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My father-in-law’s home was, for many many years, heated by coal. (In my own apartment in NYC, we had oil heat, which I contend is no better). The job of the coal delivery driver was not at all fun. He had to muscle and finagle an enormous truck close enough to the house so that he could get the coal from the truck down the truck chute into the coal bin into the chute that sends the coal into the basement of the home. It was the job of the delivery man to make sure all of the coal ended up in the basement. This sounds easier than it really was. After nestling the truck close to the home, he raised the bed of the truck high enough to have gravity help him, and a boom extended to the house. The slope from the truck to the house was not very high, so unless the coal was very wet (depending on the form you bought with rice being the most common, but there were sometimes pea or nut or stove coal sizes) it was really hard to get it to slide down to the basement. So the delivery man often had to shovel the majority of the FIVE TO SEVEN TON load of coal into the basement.

That’s when the real fun began. The coal had to be fed constantly into the home furnace. So remember, every single home had an active burning COAL furnace in the home. If you’ve ever been to a foundry at a colonial village, you can begin to imagine what that would be like inside your home. With anthracite, it actually burned cleaner than you think. Some furnaces had little augurs that helped feed the coal automatically into the furnace, others required more care and attention. My father-in-law’s home required a little attention, not just to the amount of coal being fed in, but to the way it was burning. They spent their days and nights anxious about the color of the flame. If it burned blue, that was clean and largely “safe” … what they feared was an orange flame, which indicated that noxious gases were being emitted as the coal was burned.

Once the coal was burned was the problem of the coal ash. If you have ever seen coal ash, it has the consistency of well sifted kitchen flour – very soft and light. Little did the kids realize how toxic (coal ash is full of impurities and is itself very radioactive) the ash was, nor did the adults. It wasn’t just radioactive, it was full of toxins that when rinsed into waterways would be extraordinarily harmful to wildlife and human health. Well, what did the kids and households do with the coal ash? Much was taken away in the trash. But it was also repurposed for other things. The most common use for the coal ash was that it was dumped onto the (very hilly) dirt road outside. As the streets were not paved they constantly washed away down the hill and into the local streams and valleys. And Scranton’s famously great weather and heavy coal truck traffic took a toll. So the residents of Greenbush simply dumped the coal ash right into the roadways to continue “repaving” them, and filling potholes. Obviously this contributed to the already thick particulate pollution problem they all dealt with, and continued the assault on the fresh water sources all over the city.

But the kids were even more creative. As Scranton and Dickson City sits amidst a great landscape of hills, mountains and knolls, it was a great place to go sledding. The kids often sledded in places that ended down at roadsides. So, just like any clever kids, they tried to both make the sledding more fun (i.e. making jumps) and safer (stopping themselves from skidding into moving traffic). What do you think the kids used? They often made the jumps out of snow, but since the coal ash was everywhere and was famously pillow soft, they used enormous piles of coal ash to stop themselves from whooshing right into the oncoming traffic.

Happily Grandpa Racibor is 83 and still with us and has been one of the healthiest people I have ever met. He is also one of the toughest people I have ever met.

 

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