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When Coal Was King

By Anna Schwartz

Posted on December 28, 2020

Office of 	Z. O. Nelson & Son
Office of Z. O. Nelson & Son A corner of our office, Walter H. Nelson, circa 1887, v1972.1.1222; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History

In 1917, the best Christmas gift one could receive was a lump of coal. A coal shortage was sweeping the borough and coal reserves were dangerously low. Massive barges, laden with coal mined in the Northeast, idled in waterways along the Brooklyn shoreline. An impenetrable mile-wide ice field prevented their delivery.

During the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, most Brooklynites used coal to heat and cook in their homes. (Gas made from heated coal, known as coke-oven gas, fueled Brooklyn’s streetlamps.) Commercial use coal came in various sizes (egg, nut, and pea) and types (“hard” and “soft”). Some coal dealers, like Z. O. Nelson & Son, would even deliver a wagon of the precious rock right to your doorstep. Z. O. Nelson & Son’s main office, pictured here, was located on Degraw Street at the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Coal yards were plentiful along the canal. All day, barges pulled by tugboats traveled up and down the waterway depositing the carbon-rich fuel at locally run depots.

Wintertime coal shortages were frequent, often leading to citywide rationing. During the shortage of 1917, the streets went dark in an effort to preserve coal. City officials issued coal checks, or vouchers, to those most in need. The checks were redeemable at coal yards around Brooklyn. Shortages also meant life or death for some middle and low-income Brooklynites. In 1902, hundreds of residents besieged local coal yards pleading for a basket or pail of coal to heat their homes. One onlooker exclaimed, “It is terrible to see this mass of people clamoring for what is absolutely a necessity of life.”

Petroleum and natural gas eventually replaced coal as the primary energy sources in New York, but the environmental, economic, and health-related impacts of coal production and its uses in the United States continue to make headlines today.

Interested in seeing more photos from CBH’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images, or the digital collections portal at Brooklyn Public Library. We look forward to inviting you to CBH in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our resources page, available here or access the resources of the former Brooklyn Collection here. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected].

1 comment

  • Mike Lee

    Posted on December 29, 2020

    I grew up in the Towers on Hicks and Warren Streets during the 50s and 60s. I remember sneaking into the basements of B and E buildings, exploring and seeing the coal piles. I also remember seeing deliveries of coal for the furnaces.

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