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A Busy Coal Season

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Coal was an important commodity in early North Dakota, a resource that could promote the state. This worked out well for General W. D. Washburn, a former US Senator and a surveyor-General from Minnesota. In 1898, Washburn had purchased a chunk of land to promote settlement and develop any resources. It turned out that the land had huge coal deposits, and Washburn would come to own several coal mines in central North Dakota.

In late December of 1899, a party of individuals from Iowa visited General Washburn, and the group viewed some of his properties, including the coal mines near Wilton. Everyone went down into the mine to view it, and said that viewing the mines "settled the fuel question, for there are a great number of mines with an everlasting amount of good coal...and good enough for a king to burn."

In late 1900, much was being done to develop the mine in Wilton. Workers installed a new coal shaft and set up electric mining machinery. A two-story, twenty-room hotel was built to accommodate the miners and mechanics. An electric light plant was set up, to illuminate the mines and run the machinery.

The mine accessed one of the largest known lignite coal deposits in the United States. By 1907, the Wilton mine was the largest underground lignite mine in the world.

Despite all the activity, the Washburn Lignite Coal company did give their workers a respite. On this date in 1910, reports of the workers’ Christmas were noted in newspapers. The company gave a Christmas box to families living in Chapin and Langhorn. And the Chapin Sunday School presented entertainment at the schoolhouse to a packed audience. A Christmas dinner was served to the workers boarding at the Chapin hotel.

This short break preceded a busy, record-breaking new year. Between May 1911 and April 6 of 1912, the Washburn Lignite Coal company mined and shipped nearly 200,000 tons of coal. The cold weather that year caused even more demand, and the mine had had difficulty keeping up. From October to December, the company had been especially busy, and the Wilton News noted that "never in the history of this famous mine [had] so many tons been mined."

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


Bismarck Daily Tribune, July 16, 1900, p3; August 30, 1900, p3; November 13, 1900, p3; April 6, 1912, p3; January 30, 1900, p3; December 30, 1911

Bismarck Weekly Tribune, September 7, 1900, p8


Emmons County Record, January 11, 1901, p1


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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