09 December 2006

Anthracite Elites vs. Bituminous Boondocks

THE 1902 STRIKE [in the anthracite fields of northern Pennsylvania] served to emphasize how the nation had divided into clean anthracite cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and dirty bituminous ones, like Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Birmingham.* In New York City, as the strike-induced shortage caused anthracite prices to rise, more and more coal users turned to bituminous, violating city laws and alarming city residents. Some plants allegedly switched to bituminous after dark when the smoke would attract less attention. In June of that year, the New York Times carried the distressing headline "Smoke Pall Hangs Over the Metropolis," something that was true every day in the soft-coal cities. A letter to the editor, bemoaning the growing illegal use of bituminous during the strike, asked, "Are we to have fastened on us the frightful infliction which curses Pittsburg and Chicago?" Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate whose bituminous-burning mills in Pittsburgh added greatly to that city's "frightful infliction," chose to live in New York City, and warned: "If New York allows bituminous coal to get a foothold, the city will lose one of her most important claims to pre-eminence among the world's great cities, her pure atmosphere."

Pure atmospheres were something most bituminous cities had not seen, and would not see, for a very long time. Most of the bituminous cities saw their coal smoke as the inevitable byproduct of industry, and saw industry as the source not merely of their material wealth but of modern civilization itself. And yet, this belief was not unshakeable. By the late nineteenth century, it was starting to clash with other firmly held attitudes that linked civilized life to cleanliness, beauty, health, and ultimately morality. In short, coal smoke was coming into conflict with an emerging environmental philosophy.
*In fact, nearly every city west of the Appalachians depended heavily on bituminous except the emerging cities in Texas and California, where oil and natural gas were locally available. The reason was the cost of transportation; bituminous was mined in some twenty states by 1900, anthracite only in eastern Pennsylvania. In St. Louis, for example, anthracite could cost four times more than soft coal from the mines of Illinois.
SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 148-149

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