Remember to toss your cinders on your icy sidewalk

No, not the masonry cinder blocks used in construction. I'm talking about the cinders, also called clinkers or ash, that are left over from the coal burning furnace that heated your home or apartment in Chicago years and years ago.

If you're bitching about how the cold is bugging you today, let me take you back to my childhood, in the 1940s when just about every bungalow or apartment was heated with a basement monster called a coal-burning furnace.

Every day, sometimes every couple of hours when it was really cold, someone (usually the old man) would walk down to the basement to shovel a new load of coal into the furnace. He's also shovel out the cinders, clinkers and ash that were the left-over, non-burnable product of the fire. (See video below of how it works.)

That's what was spread on sidewalks to keep people from slipping. That was before you could buy salt for melting ice in convenient plastic pour bottles from the hardware store. In fact, hardly anyone used salt to de-ice steps, sidewalks or even streets.

Sometimes the city would spread some sand at intersections to prevent sliding, but most of the streets, especially in the suburbs, never saw any salt. A plow would come along to push snow to the side, but enough unsalted snow would remain to make travel truly treacherous. That's why us old people still drive carefully in the snow, as opposed to the meatheads, with their four-wheel drive SUVs who think they can't skid off the road.

Back to the coal furnace. Central heating using coal didn't become the normal until the early 20th century. Some furnaces were called "octopuses" because the vents looked like one,  providing heat rising through hot air ducks heading upstairs. Or, the furnace would heat a boiler that would forced hot water into those whistling old radiators upstairs.

Every house had an opening from the basement to the outside where a coal truck would come along every now and then to dump a ton or so of coal onto the coal "chute" and down into the "coal bin" in the basement. Complete with coal dust that, along with soot, would work their way upstairs to cover the furniture

After "banking" the burning coal, the shoveler still wasn't done. From a door below the burning coal, he would shovel out the residue from a bottom door, to be put into a big bucket for disposal (in the garbage, on the sidewalk or, perhaps the neighbor's bushes). By then, he has worked up a great sweat, perfect for heading out into the cold to catch the streetcar for work.

People who had some money could buy a "stoker" that would do the shoveling for them, but all the other chores and problems remained. Eventually, oil replaced coal as the preferred source of energy. Every home had a big oil tank in the basement, serviced by oil trucks that would feed it, often through long hoses, to spigots leading to the tank. Then later, natural gas replaced oil.

Imagine all those coal-burning furnaces working hard on cold days in a city of three million people. The smoke darkened the sky, polluted the air and caused respiratory diseases of all kinds. On some winter days, soot covered everything.

We've come a long way. So when I hear snowflakes complain about how rough they have it today, I, well, laugh and cry.

A "finished" basement from the 1940s.

A "finished" basement from the 1940s.

 

Take a deep breath Chicago. Coal soot blankets the city.

Take a deep breath Chicago. Coal soot blankets the city.

 

Clinkers

Clinkers

 

The face of a coal-fired boiler.

The face of a coal-fired boiler.

My Dad's coal shovel.

My Dad's coal shovel.

dennis@dennisbyrne.net

www.dennisbyrne.net 

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    Great story that brought back memories. I was wondering can you still buy coal for your house and have it delivered in the Chicago area?

  • Only Santa can bring you lump of coal, as far as I know.

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    Good memories. The other thing was the coal delivery, Every basement had a "Coal Bin. When the coal company would delver the coal they would just dump it in front of your address. Then later a guy would show up with a wheel barrel and shove it all into a window or opening for the Coal Bin. in my house it wasn't an old man who shoveled and stoked it was me from about 8 on. My dad was smart, he taught me how do do it all.

  • What is interesting is how far many of us have NOT come...my wife's folks, and brother and many of my coworkers all heat with wood. I don't have an oil tank...I have a propane tank that needs to be filled periodically. The road I live on has never seen a grain of salt, but it gets sanded once in a while. Roads are not really well cared for in the snow here (Michigan) and people think they have some genetic ability to drive in the stuff. They do not, which is why our highways routinely close from car accidents.

    I don't miss much about Illinois, but I do miss salted roads.

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