Almost everywhere you look in central Illinois you will find the story of coal. Whether you are talking the story of mine production or the story of mine strikes or worker history, there are a million stories to tell. The Illinois Coal Museum in Gillespie, Illinois shares some of these stories in their building on historic Route 66.
Gillespie is part of Macoupin County and the Historic Route 66 section that goes through town was the First Alignment that was built between 1926 – 1930. Mining history was ongoing before, during and after the Route 66 Mother Road, but the stories of Route 66 and coal mining run hand in hand.
Today, my friend Suzette and I stopped at the Illinois Coal Museum to learn a bit about these mines. Kevin Tucker took us on a tour of the museum. Her husband Dave is the curator of the museum.
Growing up in Pawnee, Illinois, Peabody Mine #10, said to be one of the largest mines in the world was right outside of town. While I wasn’t related to any miners, my friends fathers, brothers, and grandfathers were miners. My friends sometimes went into the mining field, a dangerous, yet lucrative occupation.
Battle of Virden
Mining in central Illinois has a rocky history. In nearby Virden, Illinois there was the 1898 Battle of Virden, also known as the Virden Massacre. The battle reflects the coal miner history that often turned violent in central Illinois. Strike breakers came into town on a train on October 12th. When strikers surrounded the train, detectives on board armed with Winchester rifles shot into the crowd. Strikers were also armed and a gun battle ensued with several wounded and twelve deaths.
The battle is memorialized by a large bronze mural created by sculptor David Seagraves of Elizabeth, IL.
Mother Jones history
A little further down the road from Virden, Illinois is Mt. Olive, where Mother Jones is buried. Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, was a Scottish immigrant that came to Canada with her family during a famine.
Born in 1830, she died 100 years later and was buried in Miner’s Cemetery, the only cemetery in Illinois owned by a Union. She wanted to be buried beside the martyrs of the Virden Massacre. Mother Jones fought for fairer labor laws. Besides her memorial, there is also a museum in Mt. Olive that shares her history. At one point, she was called, “The Worlds Most Dangerous Woman” by a prosecutor and there is a documentary of that same name that shows parts of her story and the violence that strikers faced in the late 1900’s and early part of the century. Some of her history is profiled at the Illinois Coal Mine Museum
Local History at the Illinois Coal Mine Museum
In the Museum there are so many things to see! We were impressed by the information amassed inside this space that is a former bank. Exhibits share a bit of local history. In one room there is a wall about the glorys of the Coliseum in Benld. The Coliseum was the biggest dance hall between Chicago and St. Louis bringing talent and trouble alike to this small town that also was a hotbed of still activity during Prohibition.
Coal Finds at the Illinois Coal Museum
Exhibits cover the story of coal and how it was formed. There are wonderful items on display like the Pease-Vertical Blue Printing machine that was once used at the Superior Mine.
Memorabilia includes so many things like photographs of workers. Then there is a bright orange sign that states, “work tomorrow”. When this was out at the “Little Dog Mine” that would indicate whether the mine would offer work or be idle the next day.
You know how when you are a kid your mom would tell you if you were bad that Santa would put coal in your stocking? Well, here you get a chance to see a bucket of coal! I loved seeing the coal lanterns and the safety devices, along with the canary story. We were reminded by Kevin that a canary was used originally to detect if bad air (carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide) was in the mine. They could tell by how the bird behaved. The miner then knew that the mine had ventilation problems.
We saw roof bolts that were used to support the roof and keep it from caving in. I can’t imagine how claustrophobic it would feel in some of the narrow tunnels. One volunteer explained, “Sometimes they would remove these bolts because the rod is expensive material then the roofs would often cave in.”
Included in the Illinois Coal Museum with memorabilia is safety equipment, like hard hats, lunch buckets and more. One wall is dedicated to careers in mining and another to the 1978 strike.
If you have any interest in coal mining history, this will be an interesting museum for you to visit. There is also a display for kids where they can enter a pseudo mine.
For information, call 833-228-9608. If you are in mind of lunch check out Lumpy’s for a great meal right across the street!