Anthracite History

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  • Note: Anthracite is also known as hard coal, and is a very dense and smokeless form of this fuel. Because of this relative cleanliness, it was the fuel of choice in America from about 1830 to 1920.

    Short History of Anthracite in America

    Most of the anthracite in the world is located in a few hundred square miles of northeastern Pennsylvania. This coal is so dense that it was not until the 1820's that it was able to be reliably ignited.

    Joshua White, of Philadelphia, had an iron Foundry on the banks of the Schukyll River in the early 1800's. At the time, charcoal made from wood was the best way to melt iron, but this fuel was expensive and hard to make. Joshua heard about the qualities of hard coal and had some brought to his furnaces for trial. After many weeks of experimentation, he and his crew gave up as they were unable to properly ignite this coal. They went home disgusted one evening...but when the morning crew arrived they found the furnace glowing red hot and the coal burning! As many hard coal burners have found out since, you have to leave this coal alone - poking and prodding and other such methods are NOT the proper way to burn anthracite.

    Another story says that the men who imported the first loads of hard coal into Philadelphia were arrested and thrown out of town for selling fuel that did not work! Most were unable to ignite it and those who did often melted their grates.

    Having solved the burning riddle, Joshua and his partners started buying up land in the Pa. Coal Fields, starting with a large field near the town of what is today called Jim Thorpe, PA. The original name of this town was Mauch Chunk. There he built a mine as well as a famous switchback railroad in order to get the coal from the mine to the river. This was the beginning of the company called Old Company Lehigh or The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. - Navigation being in the title due to the sets of locks and canals built in order to take the coal to Philadelphia.

    With vast quantities of this new fuel, the real boom in the industrial revolution in America was lit. Virtually every home and public building was heated by it. Ships, railroads and industries were ALL run on this dense and powerful fuel.

    A number of factors contributed to the decline in Anthracite production. Foremost among them was the discovery of vast quantities of high quality soft coal in western PA and SW Virginia. These high quality bituminous coals were perfect for processing into coke - a fuel that is used to melt iron and steel. This coke was the fuel that created the giant steel mills of Pittsburg and the midwest.

    As a result, hard coal became a niche product - good for export as well as residential home heating. Although coal is still very important to our energy picture, hard coal (anthracite) is a tiny portion of the coal production today. The most recent boom in coal mining has been in the west, where relatively clean coal lies close to the surface and can be extracted without the use of underground miners.


    Link to NE Coal Forum
    Link to Jim Thorpe, PA (Mauch Chunk)
    Link to Old Company Lehigh
    Switchback Railroad in Mauch Chunk;Anthracite_History