Rocks and minerals of the Cherokee Lowlands

Coal. Like much of the Pennsylvanian strata around the world, the rocks of the Cherokee Group are rich in coal, making the Cherokee Lowlands the largest area of coal mining in Kansas. Coal is a general name used for black deposits consisting chiefly of carbon compounds derived from plants and plant debris that have been compacted into firm, brittle rocks.

Coal has either a dull or shiny luster and is divided into three main grades: anthracite (hard coal), bituminous (soft coal), and lignite. Most coal in Kansas originated during the Pennsylvanian subperiod, sometimes called the "Great Coal Age." During the Pennsylvanian, the eastern part of Kansas stayed nearly at sea level. Great swamps covered the low-lying areas along the coasts, and primitive plants, including ferns as tall as trees, grew densely. After the plants died and fell into the marsh, they were covered by water and mud and sand. As layers of sediment accumulated above the decaying plant material, it was compacted, eventually producing the sedimentary rock coal.

Geologists estimate that it took about 10 feet of leaves, tree trunks, and other organic matter to produce a one-foot layer of coal. The first stage in the transformation of decaying plant material into coal is the development of peat. Following long intervals of time, peat is transformed into lignite (brown coal) and eventually into bituminous coal. Had Kansas coal undergone even more heat and pressure, it might have become anthracite.

Coal mining played an important role in the region's economy. The outcrops of coals from the Cherokee Group extend from Columbus, Kansas, northeasterly into Missouri and Iowa.


Buchanan, R., and McCauley, J. R., 2010, Roadside Kansas: A Traveler's Guide to its Geology and Landmarks: Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 392 p.

GeoFacts: Cherokee Lowlands (pdf)