Special Collections & Archives
Coal Dust: The Early Mining Industry of Indiana
The Ernest Mining Plant
The story of the Ernest plant began in
1902, when officials of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company started looking
to Indiana County in search of new coal fields. In May, 1903, the rails of the Buffalo,
Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway reached the new town of Ernest, and the first coal was
shipped the same month. From the early days of its existence, the Ernest plant was a
marvel of engineering. In an era when most coal companies were dependent upon the lowly
mule for motive power, the R & P's new operation utilized electric motors to haul coal
to the steel tipple where a system of endless chains hoisted it up a long incline into the
plant for cleaning and grading.
Within three years of its opening, the plant
underwent the first of several renovations as the R & P constantly searched for more
efficient mining and preparation methods to produce, clean, size, and market coal. In
1906, Heyl and Patterson of Pittsburgh constructed the first washing plant. This firm had
also built the original tipple and most of the buildings used for coal storage and
preparation at Ernest. The Fairmont Machinery Company and McNally-Pittsburgh also did
important work for the R & P as the complex at Ernest expanded.
The R & P also established a coke industry at
Ernest and eventually built a battery of 278 beehive coke ovens at the plant. Coke
production figures from the Ernest ovens reflect general economic trends of the first half
of the twentieth century as well as the effects of the later development of more
sophisticated methods of making coke. By the mid-1920s, lack of demand for coke caused the
temporary shutdown of the line of coke ovens at Ernest. The plant began production again
in 1929, with the addition of mechanical unloading to replace the old hand drawing method.
Annual production ebbed and flowed until a World War 11 peak of 145,977 tons was reached.
While the manufacture of coke formed a
significant part of the activities at the Ernest plant, the mining, processing, and sale
of clean fuel remained the prime factor in the success of the operation. In the early
days, railroads, primarily the B R & P, consumed the greatest percentage of Ernest's
coal. It was particularly desired as high grade stoker coal for passenger engines. By the
mid-1920s, the original tipple had been remodeled, and a huge bin constructed for storage
of clean, sized, coking coal. In the next decade, a "dry" plant for cleaning
coal by air, and a wet" plant for cleaning coal with water, were installed at Ernest
to bring the operation up to date.
By the beginning of World War II, the Ernest coal
plant began to resemble the plant best remembered by most Indiana Countians. As the war
effort increased, Ernest kept pace with a growing need for coal; and, in 1945, the mining
and preparation plant worked together to produce over a million tons of coal. In 1952, the
McNally plant was built an the hillside behind the original site. Using a wet cleaning
method to separate the coal from impurities, the McNally plant had a capacity of fifty
tons per hour for coking coal. R & P later expanded this plant to clean four hundred
tons per hour, and it contained all of the cleaning equipment used at Ernest.
By the early 1960s, R & P officials decided
that coal could no longer be mined profitably at Ernest. In 1965, the plant was closed.
Within a few years, equipment and buildings gradually disappeared from the landscape as
scrap companies dismantled the mining operation that had taken over fifty years to
construct. But the McNally preparation plant and the skeleton of the coking coal bin still
remain on the blackened site. These, the foundations of the coke ovens, and a brick office
and machine shop are all that survive of the R & P's Ernest operations, an Indiana
County landmark to remember with pride.
The author would especially like to thank
R & P Assistant Vice President of Operations, F. P. "Pete" Calhoun and the
several members of the R & P engineering department who made suggestions and provided
information about the many technical aspects of the Ernest operation.
By Eileen Mountjoy Cooper
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