Something Old, Something New

Looking back to weigh coal’s cost/benefit profile

Steven Skye, Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation

Cost vs. Benefit

A mine wresting rare-earth minerals from the ground is not the image we have of the ‘renewable energy’ industry of solar panels and wind turbines but it’s the truth. ‘Clean energy’ sources produce tons of toxic waste from their manufacturing processes; the production of ‘clean energy’ generators is, in fact, a dirty business.

But there isn’t one energy source that doesn’t carry a cost. The late Milton Friedman was fond of saying ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ and this holds true for nuclear electricity generation with its radioactive waste to the hydro-power industry with its destroyed salmon runs. The important point is to measure costs versus benefits. The flowering of the anthracite industry in the early 19th century provides us with an excellent, and unexpected, example for us to ponder.

As the 19th century opened, there was growing concern over the availability of the predominant energy source at the time, firewood. The population of the cities on America’s eastern seaboard was exploding; the supply of firewood was dwindling. The scarcity of firewood and soft coal caused by the War of 1812 proved to be the impetus for the establishment of the anthracite industry, especially the building of anthracite mine head canals in the 1820s and ‘30s. Burning anthracite was not a simple task and the industry didn’t really take off until stoves capable of burning the coal became available. After some growing pains, the anthracite coal industry soared in the 1840s.

Developing and manufacturing efficient coal stoves, especially in Pennsylvania with its plentiful iron-ore supplies, was one of the job-creation benefits of the anthracite coal industry, and, of course, boosted anthracite-coal mining and the work forces needed to extract the ore. The canals that ferried anthracite from mine to customer also provided huge benefits to our 19th century society. Canals carried agricultural and manufactured products, causing commerce to flourish along the canal ways of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. In addition, the use of anthracite had environmental benefits; no longer were forests clear-cut to supply fuel for industry and home. The forests of the mid-Atlantic and New England regions started to recover from the aggressive logging that had taken place before the advent of the anthracite fuel industry. Anthracite coal was also a clean-burning fuel compared to soft coal and firewood. New York City began to enjoy smokeless skies; there were fewer conflagrations because there was much less creosote lining the city’s chimneys. These were just some of the other benefits that followed in the wake of the anthracite industry.

Nevertheless, during its heyday, anthracite helped create a transportation network that became a key driver of America’s industrial revolution and was the most environmentally sound fuel source of its time.

Anthracite was a plentiful and clean-burning fuel and took up less room to store than did firewood. Sadly, the economics of the anthracite industry during the late 19th century did not hold up and the fuel was slowly abandoned in favor of soft coal and petroleum products. Soft coal and petroleum were simply much cheaper to use. Nevertheless, during its heyday, anthracite helped create a transportation network that became a key driver of America’s industrial revolution and was the most environmentally sound fuel source of its time.

The D&H Canal Company was a coal company that owned a canal. It was a leader in anthracite technologies and helped build the technological foundation of our fossil-fuel economy. It advanced the anthracite-fueled, steam-based technology that powered steamboats and railroad locomotives and made significant contributions to deep anthracite mining operations. It was much more than just a purveyor of ‘stone coal.’  We can see how the D&H Canal Company, as a leader in anthracite technology, created new technologies from a basic natural resource industry.

The example of the D&H Canal holds lessons for us today. America continues to sit on an enormous stockpile of anthracite and bituminous coal. Our technical ingenuity helped develop a fossil-fuel economy in the 19th century and the opportunity still exists. Implementing appropriate environmental technologies would allow us to take advantage of this resource by changing the calculations of coal’s cost/benefit profile. It’s not just new jobs that we will gain, but, as the examples above demonstrate, other economic and environmental benefits associated with new technologies will also accrue.  These advanced approaches should allow coal to compete environmentally, as well as economically, with other forms of energy generation.


Stephen Skye is a past president of the Board of the Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation in Cuddebackville, N.Y. and also the museum’s historian. Mr. Skye has written extensively on the history of 19th century America focusing on our growth as an economic power. Mr. Skye is also a past vice-president of the Delaware and Hudson Transportation Heritage Council and of the Delaware and Hudson Canal and Gravity Railroad Conservancy. Last fall his article “The Tontine Coffee House and the Corporate Culture of the D&H Canal” was published in the Hudson River Valley Review. The museum’s website is www.neversinkmuseum.org.  You can also keep up with the museum on Facebook and Twitter at @NeversinkVMHI.

01. March 2014 by Jason Hayes
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