Monday, February 9, 2015

History of Bates County: The Town That Coal Built

Today, Rich Hill Missouri may be known for it's Fourth of July celebration with big name headliners; burgers and suzie Q's; and being a nice place to get groceries and gas. But not in the too distant past, Rich Hill was a large, booming town. And yes, the name Rich Hill came from 'an area where coal mining is rich'- a moniker penned by a local postmaster some 150 years ago.

Rich Hill Parkview Hotel built during the
coal boom in the early 1880's
If you've ever heard of 'old town road', it leads to where Old Rich Hill used to be, just a mile or so north of Rich Hill's present day location. Old Rich Hill, even for those days was a small town, boasting only about 150 residents just prior to 1870.

However, around 1871, a discovery of a big vein of coal brought in the masses, and in just a few years, the town's population jumped to about 6,000. In those days, that would be considered a very large town, complete with many stores, livery's, blacksmiths, and other commerce needed to support such a population. Lots of houses were built, too. After a hard day in the mines, no one wanted to walk too far to go home.

During the the late 1800's, coal mining was more than just hard labor. No modern conveniences, no OSHA and very little protection for miners. Many developed respiratory illnesses from their time in the ground, but the work was considered steady and a pretty darned good way to make a living, making the risks worth it to many. Compared to wood, coal provides more heat yield for the same size of mass, which made it quite popular.
You can't miss "Big Mouth", a 44 ton coal scoop
in Caboose Park. Some heavy history donated
to the city of Rich Hill by P&M Coal Company

Some dangers included explosions and accidents caused by pushing miners too hard in order to improve a company's bottom line. After all, in the late 1800's, the coal industry was peaking as more and more folks heated with coal, used steam engines and trains as demand was at an all time high.  And a large vein of coal, like the one found near Rich Hill, meant big bucks for the mine owners.

Mine #15, in particular, was the biggest- producing anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 tons of coal per day. According to historians, mine #15 covered some 400 acres and in its lifetime, output some 8 million tons of coal.

Over the years, some 200 men perished as the result of working in the mines near Rich Hill. Some of the mines were as much as 400 feet deep, which added much danger to what had become routine work for many.

Rich Hill depot in the early 1900's
As the saying does, all good things must end. Kind of. Over time, several things happened including the depletion of coal that was accessible by hand, plus the industry in general died down as electricity and other fuels hit the market. The heyday of the mines was over by about 1906, leaving Rich Hill somewhat hanging.

There was a resurgence of coal mining in the 1950's as Peabody Coal raked the area in strip mining operations. However, the amount of coal extracted paled in comparison to boom of the late 1800's.

A memoir of the Peabody days sits in plain sight in central Rich Hill- a 44 ton forged steel "big mouth" coal scoop. It has remained in the same location since 1993 when it was moved from its former home near Amsterdam, Mo. by P&M Coal Company.

Today, Rich Hill not only offers an amazing 4th of July celebration but the historic four parks (Circle, East, West and Park Place), a renown newspaper (Rich Hill Mining Review first printing Oct. 1880) and modern, up to snuff grade and high school facilities.
In late 2014, Rich Hill again appeared in the world spotlight as the Rich Hill movie was released, a project near and dear to Director Tracy Droz Tragos. The film highlighted the struggles of three young men growing up in small town America. 

While today's population is around 1,400, the town still has bragging rights to many things, including a world record pie auction where local man Jerry Mumma ran the bid up to $3,100 for a peanut butter banana pie baked by his granddaughter just a few years ago.

Good Rich Hill links:

images-Pitch.com, cityofrichill.com, richhillhistory.blogspot.com bcl420