History of Mining Coal in Missouri

Coal Mine - Kirksville, MO

Missouri currently produces less than two percent of the coal in the United States but it has a history of commercial coal mining going back to pre-Civil War days.

Coal has long been a source of energy used throughout the world to produce fuel. Settlers began mining coal in the U.S. in the mid-1700s in Virginia. As the nation grew, so did the mining and usage of coal. Not only was the country growing in terms of population, but it was also expanding westward. As a result, the eastern states were not the only places where coal would be mined in the U. S.

Coal Deposits in Missouri

President Thomas Jefferson authorized the purchase of land west of the Mississippi River as part of his vision for the expansion of the United States. This was known as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and covered approximately 828,000 square miles from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Missouri was admitted to the union in 1821, making it the second state within the LouisianaTerritory.

Missouri began mining coal in the 1840s and was the first commercial coal mining state west of the Mississippi River. Most of the early mines were underground and have since been abandoned. Surface mining didn’t start in Missouri until the 1930s. By the ’60s, the majority of the coal produced in the state came from surface mines.

Coal deposits have been found in various locations throughout Missouri. Of the more than 200 coal mine sites throughout the state, only two are in operation today. They are located in the Forest City basin which covers the northern and western areas of Missouri, as well as neighboring parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Reasons for the Decline of Coal Production

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, coal was used in Missouri as fuel for steamboats and trains. In the home and in public places, it was used for heat in coal burning stoves and large boilers. During the Great Depression, people would walk along the railroad tracks and pick up coal that had fallen off the trains. It continues to be used as a major source for generating electricity.

Coal production in Missouri reached its peak in 1984 with seven million tons. It dropped to slightly over 600,000 tons by 1993 due to the state’s largest operator stopping production as well as environmental concerns. These concerns are not just health-related but also deal with safety, air pollution, agriculture, and water conditions.

Dangers of Abandoned Coal Mines

In 1977, the U. S. Congress established funding and programs for reclaiming land at abandoned coal mine sites. This law was called the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Five years later, in 1982, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Land Reclamation Program gave priority to abandoned coal mines but also included other abandoned mines such as lead and zinc. Many of the mines that are no longer in use were abandoned before there were any laws requiring mining companies to restore the land, and many of those same companies no longer exist.

Abandoned coal mines affect public health and safety in the following ways:

  • Physical dangers of open mine shafts, unstable mine structures, steep and unstable mine embankments, trash dumps, the sinking of roads and buildings built over mines, and mine fires.
  • Agriculture and water pollution from acid mine drainage in streams, and barren and eroding lands next to farmland.

Out of 67,000 acres of abandoned coal mined land in Missouri, several thousand acres have already been reclaimed.

Coal Usage in the 21st Century

Coal is found in 33 percent of Missouri, or roughly 23,000 square miles. This coal reserve is estimated at six billion tons or 1.26 percent of the total U. S. coal reserves. The type of coal mined ranges from lignite to high volatile A bituminous.

Most of the coal used in Missouri comes from other states, predominately Wyoming. The coal mined within Missouri is supplied to the midwestern market and blended with western coal to be used for generating power. It is the state’s main fuel used for the production of electricity, supplying electricity to more than 80 percent of the market.

As of 2008, Missouri adopted a standard that requires investor-owned utilities to increase the percentage of using renewable sources every few years as part of the total generation of electricity up to 15 percent by 2021.


  1. Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Abandoned Mine Lands – printed information
  2. U. S. Energy Information Administration, Independent Statistics and Analysis, Missouri – State Energy Profiles