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It is a well-known fact that the absence of two things in particular retarded the settlement of the open prairies of the Middle West: lack of fuel and lack of transportation. Although the larger streams and crude highways and timber lands enabled the pioneers to surmount these difficulties to some extent in eastern and southern Iowa, long hauls to market by wagon or by water left much to be desired until the railroads came. In the prairie counties of northwestern Iowa the earliest pioneers were compelled to set up their homes along or near the streams in order to have easy access to the' scanty wood supply of the region, while later settlers made weary journeys to distant places for the fuel necessary to tide them over the bitter cold of winter.
The coming of a railroad changed all this; and when several roads of steel cut across the land, the problems of transportation and lack of fuel were largely solved together. In time the planting of groves upon the farmsteads also helped to produce a fair supply of firewood; but even so, the need of cheaper coal than railroads could possibly bring from the Des Moines Valley or from Illinois was always present. Expensive fuel became a great drain on the resources of the farmers: mines right on the spot would mean greater prosperity for the farmers and rapid industrial development as well. Accordingly, it was not uncommon for county boards of supervisors to encourage the search for coal deposits. In Plymouth County the board made a standing offer of $500 in 1873, $1000 in 1875, and $5000 in 1884 for the discovery of a paying coal mine. (218)
It was in the year 1880 that the Hon. Reynolds Moreton, captain for nine years of a British war ship and brother of the Earl of Ducie, emigrated from England with his family and arrived in Le Mars with the fixed purpose to make the West his home. One mile northwest of town lay the farm of O. A. Moore. It so pleased the Captain's eye that he became the purchaser at what, was then regarded as a fabulous figure - thirty-four dollars per acre. Perched on the most elevated spot of this farm stood a large, carefully cultivated grove, and within its shelter stood a neat little dwelling from which the owner could enjoy a commanding view of Le Mars and a landscape that stretched for miles up and down the valley of the Floyd River.
On this farm Captain Moreton soon erected a fine mansion and made extensive arrangements to go into stock raising: yards, sheds, and barns were built and everything put in shape for business. But there was one great drawback - a lack of water. Wells were dug and windmills raised without accomplishing satisfactory results. The Captain made up his mind that the only way to secure an abundant and constant supply was to sink an artesian well at any cost. Possessed of "a full quota of the proverbial tenacity and pluck of the typical Englishman", the Captain in the spring of 1882 let a contract for the work. (219)
On the summit of the bluff in his stockyard, a derrick was raised, steam engines planted, and boring began. In due time the rumor spread that at a depth of 225 feet the contractor, Col. Strait, had struck a five-foot vein of coal, a big bonanza. The Captain insisted that the quantity had been overrated: it might be a pocket. (220) Needless to say, these doings at Dromore Farm merited newspaper mention, and "busy tongues whispered to willing ears" what they had learned on good authority. The solid, sensible men of the community, who had been through several mining sensations and had no faith in any such trumpery, "smiled sympathizingly at the ready credulity with which the story was received by gossips" they knew better. It was finally conceded, however, that at a depth of three hundred feet a three foot vein had been perforated. Moreover, it was reported that analysis of a sample of the coal showed a larger percentage of carbon than any coal hitherto discovered in Iowa! (221)
Captain Moreton's attention was naturally diverted from water to coal. The twofold question in his mind and in the minds of many others could be none other than whether they had struck a mine or a mere pocket. While men still doubted, the signal for speculation had been sounded:
Capt. Moreton has ordered a diamond drill, a little instrument that cost $3000.00 and the same is expected here shortly. A diamond drill is not a coal mine, but is useful in discovering veins of coal. It cuts its way downward, leaving a core of the earth or rock through which it passes in the center. This core is withdrawn with the drill and of course can be inspected at leisure. So far Capt. Moreton. J. W. Hoopes of Muscatine has leased the mineral rights of the following farms Grotkin's 360; Payn's 280; Wood's 240; Balsinger's 80; Curtis' 80; Hackett & Hynes 160; Young 120; Sedgwick 40; Ruble 200 and another piece of 80 acres, making in all 1720 acres. Mr. H. left on Tuesday evening, very sanguine that inside of two years he would be supplying this northwestern region with coal from the Lemars mines. It is not certain whether he will prospect any this fall or wait till spring, by which time we will be able to answer the conundrum: Have we a coal mine among us. (222)
Land near the shaft was soon reported as selling at from $100 to $300 per acre. (223)
Reference to White's geological survey of Iowa made in 1870 gave practically no encouragement to any belief in a true vein of workable coal in this region; but declaring that geologists didn't know everything, Captain Moreton began a second bore three-quarters of a mile northwest of the first. On March 1, 1883, the whole history of the enter prise was published to the world. Two paragraphs of this interesting bit of publicity deserve the reader's perusal:
From Nov. 27, 1882, till Feb. 23, 1883, a period
of nearly three months, and in the face of desperate discouragements, the
Captain and his faithful associate, Col. Strait, kept at work. As will be seen
by the "log" which the Captain furnishes for publication herewith, a
vein of three feet was struck at a depth of 188 feet, but this did not satisfy
his Alexandrian ambition. The work was prosecuted for nearly another hundred
feet, and the magnificent result secured which we herewith announce - a five
foot vein, of the richest bituminous coal ever touched in Iowa.
Though searching eagerly for this very thing, its actual discovery rather took away the Captain's breath. We read that when Thales finally worked out the famous 47th proposition of the 1st Book of Euclid, after years of earnest toil, he felt so elated that he sacrificed seventy fat oxen to the gods. It is also said of Archimedes, that when he thought out a means of discovering the cubic contents of Hiero's golden crown, he was so overcome that all he could do was to exclaim, Eureka. Now whether the Captain said or did anything that will warrant an allusion to these ancient duffers we cannot tell, but this we do know, that hundreds and thousands of others have indulged in exuberant hieroglyphics over his grand discovery, that make the classic utterances of these ancient philosophers sound stale and common place. (224)
Meanwhile, although public excitement had be gun to lag, the confidence of the explorers had induced the Plymouth Coal Company to publish a notice of incorporation with $10,000 of capital stock for the purpose of leasing, subleasing, and purchasing coal lands as well as prospecting, mining, and selling coal. The officers were J. F. Heeb, president; C. E. Corkery, secretary; H. F. Sugden, treasurer; and A. B. Ferris, general manager. Mr. Sugden quickly sold his share in the under taking "for a handsome sum". The company pushed work on a mine on the Broken Kettle, hopeful but not over-sanguine. (225)
Owing to the fact that sensational tales were putting Captain Moreton's "good name, veracity and honor in the market" (some people being still convinced that lumps of coal had been dropped down the bore), that gentleman published the official log of the second prospect bore on January 25th and the complete log on March 1st to silence wagging tongues. The local press lauded "the plucky Englishman" for solving the fuel question and, calling him "a brick ", asserted: "It was faith, backed by John Bull grit and $5000 that did it. " (226)
Two columns of newspaper space on the coal discovery and the report of widespread excitement show how the people of Ire Mars and vicinity were being affected. Even though someone estimated that it would cost $45,000 to sink a 289 foot shaft, unoccupied lands were withdrawn from the market in several counties and many began to prepare for prospecting. In June appeared a notice of the incorporation of the North-Western Coal and Mining Company with a capital stock of $500,000 and the following directors: Captain the Hon. Reynolds Moreton, Henry J. Moreton, G. C. Maclagan, and M. J. Chapman. (227)
The coal mine fever continued to rage at white heat when C. P. Woodard found another rich five-foot vein in July. But mining had not yet commenced. In January, 1884, the log of Moreton's second boring was published. That the promoters really lacked capital was clear when they passed around a subscription contract and secured $5000 for sinking a shaft. Captain and Mrs. Moreton expressed their warmest thanks for donations made by the people, and the Captain wrote: "I trust that your confidence in myself personally, and in my discovery may not be misplaced." In a subsequent letter of thanks to the press, he added: "God has greatly blessed this county and country by giving wealth for man to develop. May it be ours to acknowledge him always, and help to enrich one another." The sinking of a shaft ten and a half by five and a half feet was begun on Dromore Farm in January, 1884, when Le Mars already boasted a "Manufacturers' Union ". (228)
On the last day of February workers on the shaft had progressed eighty feet; within two weeks they were busy pumping water; and in August they were one hundred feet down. Subscribers to the shaft fund then held a meeting: eleven were in favor of requiring that the shaft be sunk 297 feet in accordance with Moreton's contract, while thirteen wanted their money refunded. Meanwhile M. T. Maher, a practical miner and prospector, had made a third boring and found only lignite that would not pay to work. For sixteen months he had been employed by the Captain whom he thanked for "his kindness, treatment and honorable dealing." This led to the abandonment of the whole project, but caused many people to accuse the Captain of being a swindler and liar they declared he took such a course to bring down the price of lands so that he might buy cheaply and then proceed to develop the find!
Captain Moreton answered his traducers by writing a history of the whole affair from beginning to end, asserting that he and his son had lost $14,000 on the venture. And, moreover, why should subscribers to his shaft fund feel so badly? Had he not directly and indirectly brought $250,000 of capital to the country? They met again in October and released him from his promise, but the story of the "Big Bonanza" lingered long in their memory. (229)
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218 History of the Counties of Woodbury and Plymouth, Iowa (A. Warner & Co., 1890-1891), pp. 423, 429.
219 The Lemars Sentinel, May 25, 1882.
220 The Lemars Sentinel, August 31, 1882; The LeMars Daily Liberal, August 22, 23, 1882.
221 The Lemars Sentinel, March 1, 1883.
222 The Lemars Sentinel, October 12, 1882.
223 The Lemars Sentinel, October 19, 1882.
224 The Lemars Sentinel, March 1, 1883. This newspaper published a supplement, April 5, on the coal discovery for the purpose of attracting settlers.
225 The Lemars Sentinel, December 7, 28, 1882, January 18, 1883.
226 The Lemars Sentinel, January 25, March 1, 1883.
227 The Lemars Sentinel, March 15, 22, June 28, 1883.
228 The Lemars Sentinel, June 30, July 5, 12, 1883, January 15, 18, 22, 1884.
229 The Lemars Sentinel, February 29, March 9,
September 2, 12, 17, October 10, 1884.
Captain Moreton seems to have gone to Illinois and later to Canada. His death was recently reported.
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