the air is well distributed through all the entries. [4]

However, working in the coal mine was dirty, heavy work and coal dust affected the health of many workers. For example, Julius Lewis Wittbrodt of Auburn, Michigan died on May 25, 1919 at the age of 39, of a tubercular abscess in his lungs. His job as a coal miner was a significant factor in his death, as listed on his death certificate [5] He was buried in Bay City, Michigan.

The lack of cars for shipping was keenly felt by the industry, especially in Bay County, and the output was curtailed on this account. These mines are now seriously considering the transportation problem, on which so much of their future business is dependent. Chicago imported and consumed 11,000,000 tons of coal in 1904, and with cheap water transportation all the way should be as good a market for Bay County coal, as it once was the best customer for our lumbar. More outside markets and more home consumption will be necessary for the future development of our coal industry, and strong efforts should be made at once to secure iron and metal industries, that will go hand in hand with our coal industry. Certain it is, that with three to six feet of coal right under our feet, the cheap fuel problem has been solved for Bay Country for all time!

The Legislature early provided for the regulation of the coal mines, and the protection of the lives of the coal miners. Act No. 57, Public Acts of 1899, provides: I. For a mine inspector, at $1,500 per year; II. That escape shafts must not be less than eight feet square; III. That a competent and trustworthy engineer shall attend to the hoisting devices. IV. That safety catches and covers be on all cages, which can carry but 10 men at once, and then only when the other cage is empty; V. That employees name the weighman; VI. Operators held responsible for safety of mines, and fresh air supply; VII. Imposes the penalties for violations of these safeguards, and sets forth the rights and duties of the State mine inspector. The Legislature of 1905 is now considering some minor additions to this act, providing for uniformity of these safeguards at all mines. Since the Bay City mines are not very deep, their safeguarding is easily assured.

Down the broad vale of tears afar
The spectral camp is fled;
Faith shineth as a morning star,
Our ghastly fears are dead! [6]


  1. Michigan State University geology history: Link: https://project.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/coal.html
  2. Michigan Family History website: http://www.mifamilyhistory.org/bay/
  3. The L'Anse sentinel. (L'Anse, L.S., Mich.) 18??-current, October 24, 1908, Image 6 Image and text provided by Central Michigan University, Clark Historical Library Persistent link: [1]
  4. History of Bay County Michigan and Representative Citizens Chapter IX; Bay County’s Lumber, Salt and Coal Industries and Transportation Facilities. URL: http://genealogytrails.com/mich/bay/books/History_of_Bay_ch9.html and https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=Tv4Waqnlg-YC&rdid=book-Tv4Waqnlg-YC&rdot=1
  5. Link to his death certificate: https://www.wikitree.com/photo/jpg/Wittbrodt-66-2
  6. History of Bay County Michigan and Representative Citizens Chapter IX; Bay County’s Lumber, Salt and Coal Industries and Transportation Facilities. URL: http://genealogytrails.com/mich/bay/books/History_of_Bay_ch9.html and https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=Tv4Waqnlg-YC&rdid=book-Tv4Waqnlg-YC&rdot=1

Additional Sources:


Also see https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Space:The_Caledonia_Company%2C_a_Michigan_socialist_coal_mine

and: St. Anthony of Padua Church and Cemetery, Fisherville https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Space:St._Anthony_of_Padua_Church%2C_Fisherville%2C_Michigan

And Auburn Michigan History https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Space:Auburn_Michigan_History

Memories: 1
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See the photo: 1913. Emanuel "Manny" Sodt, driving Staebler's REO delivery truck on North University Avenue, Ann Arbor, from the late local historian, Wystan Stevens:

North University Avenue, just east of State Street. Tracks of the old Ann Arbor Street Railway are visible behind Staebler's REO. A couple of the State Street stores and the north wall of the First Congregational Church can be seen in the distance at right, beyond the big granite boulder (memorial of the U-M Class of 1862) that was placed there in 1860, removed in the late 1960s, and now languishes outside the former East Medical Building (today the headquarters of the Geology Department). The big building at left was the 1898 remodeled version of the 1862 Law School, which became Haven Hall in 1933, after the Law School moved to the new Law Quad. Haven Hall was torched by an arsonist, and burned in a spectacular fire on June 6, 1950. Nothing has ever been built on the site, which was just north of Angell Hall.

The Staebler Coal Yard was located on Depot Street, at the corner of North Main. Coal trucks later were loaded there from overhead hopper cars on an elevated siding that extended from the Michigan Central Railroad. First Martin Corp. recently built a spiffy modern office building there (also elevated, because it is on a flood plain), and preserved the old siding as an historical feature. Bill Martin (the former UM Athletic Director) even placed a railroad hopper car on it -- and welded it to the tracks so that it can't be rolled!

posted 23 Nov 2021 by Deborah (Wittbrodt) Nystrom   [thank Deborah]
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For the photo captioned: Coal Company Horse & Delivery Wagons loading at Bay County Coal Mine with Shaft House Conveyers & Yard Inventory

Full caption: CEN Bay City MI Eureka or Monitor Coal Company Horse & Delivery Wagons loading at Bay County Coal Mine with Shaft House Conveyers & Yard Inventory