Power and smoke: A nation built on coal

A coal miner operates a coal loading facility at the Mathies coal mine on August 26, 2001 in Western Pennsylvania. The mine closed in 2002.

Kai Ryssdal: This probably isn't what you want hear during a summer that's brought the kind of heat most of the country's had this year, but all that A/C we've been using? Not good at all for the planet. Forty-five percent of the electricity we use in this country for, say air conditioning, comes from burning coal. When you burn coal, you get things like mercury in the atmosphere as a result and carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas enemy number one. But power from coal does have two thing going for it. It's cheap and it's abundant. Which is why, forget foreign oil, we've got a coal addiction in this country.

Today and tomorrow we're going to be looking at coal, starting with how we got hooked on it in the first place. Catherine Winter from American RadioWorks reports.


Catherine Winter: Digging up coal has changed the shape of America. The first railroads that sliced through the continent and sped up Americans' lives were built to carry coal. Miners have blown the tops off of mountains -- and stripped off millions of acres of land for surface mines. America sits on a vast and valuable coal stockpile.

But when European settlers began arriving here, they weren't interested. When they wrote home about American's fuel riches, they meant its enormous forests. In 1630, Puritan minister Francis Higginson boasted that there was no better wood in the world.

BBC Actor: Though it be somewhat cold here in the winter, yet we have plenty of fire to warm us; nay, all Europe is not able to afford to make so great fires as New England.

People liked burning wood because it wasn't as dirty and stinky as the coal people burned back in England. And America's coal was hard to get at -- West of the Appalachian Mountains. When people her began building factories, after the American Revolution, they used water for power, not coal.

David Nye: So it's not Boston, but Lowell, in Massachusetts, which is the first big American industrial town.

Historian David Nye studies American energy consumption. Nye says instead of the smoky, crowded industrial cities of England, America had small factory towns scattered along rivers -- towns like Lowell.

Nye: It was a tourist attraction and Andrew Jackson, then president of the United States, made a special detour to see the Lowell factories when he made a tour of New England because that was a significant sight, something he'd never seen, a whole town of factories.

But settlers who crossed the mountains discovered the coal. Near the fort at what later became Pittsburgh, coal came right to the surface. You could walk up and kick it. Burning coal for power was easier than damming a river. By the early 1800s, people had begun using coal to make glass and run blacksmith shops and mold metal. Coal meant people could have comforts they hadn't had before -- but it also meant smoke.

Joel Tarr: And when you look at early images of Pittsburgh there's a very conscious attempt by the person, the artist, to let the smoke be very obvious.

Joel Tarr teaches history and policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Tarr: It was a sign of progress. It was a sign of growth, something to be proud of.


A slideshow Joel Tarr put together on Pittsburgh and coal. Edited by Chris Julin.

Old paintings and drawings show smoke pouring from chimneys and steamboats and trains. Visitors to Pittsburgh said you could smell the city from miles away. Residents had to sweep soot off their porches and wash it out of their clothes. But they didn't know coal smoke was causing lung disease.

Tarr: In the 19th century, there were some physicians saying that smoke was actually beneficial for your health, it could help clear your system up, breathing in coal smoke.

Coal's use rose through the 1800s. Most of it went for heat and industry, but as the century drew to a close, entrepreneurs started burning coal to make electricity.

Historian David Nye says the new utilities sent salesmen door to door.

Nye: When it was dark in the winter, they would try to sell you a light. When it was hot in the summer, they'd try to sell you fans.

The idea wasn't to sell fans; it was to sell electricity. People were delighted with the convenience of new electric irons and electric lights. The electricity came from coal, burned right in the cities. That added to the smoke from factories and the smoke from coal people shoveled into home furnaces.

Joel Tarr...

Tarr: Pittsburgh for instance was known as a two-shirt-a-day town, you had to take an extra white shirt downtown, because by noon your shirt collar was smudged up.

In Pittsburgh and in other industrial towns, smoke ate into buildings and killed trees. On bad days, the streetlights had to be on at midday.

Charles Stacey: We grew up, and we thought that smog and fog were way of life. So oftentimes we walked to school and really couldn't see where we were going.

Charles Stacey grew up in Donora, Penn., where there was a steel plant and a zinc works. In October of 1948 there was a temperature inversion. Toxic smoke filled the valley. Twenty people died. Thousands more got sick. It made international news.

Newsreel: A death-bringing fog settles over Pennsylvania's bustling industrial town of Donora. Residents have difficulty in breathing the murky air as the town is plunged into darkness. Oxygen tents care for sufferers in the local emergency hospital.

After several days, the weather changed and the cloud lifted. But the incident made a deep impression on the country. Now that people knew how toxic the smoke could be, they wanted it cleaned up. Finally, in 1963, the first federal Clean Air Act passed. The act forced utilities to clean some of the toxins from coal smoke. But at the same time, Americans ramped up their use of electricity.

Utility campaign ad: You can have your cake and you can eat it. Make life sweet it's hard to beat it! What a thrill to be so free, when you live better electrically!

Utility campaigns in the 1950s and '60s urged Americans to buy electric appliances, and we did. We still do. The latest new gadget turns from a novelty into a necessity -- and we keep using more electricity. So we burn more coal. A graph of America's coal use since the 1960s shows a steadily rising line. And utilities are still building new coal plants today.

I'm Catherine Winter for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: That's from a one-hour documentary that Catherine and American RadioWorks produced on coal use in this country. You can find it in its full length at AmericanRadioWorks.org.

About the author

Catherine Winter is a reporter for the public radio series BURN: An Energy Journal, hosted by Alex Chadwick, from SoundVision Productions with support from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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