Coal Mining and Other Early History of the Burlington, ND Area

from the recollections of George L. Johnson

Joseph L. Colton and James Johnson arrived at the forks of the Des Lacs and Mouse rivers in the spring of 1883. As they passed along the hills about one half mile below what is now known as the Speedway junction they noticed coal cropping out of the hillside. They stopped their team and dug some of the coal out and took it with them.

After finding the river junction they felt they had found the place they were looking for, and that night they camped by the Des Lacs river where the Burlington Park is now. Mr Johnson later donated this land as an "Old Settlers Park" and it was referred to as "No Mans Land". That first night the coal which had been dug from the hillside was used on the campfire, and the coal was still hot in the morning.

The first coal mine was started by Joseph Colton right where the coal was cropping out. This was in the fall of 1884. As there were only about five settlers near there at the time it didn't amount to much. By 1886 there were more settlers and the demand for coal was growing. Most of the settlers had brought wood stoves with them and they used to coal to hold the fire overnight. Most of the stoves were "Kalamazoo" models and these required some changes to keep the coal from falling through the grates which were designed for burning wood.

As more people came into the area Colton had a man staying at the mine full time. He would dig coal and leave it in the mine until customers came and then bring it out with a wheelbarrow running on planks. One ton was about the limit for any cusomer as wood was plentiful and free for everyone.

About 1892 when the Soo Line Railroad was coming into Minot a man by the name of L. M. Davis came in Mr Johnson's office who was interested in opening a good coal mine. Mr Johnson told him of their experiences with the early mines and that he felt there was plentiful coal in the Burlingtron area.

After drilling several test holes, Mr Davis purchased land from Mr Johnson in 1893 and the Soo Line also purchased additional land and installed a passing track which would hold around 40 of the cars of the size of that time. Mr Davis immediately hired an engineer and surveyor by the name of J. S. Wallace, a very competent Scotsman with a knack for handling men. After completing a survery of the slope he started the digging at the main entrance. The tipple went through a small hill across a ravine and then into the main entrance as they needed plenty of room for 2 tracks and at least 25 mine cars. When the tipple was complete the Soo Line brought in the spur line past the tipple and around another hill making room for around 20 cars ahead of the loading chute. The track was made so the cars could be rolled past the loading chute easily.

Next they installed two large boilers about 10 feet high and 24 feet long, which were housed in a large building with a tressel to the tipple so they could dump coal right in the back of their boilers where the fire grates were. There was a large work bench across the front on this building where the blacksmith work was done. Next they ran steam pipes up to the top of the tipple where there was another building with 3 huge steam engines that each ran a heavy drum about six feet long and five feet high when the cable was all wound. One drum was used for slack and two for coal, pulling the mine cars up the main slope. This slope was around 1/4 mile long, and around 10 to 12 cars were brought out per trip. When the mine was operating at it's peak the trips were 20 to 30 minutes apart. Besides the RR loading there was a chute for other customers.

The miners were not allowed to use any explosives in making the main entry so as not to weaken the front of the mine. After they reached the full face of the coal they made a double track, one for empties and one for loaded cars. They also erected a barn which held four horses and a horseman was employed to care for the horses as they came from the mine. He would swim them every night when they came out and keep them well shod. At first only two horses were used to gather the cars but as the distance to the coal face became greater all four were used. There was a loud steam whistle at the mine which was blown at noon and at 5:00 pm and this caused many a runaway team. The farm teams often turned into the Johnson farmstead to circle until someone caught them.

The next thing Mr Davis built was a large boarding house where most of the miners were fed, until they began building houses of their own. There was also a company store which handled almost anything the miners needed. Mr Wallace built a nice home over the hill from the mine. Mr Forest Sovel was put in charge of the store and a phone line was strung on the telegraph poles from Minot making the first telephone in the area. In one emergency I credit this phone with having saved my life.

As the city of Minot grew along with the surrounding territory the need for coal also grew and the Soo Line installed a platform at the mine and made it a flag station and called the station Davis. At this time Davis was getting bigger than Burlington and they each had a fair ball team. The townsite of Davis can be found on some early maps of the area between Burlington and Minot.

Mr Wallace's plan was to push the main tunnel as fast as possible back as far as they could go and as they went just open up room entrances every so often and bypass this coal which would be mined on the way back. The mine went nearly to the nearby Great Northern right of way before starting back. The air supply in the mine was maintained by a system of fans, air shafts and curtains. Whenever there was a cave in it was at the far end of the mining operation so there was little to lose. This was the only mine in the area at this time with the know-how and funds to operate this efficiently.

Since the demand for the coal was mostly seasonal something was needed for the men to do to hold them during the off season. Mr Davis found he had some of the best clay in the state right where he had cut through a hill for the tipple, and so he set up a brickyard. The yard was a great success and many of the old buildings in Minot are made from that brick. The kilns were erected right on the RR spur and they loaded brick right into cars. The Soo Line at this time was running around 25 cars of coal out of the mine every other day. Part of the coal was used in a power plant in Minot which furnished steam to most of the buildings on main street.

About this time a man named Sandy Cunningham thought he would open a mine at the head of main street in Burlington. He immediately ran into a nice spring which was used many years for drinking water for Burlington. He then moved out to "Hunnewell Coulee" where he put down a shaft mine. He reached a full face of coal at about 40 feet. After getting the shaft in with power, it happened he was pushing a car toward the shaft thinking the cage was up. Instead the cage was down, and when he tried to hold the car he went down the shaft with the car and was killed. The death was the first in the mines and his mine was never finished.

About this time a livery team drove into the farm when my sister and I were home, and in the buggy was a beautiful woman with a plume in her large hat and a fine looking young man who introduced himself as Hadley Graves. He had just graduated as an engineer, and was sent to open a mine just downstream from where Mr Colton had his first mine. This was called the Lydecker mine when it was later opened but it was never a success because of problems with faults and flooding problems common to many of the mines. Mr Graves stayed in the Burlington area managing mines until 1931, when he moved to Zap ND where he died around 1970.

Some other names I recall are of early miners who worked the Davis Mine are: "Box Car" Kelly (father of Bill Kelly of Minot) had charge of loading cars on the RR spur. Harmon Widdell, Billy and John Verzelt, Bob and Billy Staff, Elof Johnson, Gust Larson, Pete Larson, Fred Miller, Walt Kirk, Jack Abbott, Charley Johnson, Alvin Wallace, Broughton Post Pieler, Billy Bell, Ed Aume, Jim Dolen, George Egan, Harold Lloyd, John and Charlie Perlicheck, Jim Tindall and Mr Smith the bookkeeper and Louie and Clinton Smith skinners, Billy Laskowky called "trapper" who opened the curtains in the mine, are all names which come to mind.

The Davis mine was restricted by faults and flooding in the area of "Smith Coulee" to the West and toward the Speedway area to the East. As the mining slowed many of the miners filed on claims in the area as Gust Larson who filed in a coulee a mile West of Burlington in what is still known as "Larson Coulee". Pete Larson had his claim one mile further West: Fred Miller went North in the Mouse river valley about three miles above Burlington and many others filed in the prairies surrounding.

As the demand for coal rose there were many other mines opened in the area. The Hunnewell mine, Conan's Mine, Gust Larson Mine, Leslie Colton Shaft Mine, Louie Groshans & John Trailen Mine, a mine started by J. B. Wallace who left the Davis mine and started his own mine where Burlington school now stands, A.D. Scott Mine and other mines too numerous to mention.

By this time Burlington townsite had moved from along the track to where it is now and it was growing fast as there was getting to be quite a payroll every week. There were generally about 4 teams loading coal into cars on the Soo Line siding all day long and some at night. Besides loading at Burlington there was also a mine called Tasker Coal Compay about 5 miles West of Burlington where the hwy 2 & 52 junction is which was mining lots of coal. There was a large boarding house at this site where they had dances. Besides hauling coal to Minot and elsewhere with teams (I remember D. A. Dennie with his beautiful black teams) and of course by 1914 they were using Model T trucks.

Locations of some of the later mines include two mines in "Lloyd Coulee" one run by Jack Reiner, a mine on the Great Northern right of way called the New Erie Mine which was abandoned after a great deal of money and effort, The Perlichek mine out of Burlington, the Pratt Coal Company in Lloyd's Coulee and later Larson Coulee, the Versett mine and Miller mine and John Trailen mine near the old Davis mine. Many of these mines developed flooding problems which pumps were unable to handle.

Some of the early growth of Burlington includes a telephone exchange by 1910 which was on the corner where a store stands now, next down the street was a large garage, another small store then the Johnson building which still stands where there was a drug store, poolhall and lunch counter and dance floor upstairs. Next down the street was a bar and short order counter, a rooming house, 2 stores a very nice barber shop with three barbers all in white jackets and showers for the miners, and of course a card room in the back. On the corner where the restaurant is now was a store and butcher shop with a doctor's office upstairs. Across the street was C. H. Bugge's store which had been moved up from the old townsite with an addition added. Next were two banks, First State Bank and German American Bank and between them was the well kept Miller Hotel. Along the track a Mr Kulas from Minot put in a fine lumber yard and there were also two elevators. Across the track was a livery stable, blacksmith shop and the Colton House for both roomers and boarders, a section house, and most of the private homes of the town. In 1900 the Soo Line moved the depot from Burlington to Donnybrook, but not before the residents had attached a banner reading "compliments of Burlington". Later they had to build a new depot and employed two men for a time to handle the coal and freight shipments. Owing to the leisure activities of the miners a good deal of the freight was breakable.

Burlington held on quite well until the late twenties when some of the mines were playing out. About this time a fire started in the upstairs of the butcher shop which eventually burned all the buildings up to the Johnson Building. Then came the dirty thirties and both banks closed and shortly after the hotel caught fire and it wasn't long until Burlington and the coal business was a thing of the past. By 1933 mortgagers were gathering in farms right and left and through foreclosures many were losing farms through no fault of their own. At this time many people left Burlington going mostly to Washington and Oregon. On March 4, 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt declared a national bank holiday and Governor Langer followed suit by declaring a moratorium on foreclosures on farms. In 1933 the government established the Rehabilitation Corporation and purchased several hundred acres of land which they cut up in small parcels with a home on each intended for miners in a government mine which was opened in Larson Coulee. The plots of land were irrigable and were to provide work during the summer months. These parcels have mostly been sold to individuals now in an area known as the Burlington Project. The government mine was the last one operating in the Burlington area.

The Davis Coal Company became the Northern Briquetting Company. L. M. Davis died in 1914 and after his death the company soon folded and the land was purchased by Harvey Johnson and myself to again become Johnson farm property.

Many of the miners mentioned and others are buried in the little cemetary near the "Old Settlers Park" at Burlington along with other early pioneers, including my father James Johnson and grandfather Joseph Colton.

George L. Johnson

(My father George is now also buried in the Burlington Cemetary).

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