Daily Archives: 9 December 2006

Anthracite Elites vs. Bituminous Boondocks

THE 1902 STRIKE [in the anthracite fields of northern Pennsylvania] served to emphasize how the nation had divided into clean anthracite cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and dirty bituminous ones, like Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Birmingham.* In New York City, as the strike-induced shortage caused anthracite prices to rise, more and more coal users turned to bituminous, violating city laws and alarming city residents. Some plants allegedly switched to bituminous after dark when the smoke would attract less attention. In June of that year, the New York Times carried the distressing headline “Smoke Pall Hangs Over the Metropolis,” something that was true every day in the soft-coal cities. A letter to the editor, bemoaning the growing illegal use of bituminous during the strike, asked, “Are we to have fastened on us the frightful infliction which curses Pittsburg and Chicago?” Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate whose bituminous-burning mills in Pittsburgh added greatly to that city’s “frightful infliction,” chose to live in New York City, and warned: “If New York allows bituminous coal to get a foothold, the city will lose one of her most important claims to pre-eminence among the world’s great cities, her pure atmosphere.”

Pure atmospheres were something most bituminous cities had not seen, and would not see, for a very long time. Most of the bituminous cities saw their coal smoke as the inevitable byproduct of industry, and saw industry as the source not merely of their material wealth but of modern civilization itself. And yet, this belief was not unshakeable. By the late nineteenth century, it was starting to clash with other firmly held attitudes that linked civilized life to cleanliness, beauty, health, and ultimately morality. In short, coal smoke was coming into conflict with an emerging environmental philosophy.

*In fact, nearly every city west of the Appalachians depended heavily on bituminous except the emerging cities in Texas and California, where oil and natural gas were locally available. The reason was the cost of transportation; bituminous was mined in some twenty states by 1900, anthracite only in eastern Pennsylvania. In St. Louis, for example, anthracite could cost four times more than soft coal from the mines of Illinois.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 148-149

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Wood-burning Trains: "A Storm of Fiery Snow"

Anthracite country is often called the cradle of American railroading, and with good reason. Apart from a couple of relatively minor exceptions, the anthracite mine operators were the first Americans to use rails, and they greatly advanced the science of building railways. White and Hazard built a nine-mile rail line from their Summit mine down to the Lehigh [River] in 1827. Gravity carried the coal cars and a carload of mules (who refused to walk down once they had experienced rail travel), down to the Lehigh, and then the mules pulled the cars back up.

Rails spread quickly throughout the anthracite region, and the rest of the East, and eventually locomotives followed. Schuylkill county had more track than any other small area in the country. Companies building railroads alongside the canals drained away canal business and bought up much of the region’s coal property. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of the nation’s largest and most powerful companies, dominated the area, but there would be five railways so intermingled with th anthracite trade that coal and railroading were often considered a single industry.

Surprisingly, these trains didn’t run on coal. For the first few decades, American trains burned wood, even those that existed for the purpose of hauling coal. Anthracite did not burn well in locomotive fireboxes as they were then designed, and the bituminous fields were not yet widely exploited outside of Pittsburgh. Wood was bulky and burned fast, though, so the trains had to stop often to refuel. All along the tracks, people made money cutting wood to sell to the railroads—just one more way that trains would help turn the United States from a forested nation into an agricultural and industrial one.

The era of wood-burning trains is one that train buffs look back on with particular nostalgia. With clean-burning wood, locomotives could be much flashier: They were painted bright red and fitted with polished brass ornamentation. Engineers were flashier, too, often wearing ornate suits and vests with shiny buttons. When the switch to bituminous coal occurred later in the century, the inevitable accumulation of soot and grime meant that engines had to be painted plain black, and engineers switched to overalls. Some say that when the engineer’s uniform was toned down, his status as a workman fell, too.

One problem with the shiny, wood-burning engines proved hard to ignore: They spewed out a continuous shower of sparks and cinders wherever they went, “a storm of fiery snow,” as Charles Dickens called it when he visited the United States. It was a beautiful display at night, but it had a predictable downside. Wood-burning trains commonly set nearby fields and forests ablaze; some said the trains burned more wood outside the firebox than inside.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 121-123

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