rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,

Burn, Baby, Burn

If you don't have susandennis on your friends page, check out Fun coal memories, an interesting reminiscence about the coal fired furnace in one of her childhood homes. It is especially fascinating to me as, being a lifelong Californian, I don't recall ever having even seen so much as a single lump of coal in my entire life, yet as a kid I was fascinated by it. I mean, a rock that burns! How nifty is that? Whenever I came across references to coal in books or magazine articles or conversations my attention would perk up, and I loved pictures of railroad firemen shoveling coal into the boilers of locomotives, of snowmen with coal for facial features (snowmen were another thing virtually unknown in Los Angeles,) of people huddled around coal fired stoves— anything coal-related.

It's not that coal was never used in California, but by the time I was born it had vanished. Very low-grade coal was once mined in the mountains east of San Francisco Bay, and in the late 19th century many factories and boilers in the city burned it, as can be seen by the dark plumes rising from smokestacks in old photos. It left San Francisco's buildings grimy with soot, and a layer of unburned carbon residue on wooden facades probably contributed its share of heat to the post-earthquake blaze that consumed most of the town in 1906. But in Los Angeles I don't think coal was ever used very much, if at all.

A large oil field was discovered almost adjacent to downtown about the time Los Angeles hit a population of 50,000 in 1890, and the region also had access to nearby fields of natural gas. The handful of steam locomotives still running on the region's railroad lines when I was very young had long since been converted to oil, and big boilers in factories or large buildings were invariably fired either by oil or natural gas. The radiators in the schools I attended were all fed by gas fired boilers.

From the earliest days, even solid middle class houses in southern California were routinely built without central heating of any sort, and houses that were heated at all usually relied on small gas heaters in the more important rooms, maybe augmented by an electric wall heater in the bathroom. Some houses had fireplaces, but they were most often intended more as a decorative feature than a heating system, and usually were too small to fully warm even the rooms they were in. The house we moved into when I was six years old had a fireplace, and once a year my dad would pick up a small load of wood which would provide maybe a dozen fires on the coldest nights of winter. As hot as the fires felt to me when I sat nearby, the opposite end of the room, less than twenty feet away, would always remain chilly.

It was always eucalyptus wood we burned in the fireplace. In the late 19th century the exotic Australian eucalyptus was found to be a splendid tree for quickly growing windbreaks to protect southern California's burgeoning citrus groves and avocado orchards, and during the post-war building boom, as the groves were ripped out for housing tracts and shopping centers, the windbreaks came out with them, providing an abundant supply of firewood for all those decorative fireplaces. I remember sitting by the crackling fire in our living room and wondering what it would be like to have some coal burning there instead of the eucalyptus logs. I suspect that it would have been a lot quieter (eucalyptus makes a lot of noise as it burns) but probably wouldn't have smelled as good.

While I thought myself deprived as a child by the absence of the fascinating coal from my life, I eventually got over it. I'm still fascinated by stories of coal, though. Maybe someday I'll get to visit one of those places where it is still used, and get to find out what the heat from a coal fire feels like— though I suppose I'd have to hurry. Coal fires in houses are probably already rare, and I doubt that it will be used much longer. It will soon go the way of California's eucalyptus windbreaks, almost all of which have vanished into the fireplace of history.

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