Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

October 12, 2006

New Block Coal Co. west of Streepyville

By Bill Heusinkveld - correspondent

The Rock Island Railroad continued west from Streepyville toward Numa in 1871. Isaac F. Streepy had died in 1926 at the age of 88, but a new mine was started on Streepy land in 1929, shortly after his death. It was owned by the New Block Coal Co. It was on the south side of the track, about three fourths of a mile west of the Streepy Mine. It had a 160 foot shaft and used the longwall type of operation. Frank Casale was Superintendent.

Since the Prairie Block Mine had closed shortly before the New Block Mine was started, many of the miners still lived in Streepyville. From there it was only about three quarters of a mile to walk along the railroad track or to drive on the Numa road. However, a new mining camp was also started in the vicinity of the mine. It is pictured here. The people in the picture are the family of a coal miner, George Lassaretto (1891 to 1948), who came to this country from northern Italy in the early 1900‚s. His wife, Margarita Lazzeretto is shown in the picture with four of her children. This family information came to me from Johnny Tagliapetra whose mother Cora was the daughter of George and Margarita Lazzeretto. How can one possibly visualize the traumatic transition from life in northern Italy to that in a crowded hut in a remote coal camp in southern Iowa!

In 1935 Anton Tometich was killed in the New Block mine by a fall of black bat that broke his back. Three of the other miners were also injured. In 1943 George Grenco died after being caught between the cage and the mine shaft. The mine operated until 1967 and mined an area of 100 acres. The railroad discontinued operation in 1978.

When ISU Co. transferred me from Ottumwa to Centerville in 1958, many of the huge slag piles were still in evidence, but disappearing rapidly. I remember driving south from the Numa road J46 on 185th Ave. and seeing the bustling work of slag pile removal off to the east. With my abysmal lack of knowledge of coal mining at that time, I hardly knew at that time what was going on. By now, the steel rails have been removed and finally, even the telegraph wires and poles are gone. We soon forget how the landscape has changed. Only the old right of way is still visible because of the embankment and all the trees that now occupy the right of way.

The next mine along the railroad going west was the Ballard Coal Co. located in the east part of Section 17, just west of where the big curve on the Numa road begins. It started out to be the Heavlin Mine in 1936, then the Enterprise Coal Co. in 1938 and closed as the Ballard Coal Co. in 1940. It was a shallow mine for this area with only a 60 foot shaft. After the Ballard mine was closed, some boys were looking at this abandoned mine. One of them was 17 year-old Thomas Lyons. He succumbed to the deadly black damp or monoxide poisoning.

I want to apologize for my terminology is some of my articles in the past. Sometimes I talked about drilling a new mine instead of digging a new mine. Actually any drilling might be limited to a test hole to find out if there was coal below and how deep and how thick it was. This might be done with an 8-inch auger.

The shaft of a mine had room for two elevator cages. Each cage had room for a coal car to get on it on its rails. The coal car was about 4 feet by 7 feet. The two hoists had to have a wood structure built on the side walls to hold the guide tracks around the cages as well as between the two cages. There was usually a quarter hole dug along one end to provide a passage for flow of fresh air. All in all the hole was probably about 12 feet by 16 feet.

I talked to some of the old miners to find out how they dug these huge, deep holes, this one 160 feet deep. The basic answer was by using the pick and shovel method. Then, of course, they had to lift all the dirt out of the mine with buckets and ropes, possibly using a windlass or horse power on the surface. If they ran into quicksand or water, they had to seal it off with wood planks. If they hit rock, they would have to use dynamite. This all meant a huge, time-consuming construction job, even before the first shovelful of coal could be dug.