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 to the manufacturing facilities along the James (which had originally been operated by waterpower). 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.
|"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."1|
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:
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.
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