The Huguenots first discovered coal in surface outcroppings along the James River near their settlement, Manakintowne, at the turn of the 18th century. Colonel William Byrd took notice of the Huguenots using the coal for “domestic needs” and took out a patent on 344 acres of land in 1701. In 1709, he reported “…that the coaler found the coal mine very good and sufficient to furnish several generations.”
Coal was mined commercially in the Midlothian area in 1748, making the Midlothian mines the oldest commercial mines in the nation. In 1758, nine tons of this coal was transported by ship from Hampton to New York. Due to competition from foreign coal, however, the annual production of the mines was less than 1000 tons during the second half of the 18th century.
An import tariff imposed on foreign coal in 1794 was the catalyst for increased development. This new interest in coal and the need to transport it to northern markets would lead to construction of canals, roads, and railroads. Operating by 1795, the James River and Kanawha Canal facilitated the movement of coal from the pits across the James downriver to Rocketts. By 1802, the Midlothian Turnpike connected the Midlothian and Black Heath mines to the Manchester wharves. The Chesterfield and Manchester Railroad, completed in 1831, operated as a gravity line. Mules rode in the last car and would then pull the empties back to the mines. By 1850, the Richmond and Danville Railroad was completed, eliminating the need for the gravity line.
The iron industry in Richmond developed by taking advantage of the local fuel. Bellona Foundry on Old Gun Road and the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond used local coal for their cannon operations and thus became targets during the Civil War, along with Coalfield Station.
The rich Midlothian bituminous coal deposit lies along the eastern edge of the Richmond Triassic Coal Basin, which straddles both sides of the James River and spans six counties. Midlothian’s deposit is the result of tectonic activity as Pangea began to breakup during the middle Mesozoic period. This area dropped as the North American and African plates separated. The resulting “basin” was a scene of quiet waters and abundant plant life, both conducive to coal formation. Western Virginia’s Paleozoic coal deposit, still mined today, is more than 100 million years older.
Scottish, English, and Welsh miners brought their mining expertise with them as they emigrated to Midlothian in Virginia, where they toiled in the mines alongside slaves, freed men, and local men and boys. Midlothian, Virginia, probably derives its name from the Mid-Lothian Mines that were owned by the Wooldridge family, whose ancestors emigrated in the late 1700s from the mining areas near Edinburgh in Scotland known as “the Lothians.” Midlothian is a Scottish county and is home to the Scottish Mining Museum.