Cumberland Coal

two chunks of bituminous coal
Bituminous coal

NPS - Nanette Nyce

Coal is ancient swamp peat, formed from decaying plant matter. After being subjected to heat and pressure deep within the earth's crust over millions of years, the peat gradually loses moisture and other impurities. As heat and pressure increase, the carbon content and heat content value increase as well.

There are four types of coal - peat, lignite, bituminous, and anthracite. Peat is the youngest (first stage) sedimentary coal and anthracite (final stage) is metamorphic and the hardest. Anthracite contains the highest carbon concentration and possesses the highest heat potential. In addition to the carbon that comprises most of the coal, there are also variable trace amounts of hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen that decrease as the material metamorphoses (transforms).

Layer of coal highlighted on Sidling Hill
Layer of coal on Sidling Hill, east of Cumberland on Interstate 68

NPS / Nanette

The coal found around Cumberland is a valuable, high quality bituminous coal. Its low sulfur content means that it was relatively clean burning, useful for factories and transportation. A coal seam (layered deposit), exposed by the erosion of Georges Creek, was recorded in the 18th century. However, due to the difficulty of transportation, mining efforts didn't significantly escalate until 1842 when the B&O Railroad reached Cumberland, followed by the completion of the C&O Canal in 1850.

Coal accounted for 85% of the cargo on the Canal. Between 1850 and 1923, over 21 million short tons of coal were transported via the C&O Canal, half of that from the late 1860's to the mid 1870's or the "heyday" of the canal. The average boat load was 120 tons. That means there were approximately 175,000 boat loads transported over the 73 years of operation.

Discussion Question: Throughout history, humanity has utilized a variety of materials, like wood, coal, flowing water, and domestic animals to provide energy. In our day, there is an even wider variety of energy resources. Think of the role energy plays in your life. How are your energy needs met? What resources are being used?

Additional C&O Geology pages: Locks 15-20 | Widewater | Devils Eyebrow | Purplehorse Beach | Pothole Alley | Flooding | Lamprophyre Dikes | Mather Gorge | Paw Paw Tunnel | Olmsted Island

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Last updated: September 6, 2023

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