19th Century Energy Challenges

Over the last 30 years we've seen our fair share of energy crises. From the oil embargo and gasoline lines of the '70s to our recent oil shortages and price inflation, we've come to live with energy dilemmas on a daily basis. Lest we believe that these matters are unique to our era, we should look back to the 19th century for some perspective. Many of the issues we face today were also crucial then and are illustrated by the history of the D&H Canal. How these problems were handled holds lessons for us today.

From pre-historic times up through most of the 19th century the predominant source of energy used in America, besides animal and human labor, was from wood. In fact, in 1850 90% of the energy consumed in American homes and businesses came from wood. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that coal produced more than 50%. At the turn of the century coal accounted for about 75%.

The story told by American cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia was a bit different. Coal accounted for a larger share of the energy picture in our urban areas than the country as a whole. Coal took up less storage space per unit of energy than did wood. Wood also didn’t have the advantage of local harvesting that it had in the rural areas of the country.

Until the early 19th century, almost all coal used in America was bituminous, most of it of British origin. This coal came predominately from Newcastle in northern England. It wasn’t until 1748 that coal was commercially mined in the U.S. at Richmond, Virginia. Bituminous coal had been discovered there almost 50 years earlier in 1701 by Huguenot settlers. Later during the 18th century, Pittsburgh became another domestic source of commercial coal. Owing to the difficulties and expense in transporting coal long distances over land, most of the Pittsburgh coal was locally consumed.

American supplies of imported coal were drastically reduced by the British embargo acts of 1807 and the War of 1812-1815. The British blockade of American ports during the war also impeded the flow of Richmond bituminous coal to American cities up and down the seaboard. This led to America’s first energy shortage and the search for alternative fuels. The anthracite hard-coal fields of Pennsylvania, almost exclusively confined to an area of 485 square miles in eastern Pennsylvania, would help alleviate the shortage of coal.

Anthracite wasn’t discovered until 1762. Its inability to easily ignite discouraged its general use at first. Unlike wood and bituminous coal, it required a grate on which to burn and ignited very slowly. It wasn’t until 1808 when it was demonstrated that anthracite could be burned on an open grate without a forced draft that it started to gain acceptance. The fuel was abundant and produced an intense, clean and slow burning flame. It had half-again as much energy as bituminous coal and twice as much as wood. It also had the advantage of being mined in the northeast, close to its urban customers. With the advent of the D&H Canal and its regional rivals, anthracite transport became relatively cheap and fast.

The use of anthracite needed vigorous promotion from its advocates since urban dwellers still preferred wood and bituminous coal. It took strong marketing along with a nurturing Pennsylvania government to establish the anthracite market. By 1842 it had all but replaced bituminous coal in America’s seaboard cities. Though the raise of the great railroad systems and the discovery of significant coalfields in Ohio and further west would prove a boon to the bituminous coal industry, Pennsylvania anthracite still was an important energy source during the 19th century. Overall anthracite production steadily grew during the century and peaked in 1895.

The story of anthracite coal in the 19th century illustrates how an alternative energy source was fostered in the face of an energy crisis precipitated by events related to the War of 1812. Key to the success of this new energy source was affordable transportation provided by regional canal systems.

Competition served to keep coal prices low during the 19th century. Any opportunity to improve coal’s profit margin was eagerly sought. Canal improvements, for example, allowed for larger and larger boats to ply the canalways resulting in reduced transportation costs.

The first telegraph line in America was completed in 1844. Four years later in 1848 the D&H Canal Company granted a right-of-way along the canalway for a line that would run from Fredonia on Lake Erie to New York City. The Erie and Western Railroad began using this line in 1851 to dispatch trains. At about the same time, the D&H Canal Company built telegraph offices along the canal and started using the telegraph for dispatching canal boats and regulating traffic. If a washout disabled the canal a “stop the boats” order could be broadcast on the line to halt traffic until the canal was repaired. It wasn’t very long before the canal operators found a new use for the line.

Though the D&H Canal didn’t enjoy a monopoly on coal sales in New York City, it was a very significant supplier. By slowing or stopping the delivery of coal to the city, the canal company could help improve the price it would receive for the coal it carried. Especially in times of depressed prices, these “stop the boat” orders were useful in manipulating the price of coal. It seems that holding back an energy supply in order to raise prices is not a new phenomenon and was as legal then as it is today.

To learn more about the story of coal in 19th century America, Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America by Sean Patrick Adams is a valuable reference. Also, the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania tells the story of anthracite coal and the people who mined it and is well worth a visit.

Copyright 2005 by Stephen Skye