Coal and Transportation in Virginia

The first coal mines in Virginia were developed in the early 1700's, as the Richmond area was settled by European immigrants. The coal was carried from the mines in the Triassic Basin, near Midlothian in Chesterfield County and near Tuckahoe in western Henrico County, to be transported on boats via the James and Appomattox rivers.

The Chesterfield Railroad was the first Virginia railroad and the second commercial railroad in the United States. The rails were wood with an iron strap on top - and the railroad started without any locomotives. Cars loaded with coal moved by gravity downhill to the docks on the James River. In places where the line ran uphill, mules helped the cars climb some slopes. The empty cars were hauled back uphill by the mules to the mine, to be reloaded again:1

Chesterfield County’s first railroad, which began operating in 1831, was the second commercial railroad to be built in the United States. It was a 13 mile long mule-and-gravity powered line that connected the Midlothian coal mines with wharves that were located at Manchester. The Chesterfield Railroad was supplanted by the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which reached Midlothian in 1850. The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad (chartered in 1836), the Winterpock railroad (chartered in 1840 to haul coal from southwestern Chesterfield’s mining district to the Appomattox River) and other rail lines were built to several coal pits.

map of coal-hauling railroads around Richmond
coal-hauling railroads around Richmond (1856)
Source: Library of Congress,
Map of the Springfield & Deep Run estates on the Coal Lands of the N. York & Richmond Coal Co, in Henrico Co. Virginia

CSX locomotive The major coal fields in western Virginia were not developed until the arrival of the railroads in the 1880's. The value of Virginia coal depends upon its:

  1. quality (measured in British Thermal Units, with a higher BTU number meaning the coal packs more energy per pound)
  2. cost of extraction (usually based on the amount of "overburden" above a profitable-to-mine coal seam)
  3. distance from final market

Today, the coal in Virginia that is economical to mine is concentrated in the mountainous southwestern region. Virginia's bituminous coal used primarily for generating energy - it is "steam coal," not "metallurgical coal." Even low-quality coal, with a high sulfur content and buried deep underground, might be worth the high cost of underground mining if transportation costs were low - and that would be possible if there was a power plant located near the mouth of the mine.

However, there are few power plants located next to Virginia mines, in part because there is little water for cooling the boilers in such plants. The Clinch River Power Plant can use the water from that river, but the Virginia Electric Power Company had to build a new lake up on a ridge for the Mount Storm power plant in Grant County, West Virginia.

Most Virginia coal is shipped by rail to power plants on the Ohio river or to three major ports - Charleston (in South Carolina), Norfolk (by the Norfolk Southern Railroad), and Newport News (by CSX Railroad). Short trips are less expensive - and for the mines in far southwestern Virginia near Cumberland Gap, Charleston is closer than the two Virginia ports. The business of hauling coal creates about two-thirds of the freight rail traffic for the two Class 1 railroads in Virginia, CSX and Norfolk Southern.2 Nationwide, coal hauling is only 40-45% of the rail traffic.3

Low-cost transport, by rail and ship, has made it possible for Virginia to export coal since development of the original mines in Midlothian. However, Southwestern Virginia coal mines that sell much of their product to power plants along the Ohio River also have to compete with mines in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois - even Wyoming, where low-sulfur coal can be stripmined and shipped by unit trains to power plants in the Midwest. Hauling coal by mule-drawn cart is ancient history now. Modern railroads have made it possible to ship bulk coal long distances at relatively low cost - and as a result, Virginia coal has to compete with other sources based on the quality of the coal as well as geography.

The economics of coal transport affect coal mines around the world. On the Arctic coastal plain, the northern Alaska coal fields form "the largest coal-resource province in the nation"4 - but the resource is too far from market - and too low in BTU's per ton - to justify the investment in mining. (In the middle of Alaska is a coal mine that fuels the Fairbanks power plant. ) Instead, energy policy in Alaska is focused on developing oil and gas resources that are easier to transport.

Shipping coal by rail to domestic power plants is cost-effective today, but the rail traffic from the mountains to the Virginia ports on the Chesapeake Bay has diminished substantially. The Norfolk Southern now hauls just 1-2 coal "drags" per day between Roanoke and Norfolk. 5 In 2000, Virginia exported no steam coal overseas.6

Current Railroads in Southwestern Virginia
CSX and Norfolk Southern routes, showing competition for coal traffic in Southwestern Virginia
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Railroad Map of Virginia

In 2011, Norfolk was the largest coal export facility in the United states, moving 38% of all coal mined domestically and shipped to foreign customers.7

Topography and Coal Railroads

Links

Norfolk and Western 100-ton coal hopper
Norfolk and Western 100-ton coal hopper
Source: Railway and Locomotive Engineering, Successful Test of the Automatic Straight Air Brake on the Norfolk and Western Railway (April, 1921)

the Virginian's 120-ton coal cars were tilted sideways and dumped when unloaded at Sewalls Point, so there were no hopper doors on the bottom
the Virginian's 120-ton coal cars were tilted sideways and dumped when unloaded at Sewalls Point, so there were no hopper doors on the bottom
Source: Railway and Locomotive Engineering, The 120-Ton Coal Cars of the Virginian Railway (April, 1921)

on the Virginian in the 1920's, 75% of the coal car weight was a revenue-earning 90 tons of coal and 25% of the weight was the car itself
on the Virginian in the 1920's, 75% of the coal car weight was a revenue-earning 90 tons of coal and 25% of the weight was the car itself
Source: Railway and Locomotive Engineering, The 120-Ton Coal Cars of the Virginian Railway (April, 1921)

References

1. McCartney, Martha W., "Historical Overview Of The Midlothian Coal Mining Company Tract - Chesterfield County, Virginia," December, 1989 http://midlomines.org/History_EXZH.html (last checked July 27, 2013)
2. Association of American Railroads, "Railroad Service in Virginia - 2000," www.tomorrowsrailroads.com/pdf/VA.pdf (last checked April 25, 2004)
3. Association of American Railroads, "Class I Railroad Statistics - Type of Freight Carried for Year 2003" (last checked April 25, 2004)
4. "Coal Resources of Alaska," Information Circular 17, State of Alaska - Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, September 30, 1983, p.5 (last checked April 15, 2004)
5. "Pocahontas Region Coal Routes," Trains Magazine, p. 35, April 2005
6. Virginia Coal, Markets and Consumption www.energy.vt.edu/vept/coal/consumption/distribution.html (last checked April 25, 2004)
7. "Virginia - State Profile and Energy Estimates," US Energy Information Administration (EIA), http://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=VA (last checked August 2 2013)

Lambert's Point, destination in Hampton Roads of Norfolk Southern coal, shown on postcard issued 1930-1945
Lambert's Point, destination in Hampton Roads of Norfolk Southern coal, shown on postcard issued 1930-1945
Source: Boston Public Library


Coal in Virginia
The Role of Coal in Southwest Virginia
Railroads of Virginia
Virginia Places