coal dig

Coal digs are commonly found in the western Dakotas where lignite, a soft coal, resides near the surface, from three to thirty feet underground. Trappers and homesteaders began the digs, using shovels and bare hands, in regions where chunks of lignite erupted through the ground itself. Areas of coal digs regularly visited for fuel are still visible, their squared-off sides slowly sodding over in the manner of peat digs in the Western Hebrides. The digs range from the size of a pickup to an acre or more, and are often located along wandering creeks. Lignite usually arrived wet from such digs and had to be dried on racks before it could be burned. Lignite digs are also visible at river edges and in cutbanks, in hillsides fronting rivers, and in the mounded formations of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park badlands, where lignite lies in black slices across the colorful formations. A gasification plant near Beulah, North Dakota, where lignite is transformed into propane, uses a crane so huge to mine lignite that automobiles can be parked inside its bucket—a far cry from human hands.

Larry Woiwode