Saturday, February 11, 2017

Coal, the Technology that Changed Chicago.

Coal was abundant within 60 miles of Chicago. Coal has been the dominant energy source for most of Chicago’s modern history, especially from the 1850s to the 1950s. Coal fueled steamships and railroads, heated houses and large buildings, drove industrial machinery, pumped water, made steel and was the primary source of gas and electricity.
Coal dock at mouth of Chicago River 1941. Navy Pier in background.
The Fourth Annual Review of Commerce showed that in 1854 Chicago burned 50,000 cords of wood and 52,000 tons of coal. A cord of wood generally has less energy than a ton of coal. So even in the early years, coal was overtaking wood as a fuel. Chicago had nearly 70,000 people.  This would be equivalent to about 1.5 tons of coal per person.

The Committee on Smoke Abatement did a careful count of coal consumption in 1912. Twenty-one million tons of coal were consumed, or about 10 tons per person, six times the 1854 usage.  About 3 million tons were used for trains, 4 million for steel mills and less than 1 million to produce gas. The remaining 13 million tons were used to produce heat, electricity and stationary power.

Stationary power included such things as the massive pumps used to provide Chicago’s water supply and 19th century factories with leather belts from a central steam engine to individual machines.
The Chicago Water Tower and coal powered pumping station. The Water Tower concealed a large standpipe used to equalize pressure between strokes of the steam pistons.
According to the history of Peoples Gas, Texas natural gas first became available in 1932. Prior to that gas had been produced from coal. The change from coal gas to natural gas was not complete until the 1960s.

Coal was also the dominant home heating fuel in Chicago. The 1940 Census  shows that there were 949,744 occupied housing units. Of these 625,310 had coal central heating, 182,509 used coal stoves, about 100,000 used fuel oil and 40,000 used gas heat, along with a few thousand using other fuels. Thus about 85 percent of the households used coal.
1920s Ad for gas heat. Gas heat did not really take off until the 1940s.
In 1950, there were 1,071,735 occupied housing units; 600,955 with coal central heating; 69,310 with coal stoves;  about 163,000 with gas;  about 200,000 with liquid fuels. Thus 63 percent used coal.

A Chicago Housing Survey shows that in 1970, 198,000 or 17 percent of the households used coal. Five years later, only 15,000 or 1.5 percent still used coal. Natural gas now heated 80 percent of all households. 

Many buildings burned garbage with coal to produce heat and hot water. Coal heating was not an automatic process. Large buildings needed employees to move coal and ash, and run the boilers. Residential buildings of even a modest size employed members of the Flat Janitor’s Union to collect garbage. In the 1980s many of these jobs were eliminated. The Municipal Reference Library received calls from angry tenants who now had to haul their own garbage down the stairs.

Although a portion of Chicago’s electricity is still produced from coal, the last two coal-fired electric plants in the city were shut down in 2012. Coal is still used to make steel in Northwest Indiana. Inside the city, the only users seem to be a few coal fired pizza restaurants.

Like most large cities, Chicago has a history of poor air quality. As it industrialized, Chicago relied on the dirty soft coal of southern Illinois for power and heat. Burned in boiler rooms, locomotives, steel mills, and domestic furnaces, the ubiquitous coal created an equally ubiquitous smoke. Soot soiled everything in the city, ruining furniture, merchandise, and building facades.
Coal burning steamer on the Chicago River.
In 1881 Chicago was among the first cities to regulate smoke emissions. In 1907 the Department of Smoke Abatement became part of the city government. One successful effort involved converting the Illinois Central Railroad to electric power in the 1920’s. Among other concerns, it was thought that trees were unable to grow in Grant Park due to coal smoke. Air pollution control has remained among the city’s responsibilities.

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