Northern Erath and southern Palo Pinto Counties were the largest coal producing areas in the state of Texas from the late 1880s until 1946. In the region, the coal industry centered on the Texas & Pacific Coal Company (T&P) mines. In fact, in the mid-1890s T&P conducted underground mining operations in fifteen sites located throughout the hills surrounding Thurber. During peak years, approximately one thousand to fifteen hundred men mined fifteen hundred to two thousand tons of coal per day in the Thurber area. However, not every chunk of coal yielded from the bituminous-rich terrain originated in T&P mines. Nearby, workers at the Strawn Coal Company and other small family-owned operations, such as the Obel Mine in Mingus, produced a significant coal supply.
Coal mining arrived in Strawn around 1900 when brothers William and Harvey Johnson started the Mount Marion Coal Company. They originally settled in the area in 1878, and operated a successful feed, lumber, and grain company. By 1886 the profits they yielded from selling wooden cross ties to the Texas and Pacific Railroad gained them the necessary capital to open the first coal shafts near what would later become the town of Thurber in Erath County. The Johnson’s first coal mining venture resulted in failure and in 1888 they reluctantly sold their interests to parties in Fort Worth. The next few years they operated their retail/supply businesses in Strawn.
The Johnsons knew that there was tremendous earning potential in coal mining and never abandoned the idea. Quite possibly, they were encouraged with the growth of Thurber that had occurred since T&P purchased their operations in 1888. After nearly going bankrupt with their first venture, they learned that it required a tremendous amount of capital to operate a coal company, while it took only a small amount to find the coal and sink the shaft. Almost immediately after creating the Mount Marion Coal Company, the Johnsons sold their shares to a group of Fort Worth investors, including W. Burton, Paul Waples, L.H. McKee, John L. Johnson and A. Deffenbach, for a large profit. In 1904 the new owners merged the Mount Marion mine with the Bennett Coal Company in Lyra and in 1914 renamed it the Strawn Coal Company, Inc.
By 1920 the payroll of the Strawn Coal Company equaled $75,000 per month and had produced 1.6 million tons of coal since the merger. Railroad companies were the primary consumers of Palo Pinto County coal. When they converted their locomotives to diesel fuel, production and profits at Lyra plummeted and the company terminated operations. The original mine at Mount Marion, however, survived until 1946, approximately sixteen years after mining at Thurber ceased.
Next Month: Part 2 of the Coal Mines of Palo Pinto County