Grade Range: 3-8

ACF Lesson Plan: Trans-
porting Coal


Students examine national railway, river, and highway routes that might transport coal and plan routes for moving coal from one area to another.

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Students will:

  1. understand that the primary routes for moving coal are railways, rivers, and highways;
  2. examine national railway, river, and highway maps; and
  3. suggest transportation routes for moving coal from coal-producing states to other states that do not mine their own coal.

National Standards:

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Standards

  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption
  • Global Connections

Time Needed:

One class period


Discussion Questions:

  • Where is coal mined?
  • Where is coal used?
  • How does coal get from the mines to the locations where it is used?


  1. Begin by reviewing with students where coal is mined. Use the map in the Coal Energy Facts section to illustrate the locations of the largest deposits of coal in the United States. Ask students whether they think coal is used only in the states where it is mined. Tell them that, in fact, every state in the United States uses coal in some way.  Ask students whether they know how coal might be moved from the mines to power plants or steel mills, where it is most commonly used. Explain that, because of their immense weight, large volumes of coal are not easily transported. To move large quantities of coal, coal companies rely heavily on the railways and rivers to provide transportation routes. The national highways are also used, but even the largest trucks do not carry enough coal in a single load to make them the most cost-effective means of transportation. Highways are usually used to move coal 50 miles or less. Tell the students that in this lesson they will study railways, rivers, and highways to determine routes for transporting coal. (Note: Some students may be familiar with Mine-Mouth Power Plants—plants located on the site of coal mines. Explain to students that in these cases, transporting coal from the mine to the power plant was simply a matter of using a conveyer system, rather than relying upon interstate transportation. In most cases now, however, the coal from the original mine has dried up, and these power plants have begun to receive coal from nearby and more remote mines, using railroads, barges, and trucks for transportation. Lake carriers, conveyor systems, and coal slurry pipelines are other means of transporting coal, but for the purposes of this exercise, students will explore the three most common means.)

  2. Distribute copies of the three maps: railways, rivers, and national highways. As a class, examine each map.

  3. Place a transparency copy of the river map on the overhead projector. Using a marker, identify the major rivers of the United States: Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Platte, Colorado, Rio Grande, Connecticut, Tennessee, Illinois, Chattahoochee, Snake, Columbia, Sacramento, Susquehanna, Wabash, Arkansas, Brazos, Red, Pecos, Green, Gila, Canadian, Yellowstone, and San Joaquin. Have students highlight those rivers on their own copy of the river map.

  4. Place a transparency copy of the National Highway System map on the overhead projector. Use a marker to identify the major federal interstate highways. Tell students that this highway system is known as the Eisenhower Interstate System and that even-numbered routes run east and west, while odd-numbered routes run north and south. Highways with lower numbers are located in the south or west, and the route numbers get progressively higher moving east and north. Ask students if they know where Route 1 might be. Show them that it runs north and south through California. Where do they think Route 70 might be? Show them that it runs east and west through the central United States.

  5. Place a transparency copy of the Amtrak National Route Map on the overhead projector. (Note: This map does not show all the railways in the United States. It is actually the system map for Amtrak, which mainly transports passengers. However, for this exercise, it will help to demonstrate the limitations and extent of railway routes.) Ask students to identify any states where Amtrak does not run. Are there states with multiple routes? Remind students that although coal is used by every state, not every state actively mines it. Therefore, coal needs to be transported from states that produce the most coal to those that produce little or no coal. If your community is located near a railway or river, ask students if they have ever seen large loads of coal being transported. If not, show students pictures of a trainload of coal and a coal barge.

  6. Write the names of the top 10 coal-producing states on the blackboard or place them on the overhead projector. They are Montana, Illinois, Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. Have students lightly shade those states on each of their maps. Ask students to use their maps to figure out the best ways to get coal from coal-producing states to other states that do not mine coal, such as Michigan, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, South Carolina, New York, Nebraska, Nevada, Mississippi, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Delaware, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Connecticut, Idaho, and Maine.

  7. Pair coal mining states with states that do not mine coal and have students make recommendations for the best routes to use to deliver the coal. Use this Coal Delivery Comparison Chart to help students organize their information and think over their findings. Remind them that trucks on the interstate highways are used to deliver smaller loads of coal to river barges or to trains, most likely within a state.

  8. Culminate the activity by discussing the amount of work involved in simply transporting coal from one state to another. Who are the people responsible for this? What are their jobs? Be sure to include heavy-equipment operators, drivers, waterway navigators, and railroad engineers. Remind students that these jobs are done every day in order to supply the entire country with the coal needed to generate electricity.


Have students use the same maps to plan a family vacation. They must use all three routes of transport: (1) highways, (2) railways, and (3) rivers. Have students prepare an itinerary and a narration about their planned trip, including routes they will take, methods of transportation (remind them that they do not need to travel by barge; they may opt for a riverboat), sights they will see, appropriate rest stops, and their destination.


  1. Have students find out the source of locally used coal. They should begin by determining the source of electric energy used by their community and by identifying the power plant(s) nearby. Students can contact each plant and ask about the source of its coal supply. Then they can trace the actual routes that might be used in transporting the coal that provides their family and neighbors with electricity.
  2. Explore mine-mouth power plants with your students, and how they were used in the 1960s and 1970s, and have now been converted to receive coal from more varied locations.


Students may work in pairs to figure out the best routes for coal transportation. Some students may not be readily able to locate the states. Pair those students with others who have stronger geography skills.

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