Cannel coal is a smoky, easily ignited bituminous usually found adjacent to other coal seams. The word ‘‘cannel’’ is derived from the Old English pronunciation of ‘‘candle coal,’’ since the coal kindled easily and produced a steady, bright flame. Composed partly of ancient seed spores, formed in pools, cannel coal contained a high percentage of hydrogen and other volatile matter.
In the mid-19th century, the demand for illumination stimulated technological innovation. It was discovered that cannel, a non-coking coal, could yield about two gallons of crude oil from one bushel of coal. A boom in demand for cannel coal swept the U.S. in the 1850s, and the extensive cannel coal deposits located near the Elk, Coal, and Kanawha rivers in West Virginia became the basis for coal oil plants that thrived from 1855 to 1860. Leading the field were Aaron Stockton, who produced coal oil at Cannelton by 1850, William M. Peyton, who led the effort to mine cannel coal at Peytona and ship it to market via the Coal River, and Sutton Matthews, who mined cannel on Falling Rock Creek near the Elk River. No less than 46 companies obtained charters to mine coal along the three rivers between 1847 and 1861, and by 1860 almost every county in West Virginia had a coal oil plant within its boundaries.
The onset of the Civil War deflated the boom although in January 1862 the Richmond Enquirer reported that the Kanawha area produced 5,000 gallons of crude coal oil daily. The death knell for cannel coal oil sounded as the petroleum industry grew with the successful drilling of the Pennsylvania Drake Well in 1859 and the subsequent drilling of wells on the Little Kanawha River and elsewhere in West Virginia. Kerosene quickly became the illuminating oil of choice. Cannel mines, notably at Cannelton, continued producing into the 20th century, but cannel was then far less significant than other bituminous coals to the West Virginia economy.
Written by Lou Athey
Laing, James. The Early Development of the Coal Industry in the Western Counties of Virginia, 1800-1865. West Virginia History, (January 1966).
Rice, Otis K. Coal Mining in the Kanawha Valley to 1861. Journal of Southern History, (November 1965).
Ashley, George H. "Cannel Coal in the U.S," Bulletin 659. United States Geological Survey. United States Government Printing Office, 1918.