Gritty King Coal

Northwest Corner - 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

Northwest Corner – 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

In the 1820s, Philadelphia investors “awoke as if from a dream” to the “immensity of the riches concealed in the mountains and ravines of their native State.” As “news of fortunes accumulated by piercing the bowels of the earth, and bringing forth [coal] from the caverns of mountains,” wrote Edwin Freedley, the anthracite trade, which “appeared yesterday but a fly, now assumed the gigantic proportions of an elephant!”

In an optimistic rush, investors who “previously laughed at the infatuation of the daring pioneers of the coal trade” now cooked up their own “plans of towns…surveys of coal lands…railways, canals and…other improvements.” They poured five million dollars into the Schuylkill coals-fields to get black diamonds to the city, digging more than 800 miles of canals and building 1,600 miles of railroad. Investors made out. So did “laborers and mechanics of all kinds from all quarters and nations” who “flocked to the coal region,” wrote Freedley, and “found ready and constant employment…” Down on Philadelphia’s Schuykill docks, arrivals from Ireland found ready, backbreaking work as “coal heavers.”  Dawn-to-dark work for a dollar a day.

Philadelphia’s appetite for coal—a skimpy 365 tons in 1820—flourished at 867,000 tons by 1840. Less than a decade after that, 5,000,000 tons of anthracite poured into the city.

Caption

(Detail) Northwest Corner – 13th Street and Washington Avenue. B. F. Hill and Company-Coal Supplier, September 20, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)


Cheap coal meant cheap heat. Affordable, high-quality anthracite also gave the city’s makers an edge. “Inexpensive and abundant coal,” relates The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, “helped drive population and industrial growth. Citizens used it “to heat homes, power factories, propel steamships, and smelt iron.” Anthracite “enabled Philadelphia to transform itself from a commercial city of merchants into an industrial powerhouse. … Canals, coal, and industrial Philadelphia grew together synergistically.”

By the last quarter of the 19th century, when manufacture was strategically chosen as the theme for the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia could display its makeover to the world. By 1876, the question wasn’t what Philadelphia manufactured—but what it didn’t.

Expansion—and the fortunes made from it—seemed endless. In the middle of the 19th-century, the Reading Railroad built a facility in Port Richmond large enough to handle more than 1.2 million tons of coal every year with wharves capacious enough to handle 100 ships at a time. After the Civil War, the Pennsylvania Railroad developed its own Greenwich Point Holding Yard, along the Delaware in South Philadelphia. By the early 1890s, coal cars stretched as far as the eye could see. Greenwich car dumpers heaved 300 carloads of coal each and every day.

King Coal had rubbed his gritty elbows with Philadelphia. What could possibly go wrong?

[Sources include: John C. Van Horne, etc. Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad: Photographs of William H. Rau (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982)] 

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