Coal and Coke in the Valley

Over the past year I have had interesting discussions with Society members and friends about the different industries my grandfather Winslow and family and my great grandfather Joe Burke spent many years (in addition to their normal farming activities). I was trying to get a better understanding of their lives in the Bennett’s Valley. Their work at one time was coal- in the Winslow Brother Coal Mines and in the Shawmut coal mines. As I tried to learn more about the coal mines, I found out that the primary use of coal was to make coke (whatever that was). And coke was used to make steel as one key product. I basically grew up in New Castle Pa and Youngstown Ohio where my father worked for the steel company close to the coke works. A big circle of 3 different products all intertwined. And me being sort of a city slicker I didn’t know much about coal ( other than we had a coal bin in our basement for the coal furnace at one time), nor coke, nor even steel making. So my research into what all this was about led me down a path of too technical information. I was looking for simple concepts and wanted to know more about coal and coke in the Valley. The Winslow coal mines and the coke ovens of the area became my interest.

I then came across the Coal and Coke Heritage Center of the Penn State Fayette in Uniontown Pa. The following is my slight modifications of a couple of educational articles in the website. I was trying to adapt this to the coal and coke industries in the Bennett’s Valley. Please go to their website and visit their Heritage Center if you get a chance. Hope you find this interesting and if you have stories or pictures to share please email Bob Nay.

What is Coal?

A black rock found deep within the earth. Grownups call it a “fossil fuel,” meaning that it was formed from rotted plants such as trees and grass, and it can be used as an energy source for burning. It creates heat to warm houses and make steel.

Coal Miner

Coal miners are people who dig tunnels, called mines, deep into the earth to find coal. If your great-grandfather was a miner, he did not have electric engines, drills, and cutting machines to help him do his work like today’s miners. The early miners worked by hand, using picks and shovels and a little bit of dynamite. The miner’s work was hard and the work days were long. The miner was paid for each wagon he could fill with coal. Each wagon held about seven tons of coal.

First, the miner would drill several holes deep into the coal with a hand-cranked drill called an auger. Next, he would put sticks of dynamite in the holes and wire them together so he could explode all the dynamite. When he was ready to set off the dynamite at once, the miner would yell: “FIRE IN THE HOLE!!” He would yell this three times before lighting the fuse. It was a warning to the other miners to take cover because there would be an explosion very soon.

The blast from the dynamite would loosen the coal from the wall of the mine and allow it to fall. Then the miners would shovel it into the wagons. When the wagons were full, they were pulled from the mine by horses and mules. The miner had to be very careful when he used his dynamite. If he used too much dynamite, he could create a big explosion that would cause the roof of the mine to cave in on top of him and the other miners.

Work in the mine was hard and dangerous, and the mine was cold and very often wet or even flooded. But maybe the worst thing about working in the mine was that there wasn’t any light. It was black-coal black-not a speck of light from outside could come into the mine. The miner had a small lamp. The early lamps were called sunshine lamps and later ones were called carbide lamps. These lamps burned with an open flame like a candle. The miner hung his lamp on his cap.

Mining coal was a dirty job. At the end of the day when the miner came out of the mine, he was covered from head to foot with coal dust. All that you could see were the whites of his eyes.

What is Coke?

Coke is made from coal. The coal is burned in a special oven made of bricks. These ovens look a lot like beehives because they are fat at the bottom, skinny at the top, and dome in shape. The material that is left after the coal is burned is called coke. Coke is sometimes called the bones of coal.

Coke is mostly used to make steel. The steel industry played a very important part in making that change take place, and the coke from Pennsylvania helped to make the steel that was one of the main materials for building. As America produced more and more steel at cheaper and cheaper prices, she could build taller buildings, longer bridges, and bigger ships. The everyday life of the average American also changed. There were machines around the house to make life easier and more cars to drive, but the most important thing was that there were more jobs.

The center of the steel making industry was Pittsburgh, and many areas of Pennsylvania supplied Pittsburgh with the coal and coke necessary to make the steel.

The Coke Process

After the miner filled the mine cars with coal, the cars were brought out of the mine. Then the coal was dumped into a huge bin called a tipple.

A small train car called a lorry traveled on tracks that ran under the bin where a chute opened and dumped just enough coal into each car to fill one coke oven. The lorry then traveled to a set of tracks on the top of the coke ovens. The lorries were first pulled by mules and later by small yard engines called lokies. The lorry stopped over each oven and dropped its coal through a chute into a hole in the top of each oven. The hole was called a tunnel head.

Many of the coke ovens in the Valley were beehive ovens. They were called that because, if you saw them without all the dirt and stone piled up around them, they were dome-shaped, like old fashioned beehives.

After the coal was dumped into the oven, it was leveled to make the coal burn more evenly. Then the oven was closed by stacking bricks in its doorway. Next the bricks were covered with a special mud. Finally the coal burned-or cooked-for two or three days, depending on the amount of coal put into the oven.

Coke is what is left of the coal when a lot of things in the coal, like gases, sulfur, and ash, are burned away. The matter that is left is silvery gray, lightweight, and porous. It is made mostly of carbon and it is called coke. It supplies a very constant, hot, long-burning fuel source for blast furnaces to make high-grade steel

The coke was shipped by train and by barges to such places as Pittsburgh which used the coke from to make steel, earning that city the nickname “The Steel City.”

Coke Making

Coal had been mined for many years before the idea of making coke in beehive ovens became popular. Coke is the bones of coal. In a general way, coke is as near a pure carbon as may be had; as near an uncrystallized diamond as can be made. The beehive coke oven transforms the soft, crumbling bituminous coal into a hard, porous substance which will “stand up stiff-backed” under a ponderous load of iron ore and limestone in the blast furnace, where coke is chiefly used.

The process of coking is simple, but requires expert care. The shovel never touches the coal from the time it is loaded into the wagon down in the bowels of the earth until it is raked out of the oven in the form of coke, hot and smoking. The coal from the mine is taken from the coal tipple in larries [lorries]; a larry-load fills one oven. The larry travels along a track over the top of the long double row of ovens and drops its load into each through the circular hole in the roof known as the trunnel head. Then the opening in the oven front, measuring about two feet square with an arched crown, is bricked up and plastered with clay, leaving a space for sufficient air to get in the oven, a width of approximately 2 inches (usually measured quickly by the width of the coke makers’ three fingers). The heat in the oven from the last burning fires the fresh load of coal, and then there is nothing to do but let it sizzle while regulating the heat so that the coke does not roast too slow or burn too fast, by enlarging or daubing up the space left for draught. The temperature of the brick interior averages 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The object in baking the coal is to consume as much of the volatile matter (tar, gases, light oil) as possible without consuming the fixed carbon. This is where the coke-maker’s trained eye and judgment comes into play, as he notes and governs the progress of the process according to the tints of the delicate, shimmering flame that dances over the glowing mass. When it has the proper color, and is done, the “drawer” turns the hose on it drenching the load with 850 gallons of water to cool the oven, so that the coke can be handled with the drawer’s long, heavy single-toothed iron rake. Then, there is nothing more to do but fork the light steel-gray product into a railroad car and it is ready for shipment via railroad. The usual conversion period was 48 hours, but on weekends, 72- hour coke was made since Sunday was not a workday. Each worker usually was assigned six ovens so that he would draw three ovens a day. Usually it took about 2 hours to empty each oven.

Animals in the Mine

Certain animals were very important to coal mining. Horses or mules were used to pull the mine cars in and out of the mines. The mine car would ride on rails like a train car.

Canaries were taken into the mine in cages to check for a poisonous gas called carbon monoxide. This gas has no color and it does not have an odor. It can kill a person very quickly. Because canaries are more sensitive to carbon monoxide, they show signs of being poisoned much sooner then people. When the miners would see the birds becoming sleepy, they would know carbon monoxide was in the air and leave the mine immediately.

Rats were not always chased out of the mine. Many miners believed the rats could sense when danger was coming. When miners saw rats running from a section of the mine, the miners would often follow.

Here is a story about Henry, a miner, and why he learned to like to have rats, like Coal Nugget, near him.

Henry was digging coal in his spot in the coal mine when he heard something rattling. He turned around to see a rat as big as a cat clawing at his metal lunch bucket. He shooed the rat away and started to dig again. Soon he heard the rattling again. Henry looked around to see the big rat sitting on top of his lunch bucket with his tail wrapped around the metal ring on the lid.

“That darn rat is after my cake!” said Henry. “I’ll fix him! I’ll eat my cake!” So Henry shooed the rat away again and ate his cake. Henry returned to his digging.

Again the rat rattled the lunch bucket. Henry turned around. He saw that the rat pulled the lid from his lunch bucket. That rat had wrapped his tail around and through the metal ring on the lid and pulled it right off! The rat looked at Henry for an instant, and then began to run down the haulage (hallway) in the mine, away from the place where Henry was digging.

“Darn that rat!” yelled Henry. “Come back here with my lid!” But the rat kept running and Henry ran after him.

All of a sudden there was a loud CRACK and then a big BANG! Henry stopped and looked back to the place where he was digging coal. The roof had fallen in. Henry couldn’t see his coal car, his tools, or his lunch bucket. All that he could see was tons of coal and lots of dust.

“Whew!” whistled Henry. “If I hadn’t chased that rat I would be under all that coal. I would have been a goner. That ‘ole rat saved my life.”

Henry turned around to look for the rat, but the rat was gone. All Henry saw was the shiny lid to his lunch bucket lying in the middle of the haulage.