When Coal Was King

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 1999,
February 1999

Author: Grace Shackman

The heavy snow that ushered in 1999 brought traffic almost to a standstill. For a few days, Ann Arbor’s older neighborhoods, blanketed in white, looked not much different from the way they would have appeared after a winter storm at the close of the nineteenth century.

Compare that pristine scene with old photos of Ann Arbor in the winter, though, and you’ll notice something missing from today’s picture: black smoke. Today, most home chimneys give off the almost invisible by-products of natural gas furnaces. A century ago, they belched columns of sooty coal smoke. Coal-fired boilers in offices and stores, factories and laundries, added to the pall that hung over the city.

From the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, coal was Ann Arbor’s chief source of energy. Coal heat helped make winter tolerable (Ralph Waldo Emerson praised its capacity “to make Canada as warm as Calcutta”), and coal-fueled steam engines powered almost every local mill and factory--as well as the locomotives that brought virtually all people and goods to the town.

But the age of “King Coal” was also incredibly dirty. When traveling, Carl Malcolm remembers, “if you left the train windows open, or if you were standing on the platform, you’d be covered with tiny cinders.” At home, says Sam Schlecht, “every week you’d get a quarter of an inch of [coal] dust from the furnace.” So prevalent was the soot, Malcolm recalls, that “in the winter you’d notice the dirt on the snow.”

Ann Arbor was far from the harshest and most dangerous part of the coal economy, the underground mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Even so, scores of residents spent their lives working intimately with coal, unloading it from rail cars at local coal yards, storing it, and delivering it to homes as needed. It was difficult, dirty work.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Raleigh Alexander was co-owner of Blue Ribbon Coal, a yard by the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks on South State, near today’s Produce Station. Alexander’s son John remembers, “Dad would use twine to tie his pants and cuffs so not so much coal would get on his skin. He looked like a clown with his pants blowing out, neckerchief around his neck.” Nonetheless, Alexander says, “The dust would crawl up his pant legs—he’d soak his feet up to his knees every night.”

Ron Patterson, whose father, Jim, delivered coal for Blue Ribbon, remembers helping unload coal and then coming home to bathe. “It’d all come out in the tub,” he recalls. The memory of that grimy water is so vivid, he says, that “I can’t take a bath today--I have to take a shower.”

Mary Visel, wife of Carl Visel, co-owner of Cornwell Coal, remembers that her husband, when he got home, even sneezed black. “It was a hard life,” she says, shaking her head. “I advised my girls to marry guys who worked in offices.”

“As early as 1300, the scarcity of firewood drove Londoners to heat their homes with coal, despite the ‘intolerable smell’ of the smoke,” Priscilla Long writes in Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. But coal took hold late in the United States, where the forests--and the supply of firewood—were long thought to be inexhaustible. As late as 1860, the city directory listed only one place to buy coal, Widenmann Hardware, and one place to buy furnaces, Schumacher Hardware. But by the 1880s, central heating was gaining in popularity, and the directory listed seven hardware stores selling furnaces and seven places selling coal.

At first businesses got into heating as a sideline--the Staeblers through their agricultural implement business, for instance, and the Rohdes as an extension of their building supply inventory. But by the turn of the century, consumption was high enough that companies devoted exclusively to selling coal began to emerge. For the next fifty years, there would be as many as fourteen coal yards operating in Ann Arbor at one time, all based along the railroad tracks. Except for a single Depression-era co-op, all were owned privately by a family or one or two people.

Central heating greatly simplified the problem of keeping warm in the winter--there was only one furnace to feed instead of individual parlor stoves or fireplaces in each room--but tending a coal furnace was still a chore. For many years, coal had to be shoveled into the furnace by hand. The job became easier after the introduction of electrically powered stokers, but clinkers (unburned bits of rock) and ashes still had to be removed regularly. At night the fire had to be banked so that it would burn very slowly overnight but still could be restarted in the morning.

Robert Hayden paid tribute to his father’s tending of the family’s coal furnace in the poem “Those Winter Sundays”:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the 
blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday 
weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever
thanked him.

Ford Ferguson, retired freight yard manager of the Ann Arbor Railroad, was familiar with the local coal operation from the early 1940s until its final days in the late 1960s. “Almost all the coal came in on the Ann Arbor Railroad, although some came in on the New York Central,” he recalls. “All [the yards] got lots of coal, sometimes five or six carloads at a time.” According to Ferguson, the yards were all about the same size and charged similar prices. “The only difference was who bought coal from them.”

All the yards had similar layouts: a small office to take orders and schedule deliveries; a rail spur used to park the coal cars; an area along the track, rented from the railroad, that was used to pile up the different types of coal (a few people splurged on “hard coal,” clean-burning anthracite, but most chose less-expensive “soft” or bituminous coal); and a truck scale to weigh outgoing loads. Small bins were placed alongside the scale, so that coal could be added or subtracted to reach the exact weight ordered. “Poorer people used to bring bushel baskets and get coal out of the coal bins,” remembers Bob Beuhler, whose father, Herman, owned Ann Arbor Fuel on Madison. “They’d record it in a ledger and, when they got money, come back and pay.”

Many small companies came and went, but there were ten major ones that people still alive remember. Two were side by side on Depot Street along the Michigan Central tracks:

Staebler’s, 115 Depot. Staebler’s decaying coal trestle can still be seen alongside the building that is today the headquarters of First Martin Corporation. The cinder-block office was built by Ken Heininger in 1941, when Neil Staebler went to Washington to work for the federal Office of Price Administration and Heininger was hired to take over day-to-day management of the various Staebler enterprises.

McCudden, 229 Depot. Owner Frank McCudden also had a good reputation for fixing furnaces. Much renovated, the building is now Fry & Partners Architects.
All the other yards were along the Ann Arbor Railroad. In order, running south from the river, they were:

Blaess, 124 West Summit. Oscar Blaess took over the Hiscock coal operation and then passed the merged company on to his sons, Earl and Harold. According to Earl’s widow, Eloise, “Harold did the bookkeeping. Earl figured the weights. They did it all themselves. They loved that kind of work.” Huron Valley Roofing now occupies a new building on the site.

Cornwell, 410 Miller. This yard was started by Frank Cornwell, who sold it to two employees, Carl Visel and Leona Schlafer, in the 1940s. Schlafer ran the office while Visel took care of the yard. After 1961, when the shrinking business could no longer support them both, Schlafer left and Carl’s wife, Mary, took over in the office. The building is currently vacant.

Artificial Ice, 416 West Huron. Owner Gene Heinzman sold coal in the winter, when demand for ice fell off. Today the building houses Fireside Foods.

Ann Arbor Fuel, 214 East Madison. The Staeblers helped their relative, Herman Beuhler, set up this business, although it competed with theirs. In 1938 Beuhler sold to Lewis & Frisinger. The yard is now part of Fingerle Lumber.

City Fuel, 108 East Madison. Owned by Edwin L. Feldkamp, this yard also became part of Fingerle’s.

Ann Arbor Co-op, 635 South Main. The co-op started in the Depression as a coal buying club, taking orders over the phone, picking the coal up at the Staebler coal yard, and distributing it to members. It eventually grew to include its own grocery store, in the building at Main and Mosley where the Neutral Zone teen club is now, and a gas station on Catherine Street (now Argiero’s restaurant). The co-op’s office was in the Main Street building, while its coal yard was to the north, where Don’s Auto Wash is today.

Crane, 207 Hill. Run by John Crane, this was one of the smallest but also earliest coal businesses. It later merged with Blue Ribbon. Its site, too, was eventually absorbed into the Fingerle complex.

Blue Ribbon, 1709 South State. Raleigh Alexander and Clarence Sevey bought the business from their boss, Ralph Osgood. Originally located at 513 South Ashley, the yard moved to State Street in 1944.

The U-M was too big to bother ordering coal through a local yard. It had its own spur off the Michigan Central on Fuller, and its own switch engine to shuttle cars up the hill, via a track east of Glen, to the power plant on Huron. The coal was piled on what is now the surface parking lot behind the Power Center.

Another big consumer was the artificial gasworks on Broadway between the Michigan Central tracks and the Huron River. The plant heated bituminous coal in a vacuum, drawing off flammable gas that was piped to customers to fuel gaslights and cooking stoves. A by-product, coke, was a nearly pure form of carbon that could also be used as a fuel. Because it was harder to light than coal and burned faster, coke was used mostly in industry. Today the gas plant’s site is a Michigan Consolidated Gas service center.

Some other local businesses used enough coal to buy wholesale but didn’t maintain their own inventory, instead making arrangements for local yards to accept delivery and bring it to them. Cornwell had such agreements with Nielsen’s greenhouse, the Argus and King-Seeley factories west of downtown, and the Kyer laundry on South Main.

Ferguson recalls that the Ann Arbor Railroad carried “mostly soft coal. Few used hard coal; it was much more expensive.” The coal cars were dropped off at the turntable near Ferry Field; Ferguson’s crew, usually three men, would deliver it to the coal yards with a switch engine. Bob Beuhler’s family got to know the crews so well that he was sometimes invited to ride with them as they made their deliveries—a real treat for a boy.

Operators invented various methods of unloading the coal. Beuhler dropped it from the car into a pit and had a pulley arrangement to hoist it up. Several places, like Staebler’s, had elevated trestles so that the coal could be dropped directly into trucks. But delivery was the real key to a successful business. “We had more customers than coal, more delivery requests than personnel,” recalls Heininger. The yard owners all had their own trucks and delivered as much as they could themselves, but they also hired other drivers, especially in the busy winter season: Blue Ribbon recruited farmers who had spare time in the winter.

Delivering coal was best done by two people, one to stay on the truck and keep the coal moving into the chute and a second to level it off in the basement. “I liked riding around with Dad, jumping up and down from the truck,” Ron Patterson recalls. “The better houses had special coal bins, but others just had a fenced-off area of the basement to store the coal. If there was stuff already there, a puff of soot would come out. We’d wait and then go down.”

“I’d go in [to the coal bin] and level the coal off, breathing dust,” recalls Carl Thayer, who as a teen helped deliver coal for the Ann Arbor Co-op. “The coal would be up as close to the ceiling as you could get. If we could get it high enough, it would last all winter.”

Most coal operators offered lower rates in the summer, but human nature or lack of cash--many of these memories are from the Depression--kept most people from ordering until the cold was upon them. Coal yard operators found other work to supplement their incomes in the summer, using the same equipment, if they could. Visel did hauling and grading and eventually moved into building swimming pools, Alexander and Sevey did yard work, Patterson hauled trash, Frisinger built roads, and Beuhler sold ice harvested from Whitmore Lake until Heinzman’s manufactured ice put him out of business.

During World War II good coal was hard to get, since the best was saved for the war effort and trains were filled with military freight. The Visels remember getting an inferior coal from Illinois, delivered in “monster trucks.”

On the plus side, no one was able to switch to oil or gas during the war. By then, though, the coal yard operators were all working against the clock. Says Heininger, “We all knew that after the war, coal would disappear.”

“As soon as they built the [natural] gas pipeline in the 1940s, school was out,” explains Beuhler. Clean, simple, and cheap, natural gas quickly supplanted coal and oil as the preferred fuel for home heating. After the war Staebler’s bought the customer lists of Artificial Ice and Ann Arbor Fuel, but even so, their volume fell 40 percent. They closed in 1947 and switched to building houses.

By the mid-1960s there were only three coal yards left--Blaess, Blue Ribbon, and Cornwell. “They went down together like a house of cards,” recalls Alexander. The very last to give up the business was Cornwell. “Coal was the most expensive and dirtiest way to heat,” says Jerry Visel, who with his twin brother, David, had been working with his dad since the early 1960s to develop a swimming pool business. (Their first pool was at their parents’ house at Second and Mosley.) When the Visel sons took over the bookkeeping, they discovered that the pool business was paying taxes for the coal operation and convinced their parents to get out of it. They sold the building to Calvert’s landscaping and hauling company and moved out Pontiac Trail, where they’re still in business today as Cornwell Pool & Patio.

Of the original yard buildings, only Cornwell’s and Staebler’s are as they were. A few artifacts can be found around town, such as the Staebler sign in Casey’s Tavern. John Alexander, a farmer, still uses his father’s old truck scale to weigh corn. Coal chute doors are still visible on many houses. For the most part, though, only memories remain.

On a recent visit to Sault Sainte Marie, Ron Patterson toured a dry dock where a coal-burning ship was being repaired. When he reached the boiler room, he reports, “It threw me back. The smell triggered my memory--the soot smell.

“It was good, but it choked."