Coal shortage aggravated wartime conditions during First World War

Last week’s column noted that the scarcity of coal in 1917 forced the railways to cut back on their service and to combine trains wherever possible.

The shortage affected more than the railways. Coal in 1917 was the basic fuel. It powered the railways, generated electricity in some localities, provided power and heat for factories, and provided the majority of home heating, as well as heat for cooking in some households. This is probably a good time to look at that coal shortage more closely.

During the winter of 1916-17 coal was in sort supply, but nothing like the conditions that prevailed the following winter.

Many commentators urged homeowners to lay in their winter supply of coal during the summer of 1917, and to build new and larger bins to store their fuel. But few people responded to the appeal. Homeowners did not want to tie up money in stockpiling coal.

There was no certainty that the shortage would be repeated. Some industries, fearful that they might be forced to shut down, did order additional coal during the summer of 1917.

In truth, there was not a serious shortage on the supply side. The mines, in the United States in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, had increased their production. Though industrial output had risen, increasing the demand, the biggest difficulty was in transportation. Loaded coal cars plugged yards and some mainline trackage, effectively tying up portions of the rail system.

During December of 1917 most coal dealers filled all their orders from home owners and businesses with no difficulty, for a few weeks, at least, vindicating those who scoffed at predictions of a shortage.

In truth, the situation was not good. Dealers received less than they delivered. All had cars of coal somewhere in the transportation system, which became increasingly plugged with all sorts of freight, much of it destined for the front in Europe.

Government officials became alarmed by mid December. In an attempt to unplug the rail system, the American government nationalized the railways, and appointed civil servants to sort out the mess. That only made matters worse.

The Canadian government urged consumers to conserve and save coal by using wood as fuel during the daytime and to close off rooms that were seldom used.

Consumers needed little urging. The price of coal had increased from the range of $4 per ton in 1914 to the $10 range.

Wood was not in abundant supply either, and its price rose to $10 per cord. Some dealers urged consumers to switch to coal oil as a substitute fuel.

At the end of 1917 the federal government instructed municipalities to appoint fuel controllers. These men would keep track of orders and deliveries, and ensure that no one was hoarding coal and that no one was going without at least a modest supply. They would track all the coal received by all the dealers in their jurisdiction.

In Elora, the appointment went to Alex Blacklock, sometime constable, who also operated the municipal weigh scales. Elora dealer Peter Aitchison received a car of coal in the first week of 1918.

On instructions from Blacklock, this was distributed to consumers in half and quarter-ton lots to anyone in Elora who had placed an order for coal with any of the dealers. To cut their expenses, dealers required payment in cash. That led to further pressure on consumers.

The coal supply was far less than the demand in Elora and every other town in the area. Merchants lowered the heat in their stores. Some wore overcoats as they stood behind their counters to serve customers.

The Elora school board abandoned efforts to heat the school. The building had a hopelessly inefficient hot air system that required a full-time fireman to keep the furnace stoked during cold spells. January 1918 was proving to be the coldest on record, with an average for the month of -14 degrees Celsius.

Cars of coal arrived at the towns and villages of Wellington at irregular intervals during January.

Dealers had little advance notice, and could not guarantee a delivery date to their customers. The fuel controllers spent much of their time dealing with complaints and people pleading that they were a special case and should be moved to the top of the list.

Elora’s combined public and high school did not reopen after the Christmas holidays until late in January, and then only on a partial basis.

The board brought in a wood stove, and set it up in the principal’s room with a makeshift smoke pipe leading through the ceiling to a window upstairs.

Senior public school pupils, and especially their parents, were afraid that the closure would affect their ability to pass the high school entrance examinations in June.

The temporary heating system worked well for a week. One afternoon a pupil timidly interrupted the teacher and said he smelled smoke. A few wisps could be seen where the smoke pipe passed through the ceiling. The teacher organized a bucket brigade, and the students had the fire out before it did major damage.

When a car of coal did arrive at Elora, it was a “run of the mine” grade, and included large chunks that needed to be broken up before they could be tossed into stoves and furnaces. But that delivery barely made a dent in the local demand.

Elora was no different than other towns in Wellington County, and indeed, much of eastern Canada. The fuel shortage affected every factory and shop. Many residents huddled around their kitchen stoves after closing off the rest of their houses.

The federal Fuel Controller’s Office declared that February 9, 10 and 11 would be “heatless days.” All stores, factories and pubic buildings, with a few exceptions, would shut down their heating systems.

The shutdown was over a weekend. Storekeepers bundled up to serve customers on the Saturday, and most remained closed the following Monday. Some complained that the measure achieved little because they required a great deal of fuel to bring their buildings back to a reasonable temperature.

The Elora school, after cleaning up the mess from the fire, reopened in mid February. Workmen had shut off the heat to all but three rooms, and they hosted classes for public school students in the morning and the high school in the afternoons.

Elora’s library remained heatless during January. Meetings that usually convened in the basement had to relocate. The churches also complied, holding their services in their basements. 

By the end of February the crisis had lessened considerably. Three carloads of coal arrived in as many days at Elora at the end of the month. The renewed supply, combined with milder weather, helped alleviate the shortage.

Even so, the fuel controllers remained in charge of local distribution of coal until the end of March. Alex Blacklock reported to Elora’s council in April 1918.

He stated he had supervised the distribution of 512 tons of hard coal since the beginning of the year. That would amount to about 14 carloads using average car capacity of that era. He had issued 856 permits, most for 1,000 pounds. A few customers, such as the hotels and the post office, received larger quantities.

Blacklock thanked the people of Elora for their co-operation, a generous gesture considering the amount of abuse he had taken from those who wanted special consideration. A similar story could be told about every town in Wellington.

There were tight supplies of coal during the two succeeding winters, but neither were as severe as that of January 1918.


Stephen Thorning