Coal mines operated in Portsmouth from around 1808 to about 1912. In colonial days coal deposits were found very close to the surface.  The coal bed runs from Narragansett to Mansfield, Massachusetts.  It is anthracite coal and it was not easily used for home heating. In fact, one inspector claimed that “when the final conflagration came” the Portsmouth mines would be a fine place to hide because the coal would never burn.    It could only be used in industrial grade furnaces. By 1867 the Taunton Copper Works was in operation using Portsmouth coal.  At that time there were about 40 workers and eight one and a half story tenements were constructed to house them.  The coal mine wharf was extended out into the bay making it 280 feet long.  There was a spur connection to the Old Colony and Newport Colony Railroad.  The railroad line extended from Fall River to Newport.  The Willow Lane Station by the Coal Mines became the major station for Portsmouth.  Raw materials came into the Coal Mines area and coal and finished copper products were shipped out both by water and railway.  Copper products from the Taunton Copper Works were used as a protective lining for the bottom of ships and for steam pipes on ships.  It could also be used in the production of brass and decorative items.   The Taunton Copper Works used the Portsmouth coal in their production of copper and the Mt. Hope Company next to it was mining from the South Shaft and transporting it to other locations by way of the railroad and wharf.

1870 Map. Note the Coal Mines area shaded in green.

In 1870 the Copper Works and coal mines area was like a self-contained community within Portsmouth. The area included 320 acres of land.    There were company housing, company stores, a school, a church, offices, a boarding house for single workers, workshops and barns.  There was a strong sense of belonging to a “Coal Mine” community.  An 1870 article in the Providence Journal states:  “There are about fifty miners and operatives employed by the Mt. Hope Company and about one hundred and twenty children belonging to the employees of the two companies have a right in the school house.”

Those who knew the coal mines community best described it as a peaceful place.  Frank Anthony, the stationmaster for the railway, described the miners as follows.  “They were an honest, law-abiding God loving people.  They were industrious, thrifty, and withal generous-hearted in the extreme.”  Miners mostly came from two countries.  Skilled workers came from the Allihles copper mines of Ireland and the Cornwall mines of England.  Portsmouth locals, too, worked in the mines and many miners married into old Yankee Portsmouth families.  Workers were paid $1.25 a day for a workday that lasted from 6:30 AM to 4 PM.  The average rent for a tenement was $4 a month.  They raised their own vegetables and fished the bay for food.  After work there were social gatherings, dances and sporting events.

William Dwyer in a reminiscence published in the Fall River Herald June 11 of 1927 stated:  “It was a typical American community in which each individual had an unquestioned right to his political, religious or other views.  Intolerance had no place in the community life of the coal mines, and the result was a perfect harmonization of the different races and the establishment of a little colony which was an El Dorado to the humble peace-loving people that inhabited the sunny slopes of Portsmouth.”

Some of the depictions of life at the coal mine area claim that there was no crime at the coal mine community.  We know there was a infamous domestic disturbance that ended in a death in 1875, but in searching databases of the Newport Mercury and Daily News from the time, I don’t find many other reports of crimes.  Was this the idyllic place described?  I’m not so sure that the life of miners can be as rosy as described.  On the other hand, there were several generations of miners who continued to work the mines when they remained open.

For more information on the operation of the mines, Jim Garman’s book “Looking Back:  Historic Tales of Newport County” has an excellent chapter on the coal mines.