Every day in the depths of winter, coal cars trundled down Washington Avenue supplying the city’s lifeblood. You wouldn’t know it looking at the trackless six lanes of blacktop today, but locomotives once hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of anthracite to at least thirty coal yards between 2nd and 25th Streets.
Coal powered nearly every factory and heated nearly every shop, school, theater and home—a quarter of a million of them. On extremely cold days, a large school, just one of the city’s 231, would consume as much as 10 tons. The University of Pennsylvania needed 150 tons to stay open. In all, the city could burn as much as 19,000 tons. Every day.
And on the first frigid week of January 1918, it all ground to a halt.
The temperature dropped below zero during the final days of December 1917 and would remain in the single digits for more than a week. The flow of coal from upstate stopped, and soon so would the city itself. Frigid, coal-less Philadelphians turned to the dealers of Washington Avenue, but their stockpiles were quickly exhausted. William Bryant at 10th Street had been promised a shipment of 50 tons, but by the time the coal cars arrived, four-fifths of the contents were gone. The coal famine of January 1918 had turned citizens into coal hoarders and coal thieves. And as mobs they would decimate the coal supply of Washington Avenue.
City officials estimated as much as “half the population was without coal.” Mayor Thomas Smith urged “public recreation centers, school buildings, churches, theaters, moving picture houses and hospitals be thrown open to receive suffers and keep them warm.” As schools and factories began to close down, he appealed to “good Samaritans to take cold neighbors in.”
Philadelphia’s coal famine threatened “social and economic catastrophe.” On January 2, 1918, the coal-less poor, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants, took the matter into their own hands.
“Driven to desperation after burning fence rails, old furniture and every bit of available fuel, the poor began a series of raids on coal cars on Washington avenue” reported The Philadelphia Tribune. “Men, women and children with buckets, bags, push carts, baskets, toy express wagons and even baby buggies, worked like beavers in and among the switching crews carrying the precious fuel to their homes. There were at least 2,000 persons in these crowds and the police and railroad crews did not interfere, as the people were freezing and desperate… Women and children, for days, had stood shivering at the yards weeping and begging for coal.”
“We’re almost starving, my babies and me,” a widow sobbed to an Inquirer reporter. “It’s all right to almost starve. We’re pretty near used to that, but we can’t freeze. I could, but my babies can’t.”
“You must help us!” shouted cold and hungry women and children to the police called in to stop them. “The officers shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs” on the crowd and the coal cars. The mob took that as encouragement. Children quickly “crawled over the heads of the police…on the coal cars.”
“In a second… a black shower descended upon the ground near the cars. As fast as the bits of coal struck the ground they were picked up and stored carefully away in a bag or a bucket or an apron.”
“What can we do?” asked one of the policemen,. “The poor devils are hungry and cold. …When a woman, lugging a baby to her breast, pushes me aside… why, I am not going to be the one to stop her.”
“I’ve seen more real misery in the last few days down here around these coal cars than I ever saw in all my police experience,” he added.
More than 150 tons of anthracite would be liberated on Washington Avenue’s coal-yard corridor that first week of 1918. According to the Inquirer, “most of the coal stolen was consigned to the J. W. Matthews Coal Company, Tenth street and Washington avenue; William A. Bryant, of Tenth street and Washington avenue, and S. Margolis, of 815 Washington avenue.” At 12th and Washington, men and boys emptied a coal car.
And while the police turned the other way, the railroad did not. “In the midst of the raid on one of the cars came the chugging of a freight engine. No one paid the slightest attention. The engine was hastily coupled to the car. It drew away. Not one of the coal-seekers jumped. They still continued to toss out bucket after bucket of coal.”
On the ground, “those…left behind followed the slow-moving engine and car, picking up fuel as it was thrown to them. This was only one of several raids by persons driven frantic by the want of fuel, …who, armed with buckets, bags, wheelbarrows and pushcarts, defied the police and railroad guards and mobbed trains of coal when they arrived along Washington Avenue.”
South Philly’s “coal-hunters were undaunted.”
[Sources: “Coal Lack Closes 43 Public Schools; Blame Cold Alone …Severe Weather Conditions Halt Coal Train On Way Here,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1918; “Suffering Crowds Storm Coal Yards; Railroads Helpless,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 4, 1918; “Coal Famine Grips Our City—Much Suffering,” The Philadelphia Tribune, January 5, 1918; R.R. Stockholders…Ask Refuge for 100,000 Suffering From Cold Here,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1918; Men, Women and Children Empty Cars of Fuel Despite Efforts of Policemen and Guards,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 6, 1918.]