Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Coal Man Cometh

With this being one of the coldest winters on record - in Philadelphia and in the United States in general - memories of the men who helped keep a number of my neighbors warm came to mind.  No one sees the guys who are responsible for piping natural gas through the underground mains of this city, and the only time you pay attention to the men who pump heating oil into the tanks in your neighbors' basement tanks is when you're sitting in traffic behind the oil truck, steaming because you thought he'd be done fast.  So did the three cars that are behind you, blocking you from backing up and retreating from your mistake.

Being a kid in Philadelphia in the 1960s, there was a lot going on to keep your curiosity flowing.  Simple things often got your attention.  One of those simple things is something (or someone) that isn't around anymore is the coal delivery man.  No one heats their whole home with coal anymore, and why would they?  As a young observer, coal heating seemed dirty and  laborious.  You had to shovel the black nuggets from a coal bin in your basement into the furnace, and you had to make sure to keep the fire going.  One of our neighbors was one of the last to give in and get rid of his coal furnace and go with gas.  Until he did, his sons were given the responsibilities of stoking the fire - and don't you dare let that fire go out! I've since read that it took too much coal to restart the fire should it go out, making the furnace far less efficient.

Back to being a kid and our fascination with simple things.  I saw a newspaper story a few years ago where some people heat rooms with coal stoves and go to the dealer to buy the coal.  As a child, I saw that the only way to heat your home with coal was to have them bring it to you.  And we would sit on the steps of neighbors homes as we watched the coal man lower the chute from his truck through a basement window into the coal bin, then dump his load of mined fuel.  I guess if you were a coal customer, you bought by the truckload or the ton or whatever volume you needed.  Thankfully our society has become much more technologically advanced, so all we need to do now is turn on the heat and dial the temperature that will keep us comfortable.  No more shovels to hurl the coal into the furnace, or to clean it out.


... Coal dealers spread throughout the city.  You can still find reminders of those dealers in some parts of Philadelphia that are zoned as industrial or commercial areas.  i saw not too long ago a yard on South 25th Street that had signs that said "Coal and Ice".  There were a few dealers there under the railroad trestle years back.

... An old coworker in his senior years some time ago told me that he and his brother used to walk along the railroad tracks near his home and gather coal that fell from the hopper cars of trains.  They would sell it to neighbors to make money to help their families.  As he told it, what he thought was coal was actually coke, used in industrial furnaces.  The hotter-burning coke damaged the grates in the furnaces of his neighbor/customers, ending the brothers' short business venture by causing their parents to have to pay for the damages and them receiving a sound thrashing by their father.  In their defense, hey, they didn't know better, and tried to help!  Of course, they could have asked questions before they started selling their product, saving the cost of damages and the pain of the belt on their rear ends.