Mining and the Pocahontas Coalfield

Recently, CONSOL Energy announced it would be open a new mining operation on the Itmann Mine in West Virginia, and I’ve subsequently been fielding reference requests for information about Itmann and other mines in West Virginia. I haven’t spoken much previously about our mine maps in the Pocahontas Mines Collection, Ms2004-002, and this seems like the perfect time. The collection documents the development of the Pocahontas Coal Seam in southwest Virginia and West Virginia by CONSOL Energy, Inc., and its predecessors in the area. I have been working with the collection since late 2014 and several SCUA staff had been involved with it since the collection first arrived in 2004. The collection is a behemoth with 7,000 maps, about 3,000 survey books and ledgers, numerous photographs, and much more. It totals over 600 cubic feet in almost 800 boxes (but it’s not the largest collection I’ve worked on here!) We also have over 3,600 digital files of mine maps and other documents that I’m still creating metadata for!

Pocahontas Mines Collection at Library Storage Building
A student worker reviews a map from the Pocahontas Mines Collection at Library Storage Building.

When I was processing the collection a few years ago, I was very fortunate to have a student majoring in mining and minerals engineering here at Tech working on the project. Ryan Mair graduated in 2016, but before he left, he drafted a couple of blog posts about the collection, since he had extensive knowledge about it and the mining industry.

One of the blog posts by Ryan Mair, about the Itmann Mines, follows:

Consolidation Coal Company, Southern Appalachia Region Map of Itmann Coal Mines No. 1, 2, & 3. Pocahontas No. 3 Seam. 1983/03/04 Image: Con411.jpeg
Figure 1. Map of Itmann Coal Mines No. 1, 2, & 3, Pocahontas No. 3 Seam, Consolidation Coal Company, Southern Appalachia Region, 1983/03/04, CON411.jpg from the Pocahontas Mines Collection, Ms2004-002.

This map in Figure 1 is a production scheduling map of the Itmann No. 1, 2, & 3 Mines as operated by the Consolidation Coal Company. Maps of this type are used to depict the planned progression of mining operations with respect to a standard unit of time. This particular map progresses each future section of mining by year. The production schedule presented by this map was to start in 1983 and continue until the year 1992. The colored sections of the map represent what year coal production will occur in that area of the mine. the darker blue lines of the map depict the outline of the mine workings underground. Black lines are used to depict the property lease line and surface features, such as the buildings of the preparation plan.

These mines extracted coal from the No. 3 seam of the famous Pocahontas Coalfield. Coal from the Pocahontas seams was highly sought after because of its rare quality. This coal contains low amounts of sulfur and hydrocarbons known as “volatile matter” and leaves behind less ash material than most other coals. Pocahontas coal was especially prized by the U.S. Navy because it produces high temperatures while emitting little to no visible smoke when burned. Using this type of “smokeless” coal makes it harder to spot coal burning ships on the open sea. During World War II, the majority of coal from the Pocahontas seams were used to fire coal boilers for the U.S. Navy.

Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using room-and-pillar mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009.
Figure 2. Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using room-and-pillar mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1037676/ 000095012310019343/c55409e10vk.htm

The mines depicted in the Itmann map (Figure 1) use two different methods to extract coal from the earth. Mines No. 1 and No. 2 use a conventional method called room and pillar mining, as seen in Figure 2. Room and pillar mining entails the extraction of coal while leaving large columns or “pillars” behind to support the rock overhead which is called the “back”, “roof”, or “top”. The open area left around the pillar is called the “room”. The shape of the pillars is typically that of a square or rectangle. Pillar dimensions vary with every mine design but are reliant upon the mechanical properties of the coal and the geological stresses present in the mine.

The No. 1 & 2 mines have completed their normal room and pillar mining operations and are recovering coal via a process known as “retreat mining.” Retreat mining is the selective excavation of the pillars to allow a controlled collapse of the mine roof while working towards the mine entrance. Retreat mining is done at the end of the life of a mine when the coal deposit had been depleted through normal room and pillaring. Normal room and pillar coal mines typically recover 40-45% of the coal located within the property. Mining the pillars upon retreat from a room and pillar mine allows operators to increase coal recovery to around 60%. Retreat mining is not always done due to the danger associated with it the unpredictable nature of the roof collapse. By removing selected pillars the mine roof or back is allowed to collapse while additional stress is placed on the remaining pillars. In some cases too much stress can be placed on a pillar. When a pillar reaches its maximum stress and fails, it shatters, sending rock and coal fragments violently through the air followed by the caving of roof around the area where the pillar once stood. This event is known as a pillar “burst” or “bump.” Many miners have died as a result of being near a pillar bump.

Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using longwall mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1037676/000095012310019343/c55409e10vk.htm
Figure 3. Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using longwall mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1037676/000095012310019343/ c55409e10vk.htm

The No. 3 Mine in the northwestern part of the Itmann map (Figure 1) employs some room and pillar mining but its main design employs a method know as “longwall mining”. Longwall mining involves the complete extraction of coal from the working area using a “shearer” or “sled” that mines into a large wall or “face” of coal while moving parallel to that wall. A diagram of this method can be seen in Figure 3. As the machine cuts the coal free from the working face, an armored conveyor running parallel with the face transports the coal away. As the cutting and conveyor system move forward, it leaves the unsupported rock layers above to cave in a controlled manner in an area behind the machine. This caved area of roof rock is call the “gob” or “goaf”.

To protect the longwall mining system and the miners at the working face, numerous large hydraulic shields support the roof near the working face. These shields advance with each pass of the cutting head across the face. Longwall mines have considerably faster production capacities than traditional room and pillar mining but have more delays associated with the step and transportation of the equipment.

A working section of a longwall mine is known as a “panel” and are typically 800-1,500 ft. in width and 9,000-15,000 ft. long. Before mining the panel must be developed by what are called the “bleeder” entries. The bleeders serve to open up a path to the area while providing pathways for the ventilation of fresh air to the area. The bleeders are especially needed in the case of mining coal that contains high amounts of entrapped methane gas which is highly combustible. With the bleeder it is possible to degas or render the gas inert with enough fresh airflow. The pillars in bleeder entries are often called chain pillars and are left intact throughout the life of the mine to protect the ventilation and passageways.

In the northern section of the Itmann map (Figure 1), there are two geologic features that are identified. The two areas shaded in red denote areas where the coal on the property is less than 36 inches thick. Areas of deep underground coal that are less than 36 inches of coal are essentially too thick to mine profitably. Additionally, such areas make it difficult for both miner and machine to maneuver effectively. The second feature, shaded in light blue, is an area of coal with what is called a “parting,” a layer of non-coal rock that formed within the coalbed and parts the coal seam. Partings can be less than one inch to several feet in thickness. Thick partings are areas of coal to avoid when mining since the harder rock of the parting can excessively wear or damage cutting heads and requires more intense processing of the coal material at the surface plant.

Diagram of explosion area of Itmann No. 3 Mine, Itmann, WV, December 16, 1972, from the Historical Summary of Coal Mine Explosions in the United States, 1959-81, by J.K. Richmond, G.C. Price, M.J. Sapko, and E.M. Kawenski, Bureau of Mines Information Circular 8909, 1983. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/userfiles/works/pdfs/ic8909.pdf
Figure 4. Diagram of explosion area of Itmann No. 3 Mine, Itmann, WV, December 16, 1972, from the Historical Summary of Coal Mine Explosions in the United States, 1959-81, by J.K. Richmond, G.C. Price, M.J. Sapko, and E.M. Kawenski, Bureau of Mines Information Circular 8909, 1983. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/userfiles/works/pdfs/ic8909.pdf

The Itmann No. 3 mine shown in this map (Figure 1) was the scene of a mine disaster in December 1972. On December 16th, 1972, eight day shift miners had finished their shift and were exiting their working area of the Cabin Creek 4-Panel via an electrically powered rail car known as a portal bus (Figure 4). Unbeknownst to the miners, highly explosive methane gas had built up in the section. While in motion the portal bus trolley wire harp, which transfers electricity from the trolley wire to the portal bus, briefly disconnected from the wire. Such disconnections are common and are part of the design of the system but often result in an electrical sparking. Within the first 1,000 ft of the miners’ journey out of the mine just such an electrical spark occurred. This electrical sparking caused the ignition of the surrounding methane gas and propagated into an explosive wave. The blast wave and flames killed five miners instantly and seriously burned the other three. The blast force was also strong enough to blow out 14 permanent stoppings of cinderblock construction in the section.

Resources:

The Flying Man: 18th-century style

One of the great things about working in a place like Special Collections is that discovery can be an everyday occurrence. Ive written at this blogeither obliquely or directlyabout this dimension of the job, as have many of my colleagues. Whether the find is a promotional flyer for D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation, a journal from an arctic expedition, a letter written by Victoria Cross (one of several pseudonyms of British writer, Annie Sophie Cory), or a copy of The Great Gatsby autographed by F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . there is always some excitement even if you know that the discovery really may mean that you havent seen the item before. Someone else, perhaps a colleague, likely a predecessor, may have very well known about the book, letter, paper that youve just discovered.

Cover of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra
Cover of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra

So, several years ago, when I was perusing the part of our stacks that deals with aviation (the TLs for all you library-folk out there), I saw for the first time a nondescript book with a rough, brownish, handmade paper cover and pages that were clearly handmade, a book with a lot of age on it. When I opened up the book, this is what I saw: LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso LAmico Dell Autore.

Roughly translated: Man Flying over the air, water, and land. New Inventions/Innovation of an Anonymous Italian of the Year 1784. In Venice at a Friend of the Author’s.

Title page ofTitle page of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso LAmico Dell Autore.
Title page of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso LAmico Dell Autore.

Most translations of the title that Ive seen are close variations of this. Could be through air or on water or on land, I suppose, but the date is clear; that it was published anonymously is clear; and it is completely clear that Id never heard of this work. A quick check showed that no English translation exists. A handwritten note on the inside front cover, reads (translated), The author is Count Carlo Bettoni. Again, he was unknown to me, but a little bit of investigating confirmed that is known to be the author of the book . . . and that only six copies are listed in Worldcat. This is the kind of discovery, a felicitous thing, that drives curiosity! That the two languages of the book, Italian and mathematics, are languages in which I am less than fluent, did nothing to quell my desire to know more.

"Dual-language" spread from LUomo Volante
“Dual-language” spread from LUomo Volante

So many things to investigate! What do we know about Count Bettoni? A few quick searches on the book title indicate that an individual named Giuseppe Avanzini contributed the mathematical content of the book, but what do all those equations seek to describe? Even more tantalizing . . . Worldcat shows that four of the six copies listed also include illustrations or folding plates! Our copy does not. The year of publication, 1784 is, itself, interesting. Only in late 1782 did the Mongolfier brothers of France start their experiments with balloons, with the first untethered balloon flight with a human aboard occurring on 21 November 1783 in a system of their design. It is fair to say that the early and mid 1780s saw the craze of ballooning emergeespecially in Britain and France, but also in Italyas a popular craze and a seductive possibility for scientific investigation. Apparently, Bettoni took part, but he also seems to have let his imagination range over . . . what, improved methods of transportation over land and sea, as well?

Bettoni was born in 1725 to a wealthy landowning family in what is now Brescia in the Lombardy region of north Italy. The aptly-named [?] Biographical Dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (184244) describes him as “a nobleman passionately fond of science, and a munificient patron of scientific men.” In 1768, he founded the Academy of Agrarian Brescia and, apparently, conducted experiments to protect mulberry trees from a rampant epidemic. In some circles, (see A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World . . . Digested on a New Plan by John Pinkerton, vol. 4, 1809), and as a result of these experiments, Bettoni was credited with discovering a new silkworm! Bitten by the ballooning bug in 1783, Bettoni went to work with Avanzini on what would become L’Uomo Volante.

Born in 1753, Avanzini studied theology and mathematics at Brescia, while preparing himself for the priesthood. He came to Bettoni’s attention and had gained recognition for his skill as a mathematician by the time he collaborated with Bettoni on Thoughts on the Government of the Rivers (1782) a work that reported on the practice of planting specific kinds of trees along riverbanks to impede erosion and decrease the dangers of flooding. They would work together again after L’Uomo Volante on a large and unfinished project to produce a topographical map of the area surrounding Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy located about halfway between Brescia and Verona. Whatever the nature of the collaboration between the two men, it is clear that the substance of the mathematical element Avanzini contributed to L’Uomo Volante and to other projects, was the work of a man who would go on to become professor of mathematics and, later, of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Padua. His work, primarily in the area of fluid dynamics, would earn him membership in the Italian National Academy of Sciences (Societ Italiana). While I am not qualified to judge the quality and appropriateness of the mathematics in L’Uomo Volante, I would guess that it could be evaluated seriously.

The Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti describes L’Uomo Volante, in one of the few characterizations I have found, as “miscuglio piuttosto audace di prosa scientifica e di progetti palesemente utopistici” (translated as “a rather bold mixture of scientific prose and blatantly utopian projects”). The Enciclopedia, also known as Treccani says that Bettoni, an “agricultural and technical aviation pioneer,” was the first to propose a dirigible balloon and a system of propulsion based on rowing. Other sources also suggest his is the first recorded version of an elongated airship, a spindle-shaped balloon, rather than the spherical balloons either in use or proposed at the time. (The use of the word “dirigible” suggests a rigid frame, but I do not know if this is part of the Bettoni/Avanzini design.)

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission:  Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

Of course, there were plans for the more typical version, as well, but with some accommodation for steering and/or propulsion.

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

There were also two drawings included for water travel, one involving an elongated system of paddles:

But now, when we come to land, well, this giant-sized hampster wheel really got my attention! Check it out!

Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini")
Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”)

So, should we ignore this work that seems to have garnered little attention over a couple of centuries? Is it the work of a wealthy amateur scientist (read: crackpot) whose mathematician colleague lent his skills for a free ride? Is it to be taken seriously? Doesn’t someone want to translate it? Is this the basis for a thesis or dissertation just waiting, screaming, in fact, to be tackled? Surely, some student in the history of science and technology wants to rediscover Signori Bettoni and Avanzini. Ladies and Gents, Studente e Studentesse . . . step right up!

Click here for the Full Text of L’uomo volante per aria, per acqua e per terra. (Will open in a new window.)