Strip mine near Falkirk, North Dakota
By the end of the eighteenth century, forests on the Atlantic seaboard, where most Americans lived, were rapidly being used up. However, in places where coal could be picked out of embankments or shallow caves, people came to prefer it for domestic fuel and light, "the blaze being so brilliant," as one traveler remarked, "as to supersede the use of candles, even for sewing."
Obedient to President Jefferson's orders, the captains noted the presence of "pitcoal," or "carbonated wood," wherever they saw it—or fancied they saw it, since neither explorer was well educated in the new science of mineralogy. Just two days after leaving Fort Mandan in April 1805, they began noticing coal in the Missouri's banks, and later Clark found lots of it on his trip down the Yellowstone River, starting a little below Pompey's Pillar. They had no reason to suspect they were looking at cross sections of one of the largest low-sulfur lignite coal beds in the world. Geologists began mapping the bed in the late 1850s, naming it the Fort Union formation. They found that it covered a massive area in parts of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Saskatchewan.
Lewis and Clark could never have imagined a pit like the one in this photograph. Opened in 1997, it is about twelve miles east of the Missouri River and sixty miles north of Bismarck, North Dakota. In the background is a postglacial tarn called Coal Lake.
From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark
Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press