Near the banks of the Deep River, six miles northwest of Sanford,
a cycle is about to begin anew. There is coal here, 100 million tons of
it, geologists estimate. For more than two hundred years men have been
trying to bring it to the surface. Millions have been spent, more than a
hundred lives have been lost and for all the cost less than 1 million tons
of Deep River Coal has seen sunlight. Today a new generation of men with
a new generation of tools are ready to try again. Strip mining operations
by the Chatham Coal Company are scheduled to begin here in the near
There is a demon in the Deep River Coal Bed--or so we might
believe. The history of mining here, the site of the only major coal
mining operation in North Carolina history, is one of tragedy and failure.
No one has ever made a profit from Deep River Coal. The demon has
guarded its black treasure with all the ferocity of a dragon atop its
mound of jewels. The graves that surround the Old Egypt and Carolina
Mines can attest to that.
The Great Age Of Dinosaurs
The story of Deep River Coal begins 200 million years ago during
the great age of dinosaurs. All the land masses of Earth were then joined
in the super-continent of Pangaea. Much of the land that is today North
Carolina was then blanketed by enormous swamps and chains of shallow
The climate was warm and humid. Plant life, especially ferns,
thrived. But the normal cycle of plant decay / fertilization was being
short-circuited in the soupy ground of the swamps. Fallen plants did not
decay; they fossilized, storing in the ground the energy they had
collected from the sun. These beds of fossilized plant matter grew in
depth as century after century of plant life took root in the peat formed
by its ancestors. These peat beds were the predecessors to all of the
world's great beds of coal, including the Deep River Coal Field. All that
was needed to convert the peat to coal was pressure.
It came in the form of weight. As time passed and the reign of
the dinosaurs ended, a layer of sediment covered the peat, perhaps washed
down some ancient river. This overlaying sediment was, itself, covered
later with new sediment Pressure began to mount on the ancient bed of
peat, now buried far underground. The peat was turning to coal.
In the beginning it was a very soft coal: sub-bituminous,
geologists call it. But as the pressure grew it was squeezed even tighter
into bituminous and then finally into anthracite coal. The western part
of the Deep River Coal Bed was anthracite, the best coal. The eastern
part was the lesser bituminous coal.
The Deep River Coal Bed awaited the coming of man.
It is unclear when mining began on the Deep River Coal Bed. it
seems certain though that by 1775 at least one mine, the Horton Mine, was
in operation near the present town of Gulf. Nearby, on land that is now
the town of Cumnock, George Wilcox established a forge and bloomers along
the Deep River. There is a report that Mr. Wilcox forged cannon balls
and shot for the Revolutionary War but this has been questioned. What
seems more likely is that the coal was mined in the area on a small scale
for the next seventy-five years to supply local needs.
In 1852, with the Civil War just eight years away, the first
attempts at high production mining along the Deep River began. The main
shaft of the Egypt mine was sunk. It struck a vein at 430 feet and mining
operations were started. The market for the coal was mainly to the east
so work began on a slack-water navigation route through the Deep River. A
railway was also begun from Fayetteville. The future looked bright indeed
as the first coal from the Egypt mine was brought up in 1855.
But the coal came up slowly, transportation along the Deep River
never materialized and the railway line was behind schedule.
Then came the Civil War. The Confederacy, in need of coal,
expedited construction of the railway and brought it within two miles of
the Egypt mine. Egypt coal finally had a market.
Day and night shifts were instituted in the mine. Miners were
actually Confederate soldiers who could avoid combat by working in the
mine--a job considered as dangerous as fighting. Other mines were pushed
into operation as well: The Black Diamond Mine, the Taylor Slope and the
Carolina Mine--the mine that would, in another sixty years, be the scene
of the worst industrial disaster in North Carolina history.
The Endor Iron Furnace was built along the banks of the Deep
River to forge cannon balls and shot for the Confederacy. The Furnace
still stands today, crumbling from assaults made on it, not by Union
Soldiers, but by flood waters of the Deep River. It can be found by
following a short trail off the end of Iron Furnace Road. Squirrels and
snakes now find refuge within the walls that have not known the glowing
heat of molten iron for more than a century.
Deep River coal failed to live up to its early promise.
Transportation costs drove up its price to a point where it couldn't
compete on the open market. The coal that did find its way to
Fayetteville was used by the Confederate Navy's blockade runners. But the
coal had an unfortunate property: it left a trait of yellow smoke when
burned. Stories abound of sailors who lost their lives after their
location was disclosed by the dreaded yellow trail of Deep River coal. It
would seem the wrath of the demon extended even into the Atlantic.
In 1870, after nearly twenty years of operation, the Deep River
Coal Bed had failed to yield a profit. Less than a hundred thousand tons
of coal had been produced. The Egypt mine closed, a failure.
But just eighteen years later the mine was reopened by a new
company with new ideas. The mine began immediately to turn a profit. The
mining town of Egypt, NC was proposed, looking like so many other mining
towns in Pennsylvania.
The mine employed some eighty miners. Wages were considered good
and miners from the great mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia moved
south into the promising town of Egypt. About half the miners were black
and another quarter were foreigners who came from Scotland, England, Italy
and Poland. It may seem strange now, but the town of Egypt (later Cumnock)
once had a very cosmopolitan air.
Many of the miners were "loaders." It was their job to shovel
into carts the coal that blasted free with dynamite set by the engineers.
Rooms were hollowed out and the coal carried away in carts pulled by
mules. After a miner filled a cart, he affixed a tag which identified him
to the clerks up top. Pay was by the cart load.
In 1895 the mine produced a personal record of $41,350 worth of
coal. Then the demon struck back.
Egypt Mine Disasters
At 8:30 a.m. on December 19, 1895 an explosion ripped through
the Egypt Mine. There were sixty-seven men in the mine at the time. The
cause was almost surely natural gas ignited by a flame in a miners helmet.
The dreaded after-damp, the miner's name for the suffocation that occurs
after a mine explosion, did the rest. Forty-six men lost their lives that
The disaster crippled severely the Egypt Coal Company and it
nearly went under. But the company limped along, its Coal of 500 tons per
day still unachieved, when the demon struck again.
On May 22, 1900 an explosion similar to the one in 1895 killed
another twenty-two miners. The set-back was too much for the ailing
company. In 1902 the Egypt coal mine was closed once again.
The mine never again achieved the modest prosperity it knew
during the few short years before the disaster of 1895. It was reopened
in 1915 and operated in a small way by the Norfolk Railroad to supply the
railroad until it was closed--this time for good--in 1922.
All that remains today of the Old Egypt Mine is a small crater
located about five hundred yards from the Cumnock Bridge off Cumnock Road.
The story of the Egypt Mine will end once and for all when it is swept
away by strip mining operations this spring.
The Short Lived Carolina Mine
In 1921 one of the most important events that ever occurred on
the Deep River Coal Bed took place. The Carolina Coal Company was formed
with the intention of developing a mine near Farmville across the river
from the Egypt Mine. The mining town that would arise was to be called
Coal Glen. The Carolina Mine is often called the Coal Glen Mine, or the
The Carolina Mine was the most ambitious mining operation ever
begun on the Deep River Coal Bed. In 1923, its first year of full-scale
operation, its output more than doubled the best of the Old Egypt Mine.
Once again the future looked bright for a mine on the Deep Rivet- Coal
Bed. But the profits never came. In 1925 the demon dealt its most
vicious blow ever.
At seven in the morning on May 25, the morning shift, numbering
seventy-four miners, descended into the dark of the Carolina Mine. Two
and a half hours later the first of three terrific explosions tore through
the mine. Its vibrations were felt as far as a mile away. Families and
company officials rushed to the mine entrance Poisonous, yellow gas
billowed from the mine entrance, making rescue impossible. It took five
days to pull all the bodies from the mine. The story made front page news
all across the country.
Fifty-three men died that morning.
The Carolina Mine closed four years later. Ironically, it was
not a mine explosion that closed the mine, but water and human
carelessness. Rains swelled the Deep River in 1929 and the mine began to
flood through an air shaft. The water was pumped free, but no precautions
were taken against subsequent flooding. The mine flooded again in 1930
putting an end to the Carolina Mine, after less than mine years of
operation. The flood waters, the prohibitive cost of transportation, the
accidents, and the market crash of 1929 had conspired to bankrupt the
Carolina Coal Company. Another Deep River mine had closed in failure.
The Carolina Mine was opened again between 1947 and 1951 but
failed to turn a profit and was allowed to reflood. It has not been
The Demon And The Future
The entrance to the Carolina Mine can be found today in the
parking lot of the General Timber Lumberyard off Farmville Mine Road. It
has been incorporated into a garden near the company's office building.
All that can be seen inside the shaft is some old equipment and a track
disappearing into water about fifteen feet down.
The real testament to the tragedy history of mining on the Deep
River Coal Bed is located three hundred yards from the Carolina Mine
shaft, at the entrance to the lumberyard. It is the Farmville Cemetery.
Miners who fell victim to each of the three major explosions are
represented there. There is a plaque, dedicated to the victims of the
Carolina Mine disaster, standing among the graves. Its engraving begins
with the terrible date: May 27, 1925 . . .
Now men stand ready once again to mine the Deep River coal; drawn
back by the black wealth formed there in the swamps some 200 million years
ago. Will they succeed where so many others have failed? Will the demon
There are geologists who think the curse will continue. They
cite the same problems that have always existed with this coal: abundant
natural gas which is highly explosive, an unfortunate dip in the contour
of the coal bed making it difficult to reach, and geological faults in the
The Chatham Coal Company, like others before them, are confident
they can surmount these problems; that they can best the demon of Deep
River Coal. Maybe they will. For there will be no further tunneling into
the coal bed here. This time the coal will be brought up using modern
strip mining techniques.