Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Coal Mining


Early coal mine (from West Virginia), Public Domain via Wikipedia

My mom always used to talk about how Youngstown was “riddled” with coal mines underneath the city and that people did not know where all of them were. I never saw a mine entrance, and this actually wasn’t part of life growing up. “Riddled” may have been exaggerated, at least in parts of the city, but the mines are a continuing reality the city and surrounding area must deal with.

In the summer of 1977, after the heavy snows of the previous winter, a series of mine collapses occurred. One home owner discovered that the floor of her two car garage at 535 Hylda Avenue in Fosterville was gone. Another mine shaft collapsed in a backyard, creating a huge hole. A third collapsed under the weight of an in-ground swimming pool. All these were over 100 years old, and virtually nothing was known about them or the location of other mines.

The presence of high quality coal as well as iron ore is one of the reasons for why Youngstown became an early site of iron and later steel manufacturing. Significant seams of high quality coal were mined in the area of Mineral Ridge, the Brier Hill area, above Lake Glacier, in the Kirkmere area, and significantly in the Fosterville area, as well as other areas in and around Youngstown. In fact, Fosterville gets its name from Colonel Foster and the Foster Coal Company which sank a number of mines on the South Side. The coal was known as “block” coal which could be used as is in iron smelting operations. It is also known as Sharon coal. There is an estimate that nearly a million tons of coal were mined on the South Side, a quarter of that from the Foster mines. Before Volney Rogers helped form Mill Creek Park, there was the Mill Creek Iron Furnace, near Pioneer Pavilion. The furnace dates back to the 1820’s and was excavated by anthropology professor Dr John White in 2003.

After the 1977 mine collapses, another Youngstown State professor, Ann Harris, in the geology department, undertook the mapping of mines around Youngstown, eastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. In Mahoning County alone, she found over 270 mine sites, which she has catalogued. Information for some sites includes a Google map pinpointing the site. One of the Foster shafts, was filled in part by two old Fords! Many were filled in with various forms of refuse. This information is available at the Abandoned Coal Mines website. A 2011 Vindicator article indicated that Harris, now an emeritus professor, was working with a university archivist to preserve two rooms of records including mine inspection reports and county histories.

All of this is a priceless contribution not only to the Valley’s past but also its future. It both tells the nearly lost story of Youngstown’s coal industry, and helps locate abandoned mines, which could save homeowners and builders much grief. It is important as well to contemporary efforts in recovery oil and natural gas from shale deposits in the same areas many of these mines were located. Long before Youngstown was the Steel Valley, it was the Coal Valley and it was coal which contributed to the early growth of the Valley, and still impacts its geology.