MIDLOTHIAN, MD. -- Western Maryland strip miners may be getting close to snuffing out a stubborn coal mine fire that has been the focus of fact and folklore for more than a century.
The underground fire near Midlothian started sometime before 1884, but no one knows the date. At one time, flames were frequently seen at the mine site, south of Frostburg. Pockets of steam -- like spouts of boiling teapots -- are virtually the only visible evidence of the fire today.
"My grandmother always said you could cook an egg on it," Matthew Skidmore Jr., president of Win-More Mining and Construction Co., said, holding his palm a few inches from the ground. "You'd have to watch sometimes while you were picking. A lot of times it might be hot enough that it would burn through your glove."
Skidmore explained that his mine company is stripping away the coal, the fire's fuel, and said he was confident the strip miners had experienced the worst of the fire on one end of the 75-acre island of coal.
"We've probably already mined 25 acres. We've got 10 to 15 left, and it's not near as hot as what we've already been through," he said. "Eventually it will become completely stripped. Then there's nothing the fire can do. There's no way it can burn after it's been stripped."
Win-More Mining has been working the site since 1957. New Central Coal Co. was the first to mine the island in the 1800s.
The Maryland Geological Survey, published in 1922, referred to New Central, saying the company had "opened up the old Midlothian mine, which was abandoned in 1884. The former operations were abandoned in 1884 owing to a fire in the mine. The present workings have been opened to recover the coal beyond the fire zone."
"They probably left a barrier between the coal and where the fire was burning and worked beyond where the fire was," said Jim Brooks, a geologist with the Maryland Geological Survey in Baltimore.
Brooks said he had no way of knowing how the fire began, but said such fires sometimes were started by strikes of lightning or coal-gas explosions.
Five years ago, Skidmore said he and his crew were deep into the fire zone.
"I've actually seen the tires on the loaders on fire. You wouldn't fool around getting a bucketful," he said. "If you took two seconds getting the bucketful, the tires were on fire."
"You could smell the rubber burning many times," added Herman H. Winters, vice president of Win-More Mining.
Skidmore, 36, also said he remembered days when the whole area appeared to be on fire.
"You could go over any night and see a flame -- a blue flame something like your gas stove. Sometimes you'd have flame three or four feet in the air, but most of it was just small flame," he said.
"I do remember one instance -- oh, it was shooting flame up four or five feet," he said. "It looked like a blast furnace -- the flame shooting out the top of the mountain."
Skidmore said he had seen only a few references to the fire in history books on coal mining in the area.
"The only theory that I know is that back in 1884, they would actually build fires in the mine in order to circulate fresh air into the miners," Skidmore said. "They would dig a hole all the way down, start a fire and then that drew air through the whole mine."
Goldie Winters, who owns half of the mining area with her husband Herman, said, "From what I hear, they had a stove inside the mine to draw air and anyhow, the mine got on fire."
Winters, 69, recalled that in her elementary school days she walked past a steamy stream of water heated by the underground mine fire.
"It cut a path down over the hill. The fire was really heating it," Winters said. "That water was so hot, you couldn't touch it."