Many local merchants sold coal as a profitable sideline

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

During the cold spells in winter, few people worry about their fuel supply for home heating. Oil and gas furnaces click on and off automatically.

Virtually no one under 40 can remember the regular work and worries associated with coal heating: stoking the furnace, checking that the fire did not go out overnight, removing ashes and clinkers. Some residences stored their coal in an outside bin or a back kitchen, and scuttles had to be refilled and brought in several times each day.

Coal was a significant fuel in Wellington County for about 100 years, and the dominant one for about 60. It replaced increasingly expensive cordwood, and in turn fell a victim to the petroleum industry, first heating oil and then natural gas.

Virtually all the coal used for residential heating, not only locally but across the province, was hard coal or anthracite. It differs from soft coal in its composition and burning qualities. Anthracite is about 95% carbon, and burns slowly and evenly, producing a low volume of ash.

Coal could not be transported economically until the advent of rail transportation. Consequently, there was little use in Wellington County until the period of branch line construction in the late 1860s.

There is something of an irony in the fact that transporting cordwood was a major factor in the building of some of these lines. The city of Toronto supported the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, which was the first in North Wellington, because it promised a reliable and cheap source of fuel wood.

Toronto had an insatiable appetite for wood in the 1870s, not only for home heating in winter, but also for cooking and steam generation in factories. Thousands of acres of land in north Wellington and Grey County were denuded to keep Toronto humming.

Price, of course, played a major role in the switch to coal. Wood rose steadily in price after 1870, from about $2.50 per cord in 1870 to the $5 to $6 range in the 1890s. The trend for coal was in the other direction, as mining became more efficient and freight rates fell.

A major factor in the rapid depletion of cord wood supplies was the railways themselves. The belching wood-burning locomotives of the 1870s averaged a cord of wood for every 12 or 15 miles. The line between Guelph and Palmerston, the busiest branch in Wellington, alone consumed about 1,000 cords per month as locomotive fuel. Farmers along the lines supplemented their incomes by selling wood to the railways, which had large wood sheds at virtually every station.

The Grand Trunk began switching to coal burning locomotives in 1874, beginning with fast trains on the main lines. The changeover took almost a decade. In 1882, with wood phased out, the Grand Trunk tendered for 200,000 tons of coal for its lines in Ontario.

The Great Western, which operated the Wellington, Grey and Bruce line, had half its locomotive fleet burning coal by 1879, but it did not convert the WG&B branch until April 1882. A company statement explained that it had become impossible to secure adequate supplies of wood.

I have been able to find only scattered reports of car loadings at railway stations in Wellington, and most data deals with outbound shipments. It appears, though, that no cord wood was ever exported by rail from the stations in south and Centre Wellington. The railways and local demand absorbed the entire supply in these areas.

Though no figures seem to have survived, coal had already made inroads into the domestic heating market by 1875. The Lightning Express in Elora reported in January 1876 there were about 100 coal stoves in the village, and homeowners were purchasing more because good quality cord wood was scarce that season. There is no reason to believe the situation was different in other area towns.

The increasing popularity of coal brought a new merchant to Wellington’s towns: the coal dealer. At the beginning all sold coal as a sideline. This situation persisted as long as coal was used, with most local dealers having other business interests.

In Elora, John Gibb became the first major coal dealer. In 1879 he constructed a large coal shed at the WG&B station (the Station Square housing development is  now on this site). This was only one of Gibb’s many business ventures. He operated a planing mill, built houses, and conducted a feed and supply store. He was already a dealer in fuel wood.

Gibb typified the small-town coal merchant. As a feed dealer he already had a freight wagon and team which he could use to make residential deliveries. In other towns, coal was handled by hardware, building supply, and even grocery businesses.

By the 1890s coal had become the dominant heating fuel in Wellington County, though farmers continued to burn wood if they had a woodlot on their property.

In eastern Pennsylvania, where virtually all hard coal was mined, the coal industry totally dominated the economy, and the distribution system became a big business. Production doubled each decade between 1860 and 1910. In the early 1890s the Philadelphia and Reading Railway attempted to gain monopoly control on the coal business by acquiring control of the mines, other rail line, and the distribution. The collapse of the company in 1892 helped to precipitate an economic recession.

Consolidation efforts such as this one made consumers nervous. Regulatory bodies in the United States attempted to place the railways and mines under separate ownership.

As well, the Canadian government kept a nervous eye on the dependence of central Canada on a foreign source of fuel. There were periodic attempts to subsidize coal from the Maritimes and Alberta in the central Canadian market. The government established the Dominion Coal Board in 1947 to promote the use of coal mined in Canada.

The coal industry in Ontario was dominated by seven or eight distributors that competed with one another to line up local coal dealers. Local dealers kept their inventory in a shed, usually at the railway yard. A few had their own sidings. At the beginning of the coal era, shipments arrived in carloads of 10 tons. By 1920 the standard car contained 40 tons, and in the 1950s cars up to 65 tons came into use.

Anthracite was sold in eight different sizes, though not all dealers stocked all sizes. Homeowners with automatic stokers purchased the smaller sizes.

Coal dealers also stocked soft coal for commercial and industrial users, though the largest consumers purchased coal by the carload direct from suppliers.

The coal supply was vulnerable to labour strikes – both at the mines and on the railways. Both the Canadian and American governments intervened to end labour disruptions in the 1940s.

By then oil heat had gained a small toehold, perhaps 3% of the market in Wellington County in 1950. The switch to oil began much earlier elsewhere. Pennsylvania anthracite mining peaked in volume in 1926.

Natural gas, which came to most towns in Wellington in the 1960s, doomed the coal business. One by one, the local dealers closed, and a supply for the declining number of coal loyalists became increasingly difficult.

David Howes of Harriston hung on until the early 1980s. By then, his supply came in by truck. In the 1950s, he had handled 50 carloads of coal per year. In fact, Mr. Howes is still in the coal business in a small way.

He recently sold a half-dozen lumps to a customer who wanted to use them in Christmas stockings.

The abandonment of coal had many consequences. The winter air was no longer clouded with smoke and the smell of coal fumes. Garbage volume declined drastically. During the coal years ashes had made up the bulk of refuse volume.

Coal had been a major freight commodity on Wellington’s rail lines – 500 or 600 cars for residential heating alone – and its demise made the lines much less viable.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 25, 1999.

Thorning Revisited