Coal: A Human History

It has now been two weeks since I finished reading Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. Mark, my mother and I have just returned from a vacation to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. None of us has a laptop and the places we stayed were just as un-wired as we were. The only time we used the Internet was during our visits to local libraries so that we could check in on-line as we took a triangular trip (flying from Toronto–St. John’s–Halifax–Toronto). Pictures and stories from this trip will be posted later. I had tried to finish Coal before I left, but could not get it read–as well as a book review written–in time prior to departure. Good thing I take notes as I read, writing down quotes, page numbers and passages that I want to cite from later. Still, it feels funny writing this review when I am already so far into my next book.


Who would have known that coal had such an interesting history? I did not know that before it was used as a fuel or heat source, the Romans used coal to make jewellery. In the British isles, coal was used for centuries exclusively as a medium for cremating the dead. No one dreamt, or dared, to use this sacred source of fire for any other purpose but cremation. Only when the forests started to disappear in the English countryside did people have a change of opinion and brought coal into their homes. 

George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, which I recently reviewed, tells of the poverty found in northern British coal-mining towns. Freese describes a similar way of life which was unfortunately the norm, centuries before Orwell wrote his account in 1936:  

“Coal does not make us think of the rich, but of the poor. It evokes bleak images of soot-covered coal miners trudging from the mines, supporting their desperately poor families in grim little company towns.” 


“Coal created a new gulf between classes.” 

Coal changed the way people lived, and provided the fuel that incited the Industrial Revolution. With coal as the new fuel source, the days of wood-burning trains were numbered. Although horrifying to experience, Freese had me practically in tears laughing over the hazards of riding in such trains: 

“The worst problems were on the train itself, since many early passenger cars were roofless, and all were made of wood. For example, the inaugural trip of the Mohawk Valley line in New York in 1831 (just a year after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line) was marred when red-hot cinders rained down upon passengers who, just moments before, had felt privileged to be experiencing this exciting new mode of travel. Those who had brought umbrellas opened them, but tossed them overboard after the first mile once their covers had burned away. According to one witness, ‘a general melee [then] took place among the deck-passengers, each whipping his neighbor to put out the fire. They presented a very motley appearance on arriving at the first station.’
“Sparks on another train reportedly consumed $60,000 worth of freshly minted dollar bills that were on board, singeing many passengers in the process; according to one complaint, some of the women, who wore voluminous and flammable dresses, were left ‘almost denuded.’ Over a thousand patents were granted for devices that attempted to stop these trains from igniting their surroundings, their cargo, and their passengers; but the real cure would come later in the century, when coal replaced wood as the fuel of choice. In the meantime, some of the more safety conscious railways had their passengers travel with buckets of sand in their laps to pour on each other when they caught fire.” 

Men, and up until the early twentieth century, children risked their lives working in dangerous mines. Cave-ins and floods were a regular part of the job. Miners were not free from the hazards of coal even after retirement, as lung disease rose to the surface as a silent killer. Today working conditions for miners are a lot better, yet this time it is the environment that is paying the price. Acid rain is killing lakes and the creatures that live in them. Freese writes about the failure of the Kyoto Protocol and the prejudicial treatment–as well as environmentally destructive allowances–awarded to some nations, like Chinese Peking ( = the People’s Republic of China) in particular. 

Coal has an extensive bibliography, which I always like to read over, as well as 32 pages of totally useless endnotes. Freese did not number any passages to indicate accompanying notes. One had no idea while reading the book that any passage was to be elaborated upon in an endnote. The only way to keep track of the notes was to keep your finger constantly in the endnotes section and by flipping back and forth to see if there was any note on that page, since the notes section only listed notes by the page they were on and not even where they were on the page; definitely not the way to enjoy reading a book.

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