Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Golden Age of Coal Smoke

I've been reading Booth Tarkington's novels, and they often complain of an aspect of the "golden age" of rail and industry that was certainly mirrored here in Rensselaer 100 years ago - the problem of soft coal smoke.
The smoke was one of his great enthusiasms; he laughed at a committee of plaintive housewives who called to beg his aid against it. "Smoke's what brings your husbands' money home on Saturday night," he told them, jovially." [The Turmoil, 1915]

"Prosperity" meant good credit at the bank, black lungs, and housewives' Purgatory. The women fought the dirt all they could; but if they let the air into their houses they let in the dirt. It shortened their lives, and kept them from the happiness of ever seeing anything white. [The Magnificent Ambersons, 1918]

This article from the Rensselaer Eagle, Aug. 8, 1912 illustrates one reason why Rensselaer's North End park neighborhoods, built far from the rail yards, were so popular.


Rensselaer Suffers Much From Cloud Belching From Engines

Roundhouse Belches Smoke Continuously all Day and all Night - New York Central Has to Adjust Many Claims Because of Smoke.

Now that the city of Troy has succeeded in reducing the soft coal smoke nuisance to a minimum it is up to the people of this city to take similar action. Rensselaerites are a long suffering people and they have suffered to no small extent because of the fact the New York Central engines use soft coal and emit black, sooty smoke.

Residents have complained time and again of the soft coal smoke nuisance. It not only covers every portion of the city, from one end to the other, but the fact that the railroad companies are permitted to use soft coal within the city limits doubtless keeps away people who would otherwise live in this city.


The roundhouse on the Hudson island is perhaps the greatest evil so far as soft coal smoke is concerned in the city. It is bad enough to have long freight trains, switching engines and passenger engines moving through the railroad yards, but the roundhouse never stops and there is always a cloud of smoke issuing from there night and day.
There are lots of women in this city who can testify to the effects of soft coal smoke on their clothing. There are not many women, who, wearing dainty summer clothing, would walk the Maiden lane or upper bridges at any time because they are afraid of having their clothing ruined by the smoke. The smoke is often filled with enough moisture to make it very sticky and when it covers one as he walks the bridge, the effect is far from pleasing.
In many sections of the city unless an east wind prevails it is an unwise housewife who would think of putting her washing out to dry. The majority of them are forced to have washed clothes dried in the house year in and year out.

The smoke is also bad for paint, as a glance at many buildings adjacent to the railroad will show. But very few houses are painted a light color, for the reason that there being so much smoke in the air it would soon discolor the paint. This is one of the reasons why so many buildings, especially those near the railroad are painted in dark and sombre colors....
The Delaware and Hudson Railroad advertised that their passenger trains to the Adirondack Mountains and Montreal burned the cleaner (and more costly) "anthracite coal smoke".

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