Thursday, February 11, 2016

Jesse Fells Lit a Fire that Changed Everything

It turned out the anthracite coal burned hot and long under the right circumstances.

When Jesse Fells lit a fire in the hearth of the common room of his Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania tavern and inn on February 11, 1808 he changed American History so profoundly that the dream of a Jeffersonian egalitarian rural Utopia would soon lay shattered.  Mighty industries arose, fortunes were made, insurmountable distances on land and sea were hurdled, masses of men were required for back breaking labor and from every starving corner of Europe came men to do the job.  The new industrial serfs would rebel against their masters time and again exploding into decade after decade of bloody class war.  The very land itself would be gouged and transformed, the rivers clogged and silted running dark with sludge, the tall billowing smoke stack became the symbol of the nation and the urban skies became begrimed a perpetual gray.  We called it all progress.

Fells was a successful businessman with his thumb in several local pies.  He owned property in Luzerne County in the Wyoming Valley.  He noted outcroppings of hard coal—anthracite—dotted his property and that of his neighbors.  The hard coal was considered worthless.  Even soft bituminous coal, had only a few uses in the late 18th Century.  A handful of furnaces could burn it for primitive industrial use.  But anthracite was notoriously hard to light and to keep steadily burning.  Although generations of wood burning had all but denuded the oldest east coast cities and driven up costs of firewood that had to be hauled in continuously over greater and greater distances, timber was still plentiful in western and rural areas.
But Fells had all of this anthracite laying there for the taking.  He began to obsess how to turn a profit with it.  As early as the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution he experimented with burning anthracite in his nail mill.  But he could not regulate the temperature of the fire and the nails turned out too brittle.  He had to abandon that approach but spent his spare time for years tinkering in hopes of being able to burn anthracite as a heating fuel.

It took him a while, after all, Fells had, you should pardon the expression, other irons in the fire.  He had to solve the problems of how to get the hard coal to more easily ignite and then stay burning evenly.  It took some tinkering and experimentation but he concluded that if he could get the coal off of the floor of the hearth so that a minimum but steady draft of air could circulate he could start and sustain a coal fire.

The coal grate in Jesse Fells's Tavern.
Fells constructed an L-shaped open grate of iron bars that fit in the large open hearth of inn.  On the night of February 11 after the guests at the tavern had retired to their rooms he filled the grate and lit the anthracite with surprising ease.  This precaution was necessary so as not to alarm his guests.   People knew that anthracite could burn—Indians had made limited use of it and there were occasional natural fires ignited by lightning strikes or brush fires—but there were fears that its acrid smelling smoke was poisonous and could smother victims.
When Fells and his guests arose in the morning they found the common room warm and toasty.  The coal had burned steadily and unattended all night and was still aflame when a wood fire would have been reduced to embers.
The Fell Tavern became something of a tourist attraction to view the original grate which remained in use. It was operated as a hotel until 1905 when it was torn down and replaced by a brick building also known as the Fells House Hotel.  The grate is preserved and on display at a museum.  The second Fells House was razed for a government center parking lot a few years ago

Interests in the innovation spread.  Anthracite was cheaper than wood in the cities and much more compact and efficient.  That meant instead of steady streams of pack animals bringing daily deliveries of woods from the distant county side, carts could bring supplies that would last longer.  
Any competent blacksmith or foundry could easily create grates.  And soon other anthracite promoters like Jacob Cist and Abijah Smith were making demonstration of Fells’s grate from Baltimore to Boston.  Other burning devices were also developed.  A market was created for Pennsylvania’s hard coal.
But there were problems.  Big ones called the Alleghenies.  The rugged mountains stood between the Pennsylvania coal fields and potential eastern markets.  Only rudimentary wagon roads were open and they were closed by snow or mud much of the year.  But the opening of the Erie Canal and other waterways made it possible to ship large quantities of coal east.  Later the railroads provided even more direct routes and eventually became voracious customers themselves.

By the 1830’s various inventors and manufactures had perfected and were producing home coal burning cast iron stoves—think the classic pot-belly stove—that were even more efficient—and safer—than open grates in fireplaces.  Others developed larger industrial furnaces and coal fired boilers both for heating large buildings and for stationary steam engines that were beginning to power factories and mills.  
As coal usage exploded before the Civil War, small scale mining operations became inadequate to meet demand and easy to access coal on or near the surface was becoming harder to find.  Large-scale mining operations, including deep and long tunnels required huge numbers of workers, including skilled miners.  At first experienced hands from Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and other British mining areas came over in large numbers.  When the available pool of the younger sons of local farmers and casual laborers recruited from the cities became inadequate or when American workers demanded too high a wage, the Irish were lured to take the dirtiest, hardest, and most dangerous jobs.  They were followed by successive waves from Germany, Italy, Poland and Slavic countries, and eventually from the Balkans and Russian Empire.
On the eve of the Civil War, coal overtook wood as the primary heating fuel in the country.  The Industrial explosion after the war, including the conversion of the ever-expanding web of railroads to burning coal and the development of a modern steel industry made coal the engine of the American economy.

Coal fired American cityscape in the early 20th Century.

By the turn of the 20th Century the belching smoke stack was the symbol of prosperity.  Urban air was begrimed with coal smoke.  In Chicago a gentleman was said to need to change his collar three or four times a day.  Coal remained the primary urban heating fuel into the 1950’s when oil and natural gas began to supplant it.
With the environmental movement and the Clean Air Act the use of coal also came under attack for industrial uses, and especially as a fuel for electric power generation.  As usage waned, despite fierce political resistance from coal producing states, the air and skies have dramatically cleared of smoke and particulate matter.
Electric power generation remains the primary use for coal.  But despite smoke stack scrubbers and increasing reliance on alternatives including nuclear, hydro-electric, and now solar, wind, and geothermal, damage is still being done to the environment.  Perhaps the U.S. will someday catch up with Europe and other societies that are rapidly making alternatives their main alternatives to coal and all hydrocarbons for energy.
Despite the perhaps impending downfall of King Coal, it reigned for almost two hundred years as America’s fuel.
And it all started when Jesse Fells lit that fire.


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