Four Corners is a column about East Peoria's history written by Frank Borror, East Peoria Historical Society president

Beneath much of Illinois lies a black treasure — coal. Illinois coal deposits began to form more than 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian Period, when the land that is now Illinois was near the equator. East Peoria, geophysically lies in what is called the Illinois basin and that basin contains a tremendous quantity of bituminous coal, enough to make the state of Illinois the possessor of more bituminous coal than any other state. The first recorded discovery of coal in North America was in Illinois in 1673. That is when two French explorers, Marquette and Joliet first saw coal along the banks of the Illinois River.

Beneath much of Illinois lies a black treasure — coal.  Illinois coal deposits began to form more than 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian Period, when the land that is now Illinois was near the equator.  East Peoria, geophysically lies in what is called the Illinois basin and that basin contains a tremendous quantity of bituminous coal, enough to make the state of Illinois the possessor of more bituminous coal than any other state. The first recorded discovery of coal in North America was in Illinois in 1673. That is when two French explorers, Marquette and Joliet first saw coal along the banks of the Illinois River.

Early settlers began burrowing into coal deposits near the surface and by the late 1800’s coal mining had become East Peoria’s first industry. It is known that James Whittaker mined coal near Wesley City as early as 1852. In 1900 there were seven major coal companies operating in East Peoria employing 250 men with a production of some 2,000 tons of coal per day.  All of the coal mined in this area was used for local consumption. Mining companies at that time were:  Lake Erie Coal and Mining Company, East Peoria Coal Company, Standard Coal Company, Doering Coal Company, Giebelhausen Coal Company, Manhattan Coal Company and Royster Coal Company. 

The largest coal mine in East Peoria was the Lake Erie Mine situated on Wesley Road just off what now is North Main Street. The Lake Earie was what is called an underground slope mine, meaning it did not have a vertical shaft but rather burrowed into the side of the hill and sloped downward to a coal vein. In this case, it was the Springfield Coal Vein at a depth of 265 feet.  The area mined covered over one and a half square miles and stretched a far east as Springfield Road with air shafts located at several points.  It employed some 50 men and produced 300 tons of coal per day. Its “Wesley Coal”, so named because of its proximity to Wesley City, was highly prized for its purity.  The seam of coal that was mined was four and one third feet thick, requiring miners worked in underground corridors less than five feet high. The coal was transferred to the surface by mine carts or trolleys pulled with stream powered cables.  Mules were not used as in other East Peoria mines.  This mine was a ‘pick mine’, which meant there was no machinery used to extract  the coal, just picks to break apart the coal after black powder charges had been detonated to fracture the coal face.

The mine began operations in 1899 as the Progressive Mine, under the auspices of the Progressive Coal Company, which reopened and extended a mine that had closed ten years earlier. This earlier mine was operated at a depth of 100 feet from 1878 to 1889 by brothers Christian and Joseph Rusche as the Rusche Coal Company and later as the Wesley City Coal Mine. Mules were employed to tow trolleys and it is reported to have even used St. Bernard dogs for the same purpose when first established.  The ten year gap in operations causes the Bureau of Mines to consider Wesley City and Lake Erie as two separate mines.

It was operated during most of its existence as Lake Erie Coal and Mining Company from 1902 to 1905, 1906 to 1908, 1910 to 1917 and 1919 to 1939. The mine was operated as Carters Coal Mine in 1905 and 1906 by Carters Coal Mining Company directed by Frederick R. Carter.  Carters Coal Mine, under the supervision of John Appleby, provided coal for the adjacent Carter and Kanne brickyards. Carter had purchased the Spurck Brick Company which would evolve into Peoria Brick and Tile.  David H. Cummings managed the mine from 1907 until 1910 in tandem with his brother Ambrose D. Cumming who owned Standard Coal Mine, also located in East Peoria. The mine was known as Maplewood Coal Mine #1 from 1917 to 1919.    Lake Erie Mine closed in February of 1939 and by 1940, there were no coal mines operating in the East Peoria area. Most of the coal that was easily assessable had been mined and underground mining had become more expensive than strip-mining with the advent of massive mining machinery.

Frank Giacolette was a typical Lake Erie coal miner, who scratched out a living for his wife and two children, Ray and Delores. Frank’s daughter, Delores Meischner, relates that her father dropped out of school to work in the mines when he was nine years old and Frank’s son Ray, a former City of East Peoria inspector, says his dad’s father was working at the Cherry Mine at the time of the 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster. Two hundred and fifty-nine men and boys died in that mine fire. Although not injured in the Cherry Mine accident, Giacolette later lost a leg in another mine incident.  Coal mining was a very dangerous occupation and four miners lost their lives during the Lake Erie Mine’s forty years of operation:  Frank Kinnamon on April 22, 1918, Frank Giebelhausen on June 11, 1918, Charles H. Butterfield on July 17, 1934 and Vincent Arriotto on September 31, 1937.

— Frank Borror, East Peoria Historical Society president