Coal Mining in Illinois
 

South Wilmington Mines

 
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By Richard Joyce
Reprinted with permission from the Gardner Chronicle (Supplement, July 29, 1999 - South Wilmington Centennial)
 

The Chicago, Wilmington and Vermilion Coal Company sank and operated three coal mines in the vicinity of South Wilmington. The Number One Mine, which operated from 1899 to 1915, was located approximately one-half mile south of the southeast edge of town. Number Two Mine, located just east of town on what is now the Joyce farm, ran from 1902 to 1911, according to state records. The Number Three Mine, located one and a half miles south of the village, had the longest run and was owned by a variety of people. It was started by the C. W. & V. in 1909 and run by them until they (C.W. & V.) closed the mine in 1926. The mine was later reopened by John Skinner and Alex Densmore. The mine closed from 1943 to 1948, as the war and the arsenal drained the area's mining work force. Later reopened by Densmore and Ebe Jerbi, the mine operated until it was closed at last in 1954. It has the unique distinction of being the last deep shaft mine to operate in the northern part of Illinois.

The work force who labored at the Number Three in the early 1950's included mine manager Joe Jirus; mine examiner, John Corneglio; mule drivers Charles Corneglio and Francis "Shorty" Neese; blacksmith, John Pomatto; cage, Joe Sabella; hoisting engineer, Bert Roff; top man, Bill Reel; bookkeeper, Joe Frasca; and president Alex Densmore. Miners included Walter Lohmar, Dominic Jaicomo, Joe Corneglio, Joe Cheise, Ken Harrop, Sereno Lardi, Joseph Viano, and John Austin. Production was about eighty tons per day. Mules used to pull the coal cars in the mine were names Brownie, Brandy and Tiger.

The opening of the first mine in late 1898 was cause for great excitement in the mining towns through northern Illinois. The Clark City correspondent to the Kankakee Gazette reported on December 9, 1898, "Another mine is being sunk two and a half miles northwest of the place by the Chicago and Wilmington Company of Braidwood." The 1898 state coal report was more descriptive. It states, "The Chicago and Wilmington Company has opened a new mine in Grundy County, three and a half miles from Gardner. A town site has been located, which will bear the name of South Wilmington. About 20 houses have been built and many others are in the course of construction. The shaft is 189 feet to the coal, which Number 2 of the geological section; a new steel tower has been erected; the engine boiler houses are covered with galvanized corrugated iron; a shaker screen has been put in, and the plant is in ever first call and intended for a large output."

By 1901, the mine at South Wilmington was the state's 24th best producer. In that year, a coal washing plant was added at the mine. A year later, and again in 1903, the mine was the state's 16th top producer. It helped make Grundy County the state's 9th best coal-producing county in 1901, 1902 and 1903.

Although the Morris Daily Herald wrote in 1912 that South Wilmington was located "in the center of the great coal field" and that its two mines "run almost continuously every working day in the spring, winter and fall" with " a payroll of nearly $60,000 a month" and "an average output of 2,000 tons of coal per working day," mine inspector T.S. Cummings, in 1914, warned of factors contributing to the decline of mining in northern Illinois. He wrote, "The reason for the closing of so many of the mines lies in the fact that it is impossible for the companies to compete with mine owners elsewhere. The seam is not of sufficient thickness to justify the installation of mining machinery, and the production of the coal by hand is too expensive an operation to permit of its being marketed at the figures quoted by coal companies elsewhere. The coal still remains, but with the exception of the few shafts mentioned above, all that remains to remind the traveler in Grundy County of one of this section's most important industries are the unsightly piles of shale, and the depressions in the surrounding fields which mark the position of the tunnels."

The closing of the Number Three Mine by the coal company in the mid-1920's brought many dire predictions. One newspaper's heading noted, "Closing sounds Knell of Whole Town." It lamented, "With the closing of the shaft, a complete city is being wiped off the map, to join the ranks of Torino, Godley, Diamond and numerous other villages of the section which were literally buried in the dirt heaps of abandoned coal mines.

Although many businesses closed and many of the miners and their families moved to the coal towns in central and southern Illinois, other families stayed, and the town's population stabilized.