Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Ottumwa Coal Palace

This old photograph is a good example of the fact you never quite know what's going to turn up in boxes of old photographs. Although completely unmarked, it probably was brought home to Lucas County as a souvenir of a visit to the palace, the most spectacular celebration of Iowa's coal industry ever launched. Lucas County was one of the 12 coal-producing counties that --- along with Ottumwa business interests --- contributed cash to fund it.

Since it's not that obvious now, you have to know the territory to realize that for many years coal and farming were the twin supports of Lucas County's economy. Mining towns such as Olmutz, Tipperary, Cleveland and Zero have vanished entirely. Mining boom towns such as Lucas and Williamson have declined. And you have to know where the mines were in order to locate them since few obvious traces remain.

But the coal industry was rising during 1890 when the coal palace was constructed in Ottumwa to house a two-year regional exhibition to advertise and promote sounthern Iowa as one of the nation's top coal-producing, agricultural and developing industrial regions.

The irregularly-shaped building was roughly 230 feet long and 130 feet wide, was framed in wood (800,000 board feet by some estimates) and entirely clad in coal. It's generally considered to have been the largest structure ever built in the United States of coal. Its tower soared to 200 feet.

The interior included a massive auditorium where concerts, plays and variety shows were performed, a solarium of tropical plants, a 30-foot waterfall, a dance floor, many exhibition halls and a functioning reconstruction of an underground coal mine. Interior decorations featured sheaves of wheat, oats, sorghum and corn and bright murals formed from grain and other natural materials. Each participating county, including Lucas, had its own display room.

All in all, it was quite a performance and the talk of Iowa during the exposition's two-year run. The Coal Palace was never intended to be permanent (coal is not a durable building material), so it was dismantled during late 1891 after the exposition closed, leaving photographs of this sort as the principal reminders of it.

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