In August of 1867 Sister Mary Joseph of St. Mary’s wrote a letter to her friend and former student Sally Rand (and yes I take sublime pleasure in noting her friend had the same name as the later famous fan dancer) telling of a new discovery. “Sally, 20 yards from the depot on our own land they have found a beautiful mine of coal. The hole or pit is 100 feet deep and 10 feet horizontally in the black stuff it burns first rate and is prime quality. When you’ll be cold come to St. Marys.”
It is unclear how quickly or extensively this vein was exploited by the Sisters. After all, they had no experience with owning a coal mine. They turned to Joseph Broadhurst. Broadhurst, a local resident, was part of the Broadhurst family from England who had dug the first coal mine in Sugar Creek Township in 1846. They were the sort of “coal kings” of the area. The Sisters signed a fifteen-year lease with Broadhurst in 1868. The lease terms gave the Sisters a half cent royalty on every bushel of sellable coal and one bushel for their own use of every four bushels dug.
It was first dug by the slope method by burrowing under farm field, but by 1875 the state geologist reported a shaft had been dug to open up more of the vein. At first it was a profitable venture. The main customers were railroads, as the St. Marys depot became a fueling stop. The steam engines would pull into the depot and reload their coal bins as passengers or goods were loaded or unloaded. But due to “intriguing and underselling” by rival mine owners the mine became unprofitable. Most of the coal was then used for the campus.
Four new coal beds were found in 1894 and yet another shaft was drilled. The Sisters once again turned the mine over to a lessee. By doing so they did not have to oversee the mining operations, and hoped to make a profit. This time it was J.A Erwin who was the superintendent of the farm on the campus grounds. He agreed to provide coal to the college for .50 to .65 per ton. This would be used for the campus powerhouse, kitchens, men’s house, etc. He would also provide coal to St. Joseph’s Academy, a parochial school in Terre Haute, at a fixed rate of $1.25 per ton. Erwin also agreed to pay the Sisters a .25 royalty per ton of coal sold to outsiders.
Once again profit was elusive. Erwin asked and was granted a reduction in the royalty to .10, but that was only a stopgap. The Sisters once more took back control of the mine, and kept it. They established the Sisters of Providence Coal Company (arguably the first mining company owned and operated by women.) Their ownership did not go unnoticed. Several trade publications and Popular Mechanics published articles about the unusual St. Marys mine ownership. Mining and Engineering World featured it in a 1913 article. The first shaft had been played out and a new one was dug in 1910. It was sunk 270 feet and featured room and pillar structure. There were six entrances to the coal veins.
It was into this mine that my grandfather, his brothers and father stepped on their workdays. It was in these alleys that Gramps herded bank mules hauling coal dug by his father to the surface, pulling from the earth the nuggets of black diamond so needed for power. The daily capacity was estimated to be 60 tons of coal per day, but seldom were more than 50 tons dug, as the Sisters only had them mine what was needed. Much of the coal was hauled by trolley system (see photo below) to the campus powerhouse that held 5 dynamos to provide electricity and power the steam heating system.
The mine continued to operate. Its only “downtime” followed a 1920 fire that stopped operations for a while. The 1930s and 1940s saw the mining operation struggling to deal with labor and safety issues. Though the Sisters’ mine was exempt from some aspects of mining law (like paying an excise tax on coal mined there) due to their non-profit status, they were liable to others. As the coal played out and new safety regulations (some of which were enforced by my grandfather’s brother Hugh, by then a state mine inspector) would have required expensive upkeep, it was thought best to close down operations in 1954.
The mines are all but forgotten by most, remembered by me chiefly through the stories Gramps and others told me. On a sultry, drizzly day last August I walked much the same path from the back gate to the mine my family did. I fancied I could still see coal dust deposited by their blacked boots in the graveled, pitted road and reflections of straining men from below in the lakes that were once mines.