Coal mining key part of Rich Hill's history

Friday, May 4, 2012

RICH HILL -- Named in 1871 by Postmaster C.W. Ratekin because south central Bates County was a rich coal-mining area, the peacful-looking Rich Hill of today belies its boisterous history as "The Town that Coal Built."

"There was a small town of about 150 people two miles north of here called Old Rich Hill," said Bell Books co-owner Randy Bell Tuesday. "Then they found a rich vein of coal and the population boomed rapidly to 6,000 by 1888 and 1890.

"The heyday of the mines was over by 1906 and the population began to decline. There were mines all around here within a three or four-mile radius, and most miners lived close to them because they didn't want to walk."

Noting the industry revived for a time with strip mining by Peabody Coal in the 1950s, Bell said farming became a more common way to earn a living over the decades and the predominance of miners lessened among the population, which now numbers about 1,500.

Buoyed by the Missouri Division of Youth Services-affiliated Rich Hill Youth Development Center, the city today is quite scenic, owing substantially to the well-tended Circle Park, or West Park, and East Park, or Park Place, on each side of the downtown business area.

There is also the smaller but picturesque Caboose Park, featuring, as might be expected, a train caboose along with the 88,000-pound forged steel "Big Mouth" coal scoop that was moved from Amoret and set here in 1993 by P&M Coal.

The Rich Hill Mining Review newspaper is still in operation, having been founded in the 19th Century by Col. Tom Irish, and Bell says the memory remains relevant of the town's first physician and one of its founders, Dr. W.H. Allen, a Kentucky native whose sons Claude and Harry practiced here and at Hume.

Citing an interview with the late Steve Campbell Jr., whose father had farmed and worked with New Home Coal Co., a town historian wrote that hundreds of men worked for multiple outfits that came and went, digging mines in a hurly burly of ceasless activity. "The only way to find these old shafts is to go to the wooded areas and look for the dirt dumps or mounds where the refuse was dumped," the history says.

"Instead of mules, some mines used a steam engine to pull the coal cars out of these dips in the earth. There were mule drivers, engineers, surveyors, cagers at the bottom putting cars on and off the elevators, track layers, timber men, gas men, shot firers and a weight boss where the coal was dumped on screens and graded as it rolled into cars.

"The big, deep mines 175 to 400 feet deep were north of Rich Hill and the Shobe Town Reavley neighborhood."

The Rich Hill Brick & Tile Plant was also prominent on the landscape.

Along with the founding Rich Hill Coal Mining Co., controlled by Missouri Pacific Railway, others included the Wise, Eureka, Jones, Hall, Bert Miller, Bruce and McCombs mines. "At the peak of operations for many years, all the whistles pealed forth at the same times -- six o'clock in the morning, noon and five in the afternoon," wrote local historian Mary Griffin.

"The noise was easily heard as far away as Fort Scott, Hume, Butler and Nevada and the black smoke curling upward was seen from equal distances. It must be chronicled that the operations were not accomplished without hundreds of injuries and the loss of many lives.

"It is estimated that from the first opening to the final closing, at least 200 men met tragic, untimely deaths."

Loading from 1,000 to 3,000 tons of coal per day, Mine No. 15 south of Rich Hill was the biggest. "This mine extended over 400 acres and it is probable its entire output was eight million tons," a historian wrote.

"The thickness of the vein was from three feet, nine inches, to six feet. Much of the coal slid down a chute into boxcars. No. 15 brought the union to the mines and the union brought better working conditions to the miners."

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