The popular memory of World War II often conjures up images of baby-faced young men rushing into battle with guns in their hands and patriotism in their hearts. These are the most familiar images of military victory. However, real military success in the “Good War” was determined by the ability of the United States to outproduce other industrialized nations. This production took place on the home front and pivoted entirely around coal. Butler County coal fueled the fires of industry and therefore fueled the engine of war. Without the large-scale production of coal, the war machine does not operate.
In the 1940s, coal was used to power locomotives, produce iron, steel, and electricity, and keep Americans’ homes heated. The production of this valuable resource was pivotal to the success of the United States during World War II. Specifically, coal production was a driving force behind the manufacturing of steel, iron, and other military goods. Nationally, coal production increased from 348 million tons in 1938 to 617 million tons in 1944 at the height of the war effort. The implementation of strip mines allowed for new mines to open quickly with lower start-up costs compared to that of underground mining. Strip mine operation increased from 465 mines in 1938 to 1,370 mines in 1945 nationally. The quick development of these strip mines allowed the United States to support the war effort.
In the coal state of Pennsylvania, production increased 69.9 percent from 1938 to 1945, reaching a peak of 130 million net tons. The largest change within the state occurred in the development of strip mining. Only 2 million net tones were produced from strip mining in 1939 compared to the 26 million net tons produced in 1945. This 855% increase in strip mining helped cover the huge demand for coal and energy.
Proximity to Pittsburgh and the steel mills of the region made Butler County's coal an important contribution to the war effort, and mines in the county took full advantage of the shift to strip mining. In 1938, Butler County produced only 496,000 net tons of coal. Less than a decade later in 1944, Butler County produced more than 1.2 million net tons of coal.
Unfortunately, coal mining jobs decreased during this time period due to the ease of strip mining. The coal industry as a whole began to transition toward strip mining for a multitude of reasons. It was cheaper and easier to start strip mines during this accelerated period of demand. Additionally, strip mines allowed for heavy machinery such as dozers and loaders to do the work of the miners. The incorporation of heavy machinery reduced the need for as many laborers. There were 1,391 coal mining jobs in 1938 but only 945 jobs in 1945. The convenience of strip mining made it easier to extract more coal with fewer workers.
Kincaid Mine in Butler County is one such mine that benefited from the war. The mine opened in 1911 when S. Sherwin of Karns City leased 340 acres of mineral rights on the Earnheart Farm. Kincaid Mine was owned and operated by S. Sherwin until he sold the mine in 1925 to Butler Consolidated Coal Co. During the World War II efforts, however, Kincaid outproduced all other mines in Butler County, producing 106,397 net tones in 1945. The increase in production of small local mines such as Kincaid happened nationally. This push by the American coal industry and small coal mining communities, such as Kincaid, helped to fuel the war machine and allow the United States to succeed in its military efforts during World War II. Butler Consolidated would own the mine until its closing. The company shut down the plant in 1951, possibly because the UMW was beginning efforts to unionize Kincaid’s miners.
The quick implementation of strip mines to fuel the increased demand helped to give the United States the advantage in World War II. Unfortunately, these hastily-excavated mines left behind significant environmental destruction. Abandoned strip mines, acid mine drainage, water and air pollution were all left in the wake of accelerated mine operations. Pennsylvania programs such as Operation Scarlift came in the 1960’s and 1970’s to help repair the damages of historic mining practices, efforts that are still ongoing today. Successes in counteracting acid mine drainage can been seen locally here at Slippery Rock Creek. Unfortunately, much of the damage that has been done as not been rectified yet. The United States produced more coal and therefore more industry than any other industrialized nation during World War II, but at a significant environmental cost.