Chalfant: Sedalia a coal town? Plan called just a smokescreen

December 19, 2012

During the late 19th century, Sedalia boosters regularly tried to entice manufacturing firms to locate factories in Sedalia. The Commercial Club, a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, worked diligently to bring new industries to Sedalia.

Boosters such as I. Mac DeMuth cited several factors that made Sedalia a good location. The most important factor was Sedalia’s connections on the Missouri Pacific, the MK&T, the Sedalia, Warsaw, and Southern, and the Lexington Branch railroads.

Other factors related to costs. These included a large number of workers who, according to DeMuth, would accept low wages for their labor, and the relatively low cost of land on which factories could be built, and inexpensive public utilities such as water, sewer, gas, steam and electric power.

In 1902, R.H. Gray wrote to the Sedalia Democrat, again advocating that Sedalians should “at once take up some factory propositions or other business enterprises calculated to afford employment to our laboring classes.”

Gray pointed out a “proposition … that would prove a veritable gold mine for this community.” Noting that “cheap fuel” was essential to the profitable operation of a factory, Gray proposed developing the coalfields lying parallel to the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks between Sedalia and La Monte.

The coal deposits were accompanied by deposits of “the very finest shale,” used for vitrified paving and sidewalk brick. “Immense quantities” of fire clay used to make fire brick and potter’s brick used for making stoneware lay underground, as well. In addition, the area had “heavy banks of gumbo,” a clay-like mud that could be burned in a kiln and used for railway and road building.

The “abundant and excellent quality” coal, according to the tests Gray cited, lay in layers. Under the topsoil was a bed of shale ranging from 12 to 30 feet thick. Under the shale was a 30-inch thick vein of good coal. This layer of coal had, according to Gray, been mined for several years “at a fair profit.”

Another vein of coal some 36 inches thick lay 30 feet below the first vein, and a third vein, 24 inches thick, was 18 feet below the second vein. Gray described this as providing “an unlimited coal supply at a very moderate depth.”

Sedalians had, as Gray noted, invested in land in California, property in Kansas City, and oil and mineral mines in other places, and Gray chastised local residents for failing to invest locally. He proposed building a brick and tile plant so that “every paving brick and every building brick used in Sedalia” could be manufactured here; the money spent on bricks would stay in Sedalia and enhance the city’s economy.

Gray further proposed that the brick factory be built in the midst of the coal field, so that coal, shale, clay and gumbo might all be mined at the same time. Doing so, he insisted, would result in cheaper production of bricks and other products.

In addition, the cost of coal for heating local homes would be reduced by half if coal could be mined locally.

Gray presented an interesting proposal, but one with several reservations. First was the expense of building “an electric or dummy railroad” from Sedalia to the brick plant and coal mine.

Another question raised involved the amount of coal, shale and clay that actually existed. Dresden did develop potteries that produced stoneware jugs and small coal mines operated in Montserrat in Johnson County, but despite Gray’s insistence that the coal field had been “thoroughly and scientifically tested, by experts, at an expense of thousands of dollars,” the coal veins did not produce sufficient coal to make mining in Sedalia a profitable venture.

Another question pertained to Gray’s motive in advocating the development of a brick plant and coal mine. Although he wrote that he “had no interest whatever in these coal fields, directly or indirectly,” he had also admitted that he was involved in paving a portion of Third Street “at an expense of several hundred dollars.” Locally produced paving brick would certainly have made his paving project less expensive.

The editor of Rosa Pearle’s paper, known for her trenchant social commentary, dismissed Gray’s proposal and other coal mining propositions by simply noting that whenever Sedalia’s economy seemed to slow, someone was always willing to resurrect the possibility of a coal mine and raise false hopes in Sedalia investors.