Plenty of action down the cellar
This story about the resurgence of coal as a home heating fuel in some parts of the country brought back memories of my early childhood, when coal furnaces heated the steam radiators in the fourplex in which I grew up on the east side of Newark. These furnaces were lit, loaded, and cleaned by hand, and all the grownups got in on the action.
Every few hours during the winter months, somebody would have to head "down the cellar," get the big shovel out, and throw some more coal onto the fire. The level of heat was controlled with some sort of boiler or other contraption right on the furnace -- no apartment thermostats in those days -- and every now and then hot ash would have to be emptied out of the bottom. Knee-high, heavy metal cans, which had previously held some chemical substance or other from a nearby manufacturing plant, were recycled as ash cans -- just as larger versions of said cans were used to hold our garbage.
We kids were allowed to come down and watch the furnace-tending, but never to get too involved in the process. The grownups all had their own styles of heaving the coal into the furnaces, whose burning chambers were about waist-high. Some took a half-full shovel and tipped it to let its contents slide in gracefully; others loaded the shovel over the brim, stood back a step, and gave the coal a good heave-ho. The furnace doors were heavy metal things that made creaking noises, and there was some sort of handle toward the bottom of the unit that you turned or pumped to get the clinkers to fall into the ash bin. There was an art to getting the intensity and duration of the fire just right.
It was a dirty process, to be sure, and it took arm strength. Just the other day I was wielding that same type of shovel to clear snow and ice from around our house here in Portland. Even the modern-day version of this tool is not light; one can only imagine how much they weighed 50 years ago.
Now, did every unit in the fourplex have its own furnace, or were there only two? Perhaps it was one furnace for the right side of the complex, and one for the left. There were at least two.
Once in a blue moon, we kids would be allowed to climb around and get filthy in the coal bins, which were small rooms in the corners of the cellar with small, high windows that opened to the outside. Through these windows the coal would be delivered every now and then, down long chutes -- tons at a time, in big truckloads from the Koppers Coke Company, which had an office up at the east end of Market Street. If I am not mistaken, coke is a byproduct of some awful process that is done to raw coal after it comes out of the ground in Pennsylvania. I'm sure that playing on it as a kid was not the healthiest thing in the world, not to mention breathing the air around the hundreds of homes and businesses that were burning it in those days. But it beat freezing to death.
At Christmastime, the abundant fuel supply right downstairs from the holiday tree made it easy for Santa Claus to leave coal in the stockings of naughty boys. Every year my brother and I would find one piece at the very bottom of each of our stockings as a reminder that although basically good, we weren't perfect. One year, when we were driving everyone particularly batty around the holidays, we each received two lumps of genuine Koppers Coke courtesy of Saint Nicholas.
Sometime in the early '60s, we abandoned coal as our heat source. A more modern furnace, which I believe burned oil, was installed, along with magic thermostats. The coal bins were taken out, the ash cans were put away, and nobody had to head down the cellar to stoke the furnace any more. For that, life was much better.