Digging Deep

Chesterfield County coal was a hot commodity in the 1700s and 1800s.

Mine ruins today.

Photo by Eli Christman

With its tumbled stone ruins, tree-lined paths, and wooden bridges, Mid-Lothian Mines Park, about 15 miles southwest of Richmond, makes a beautiful setting for prom, graduation, and wedding photos. But the area is more than just picturesque—those ruins are the remains of Midlothian’s very early, and literally groundbreaking, contributions to America’s industrial development. 

According to Robert “Peppy” Jones, the former executive director of the Mid-Lothian Mines and Railroad Foundation, the French Huguenots mined coal in the Midlothian area in the late 1600s. “William Byrd II wrote about using coal from Midlothian in 1701, which is the first written account of it being used in Virginia,” says Jones. “The first commercial use of coal is dated to around 1730. Chesterfield coal was used to heat the White House by special request of Thomas Jefferson and was shipped to every colony in America. Chesterfield not only had the first commercial coal mines in America, but Virginia was the only colony mining coal up until around 1740.”

The Grove Shaft, circa 1911, before the mines were closed.

Photo courtesy of Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia

Demand for Midlothian’s coal increased throughout the 1700s and into the 1800s, which brought about the need for improved transportation to deliver coal to expanding markets. The Midlothian area lays claim to the first railroad built in Virginia. It was a mule and gravity rail line that connected the Midlothian mines to James River wharfs in the Manchester area of Richmond. Ironically, improved transportation by rail and roads to more remote areas of the country, where higher quality coal deposits had been discovered, led to a reduction in demand for Midlothian coal.  

Tourists posing at the mines, circa 1920s.

Photo courtesy of Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia 

The Wooldridge family ran four shaft mines in Midlothian from 1833 until right after the Civil War. Their shaft mines were hand-dug to depths of 600 feet or greater and quartered with wooden planks all the way down. Mining operations typically ran 24 hours a day, six days a week, while a large steam engine ran a water pump all day, every day, to keep the mines dry. When workers in one of the shaft mines hit a seam of coal 36 feet thick, the Wooldridges put their entire labor force to work there, abandoning the other three mines. “By 1845, that mine was producing 25 percent of the coal coming out of Chesterfield County,” says Jones.

Nevertheless, the Wooldridge family was destitute after the Civil War. They borrowed money from the R. S. Burrows Co. of Albion, New York, to continue mining. Believing a large coal deposit lay near the site of the current Midlothian Elementary School, the family dug a shaft more than 1,000 feet deep, but came up empty. Burrows then took over the Wooldridge coal mines to pay off the debt. However, in 1888, Burrows sustained a serious injury. He returned to New York to recuperate, leaving the mining operation to A. F. Warner, his mine manager and company controller. Warner falsely informed investors in New York that a new source of coal had been discovered at the Midlothian mines and convinced them to invest in a fictitious new mine. He absconded to Canada with a reported $8 million dollars and was never seen again, leaving the Burrows Company bankrupt.

Other mining companies bought and worked the mines in the Midlothian area with limited success. Plagued by numerous deaths as a result of several mine explosions and flooding (approximately 95 people died in the four Midlothian shaft mines alone), as well as a decreasing demand for Midlothian coal, the area’s on-again off-again coal production ceased around 1920. 

A coal mining headstock replica sits on the site of a former mine shaft next to the park’s amphitheater.

Photo by Adam Ewing

The shaft mines in Midlothian lay open and dormant for nearly half a century. In the early 1970s, developer Thomas Garner Jr. and his brother William inherited much of the minefield property. They capped the open mine shafts as a safety measure and, to prevent further destruction of the aging mine structures, placed fencing around them.

Understanding the historical significance of the Midlothian mines acreage, Garner donated more than 45 acres of his land to Chesterfield County. With his leadership and foresight, the once-abandoned coal fields have been transformed into a beautiful, contemplative park with an 8.75-acre lake, walking paths, and historic guided tours. Along the walking path is the Wooldridge family cemetery, which Garner preserved and enclosed with a decorative wrought iron fence. A concert series now takes place every Saturday in May and August at the park’s amphitheater, where a replica of the headstock is constructed as it would have been in 1836. And, of course, it’s not unusual to see locals in formalwear posing for photos near the picturesque ruins. MidloMines.org

This article originally appeared in our October 2019 issue.

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