Coal Takes Over

As the 18th century approached, England was running out of trees to convert to charcoal, the fuel used to smelt its iron ore and dry the malt for its beer. Brewers had tried the nation's plentiful coal, but as its fumes dried out the malt they added an unpleasant sulfurous taste. Then brewers discovered that they could make coke from coal, much the same way charcoal was made from wood. Coke didn't hurt the malt's flavor, and it burned hotter than coal.

Steel Factory in Homestead, Pennsylvania, 1907

Industrial site with several smokestacks and very dirty air

pictured on a stereopticon card
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection

In 1709 (two years after England, Wales, and Scotland joined together as the United Kingdom), an English ironworker named Abraham Darby developed a process for smelting iron ore by using coke. Meanwhile, Englishman Thomas Newcomen was experimenting with harnessing steam to power marchinery and, around 1712, he presented his reciprocating steam engine to the world.

In it, pressurized steam and cold water were sent alternately into a metal chamber. The abrupt temperature change created a vacuum that pulled a piston down. Attached to the piston, an arm moved; to pull the piston back up, a counterweight was attached to the arm. The first and most important benefit of the steam engine was to pump water from ever-deepening mine shafts.

But Scotsman James Watt really gave the Industrial Revolution a kick forward in the 1760s and 1770s. His steam engine separated Newcomen's metal chamber into two: one for hot steam and one kept cold to condense the steam. Heat and cold alternately acted on the same piston, driving it both up and down. Gears and cranks attached to this "reciprocating engine" converted steam's energy to operate complex machinery.

And that steam was created by hot fires under the water boilers, fires that burned coke, making coal mining more important than ever. Although trees had become scarce, the British Isles had plenty of coal.

In the United States, however, coal and coke were slow to find favor. Many iron smelters believed mineral coal to be inferior to charcoal of wood, partly because coal, especially the anthracite variety, introduced sulfur into the metal, which had to be extracted by another process. Besides, since there were still plenty of virgin forests in the U.S., charcoal was cheaper than mineral coal. Not until the 1840s were coal and coke used in the U.S. for refining iron ore, and only after the middle of the nineteenth century were they in general use.1


With steam power, "manufactories" (from Latin manu factum, "made by hand") could be built anywhere, not just beside waterways that turned millwheels to power the machinery. Workers moved to live near manufactories, helping towns develop and cities grow. It was the beginning of the end for one of Jefferson's ideals, the self-supporting yeoman farmer.

Hand in hand, coal and iron led the Industrial Revolution, which spread from Britain to other nations rich in both raw materials. Aware that Pennsylvania and Virginia coal deposits were already being mined, President Jefferson was eager for the Lewis and Clark Expedition to locate generous supplies in the Louisiana Territory.

The Industrial Revolution was supporting Britain as the greatest colonial power, as that nation drew raw materials from its own land and its worldwide colonies then sold manufactured goods at home and abroad. But throughout the 19th century, the United States continued adding more coal-fired factories and gaining on Britain. New England becaame the nation's first factory center, utilizing materials like cotton collected from the South and shoe-leather from the Midwest.

Coal also was used to produce electricity as soon as the latter was harnessed in the late 19th century, at first pumping pistons and then, in the early 1900s, turning turbines to light city streets and homes. Although today's turbine systems are cleaner and much more sophisticated, three-fourths of United States coal still is burned to make the nation's electricity.


By the 1850s, the U.S. neared Britain in industrial productivity, meaning that coal had to be moved to the factories from where it was found and mined—and once again the steam engine was the answer.

Just at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Briton Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) and American engineer Oliver Evans (1755-1819), had been perfecting the high-pressure steam engine. This type could be built small enough to be portable.

Trevithick experimentally attached his to passenger carriages in 1801 and 1803, and in 1804 produced a steam locomotive for a Welsh coal mine. It could move 25 tons of coal, but was too large and heavy to serve its intended purpose efficiently. In the United States, Evans patented his engine in 1804, and the same year demonstrated his amphibious dredge—the nation's first self-propelled land vehicle.

Steam engines were refined and shrunk in size, with Britain still ahead of the United States when it introduced passenger railroad carriages pulled by steam locomotives in the 1820s. The progress gap between the nations was narrowing, though. On Christmas Day of 1830, the United States' first steam locomative made a run.

So it was that, in the 1850s, coal from the mines was pulled by coke-fired steam locomotives over iron rails to many types of factories, including those that made coke from the coal and separated iron from its ore. (New rails were made of steel—a product of iron—beginning in the 1850s.)

Within four decades the first transcontinental railroad line spanned the nation's midriff, crossing the Corps of Discovery's path at Omaha. In 1883, the Northern Pacific touched more of the Lewis and Clark Trail as it crossed North Dakota, Montana, and northern Idaho en route to Tacoma, Washington.

In 1893, the northernmost transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern, laid rails over Marias Pass on its course from St. Paul to Puget Sound—Marias Pass being named after the Marias River, which Meriwether Lewis had titled for his cousin Maria Wood eighty-eight years earlier.2

The States depended hugely on steam-driven (that is, coal-powered) locomotives into the 1940s, with the largest such locomotives ever, nicknamed "Big Boys," being built from 1941 to 1944 to move the tremendous load of freight that World War II demanded. (Diesel passenger locomotives had been around since 1934.) After the war, coal-powered steam engines began to give way to diesel-electric engines until the transition was compete in 1960.


After the Civil War, individual cities often bragged about their prosperity and progress by advertising how many factory smokestacks and home chimneys threw plumes of coal smoke into their air. This prosperity had a certain pervasive smell about it, one recorded by Meriwether Lewis in future Montana on April 10, 1805.

at the distance of 12 miles from our encampment of last night we arrived at the lower point of a bluff on the Lard side; about 1½ miles down this bluff from this point, the bluff is now on fire and throws out considerable quantities of smoke which has a strong sulphurious smell.

Home-heating furnaces, also coal-powered, had come into use in the late 1800s. The preferred fuel was anthracite coal because it burned cleaner. Yet coal soot was in the air and on the ground, gathering moisture under certain atmospheric conditions to create thick "pea soup" fog, and soaking into and blackening the surfaces of stone and brick buildings. Coal—and its byproducts—literally permeated life in the United States for more than a century. But in the 20th century, cleaner-burning natural gas and petroleum byproducts steadily replaced coal for factory power.

1. Carroll Pursell, The Machine in America; A Social History of Technology (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 61.

2. Michael P. Malone and Richard B. Roeder, Montana: A History of Two Centuries (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1976), p. 135.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.