The trouble with coal

Batavia is celebrating its bicentennial this year, and The Clermont Sun is publishing a series of historic vignettes. Peter A. Barnes, writer, consultant and a Batavia native, now lives near Milford pursuing his life-long interest in local history.

By Peter A. Barnes

The railroad changed Batavia, and so did coal.

In 1876 Batavia was a sleepy little farm town where horses pulled wagons and buckboards in and out of town at a walking pace. Carriages were a little more comfortable, but not much faster on the rough pioneer roads. The fastest transportation was a rider on horseback.

The lure of traveling in comfort at the astounding speed of 30 miles per hour made the possibility of a railroad coming through Batavia appealing. Freight, though, would pay to get a railroad built. Freight was king.

The railroad could bring finished goods that were too fragile for the rough wagon roads or too perishable to survive the long trip from Cincinnati. A piano or a plate-glass window or a keg of beer stood a much better chance of getting to Batavia in good condition on a train than on a wagon.

The railroads of 1876 ran on coal. When the railroad came to Batavia, it brought coal with it. Before 1876 wood was the primary source of heat in Batavia. Cooking, heating and later steam to run grist mills and factories, all depended on wood. The hills and valleys around Batavia were stripped of their trees as the town and its need for fuel grew. The rough roads and spare bridges of the time did not handle heavy wagon loads of coal well, and that made it expensive. There was precious little coal in the ground around Batavia so, before the railroad came, coal was a luxury that few could afford.

By 1876, wood for fuel was becoming scarce, too. Woodcutters were dragging, floating and wagon-hauling wood from miles out in the county to the fires and furnaces of Batavia. The price of a cord of wood was going up.

Coal was cheap by comparison, if you could get it. Soft sulfurous bituminous coal from mines of West Virginia and hard, hot-burning anthracite coal from Pennsylvania were both cheap. Before the railroad, though, what little coal came into Batavia came by wagon, overland from ships and barges docked at the port of Cincinnati or up the hills from the Ohio River towns of Chilo and New Richmond. A wagonload of coal brought to Batavia from either of these places cost just about as much as a wagon load of wood felled in Mt. Repose or the hills above Perintown.

The railroad could carry large amounts of coal cheaply, and the coal piles and coal tipples that sprung up along the new railroad line through Batavia were evidence of the demand for this cheap, reliable fuel. Batavia’s industry grew up around coal, and the railroad that brought it, quickly.

In the neighborhood closest to the tracks and the depot, out West Main Street and up Route 132 along the river, manufacturing and supply businesses like The Carroll Jamieson Machine Tool Company, the Batavia Brick Yard and The Keen Coal and Supply Company grew and prospered.

Coal certainly fueled the growth of Batavia in the late 19th century. That growth, and the coal that fueled it, came at a cost. The sweet, warm perfume of wood fires that accented life in Batavia was replaced by the pungent odor of coal. As cheap coal replaced wood in home fires, the columns of wood smoke rising from the chimneys turned acrid.

Letters from the proper ladies of Batavia to their out-of-town kin voiced complaints about the smell and the black, dirty soot that coal had brought to Batavia. Much more serious were the fires. As coal began to replace wood in fireplaces and stoves all over town, the new hotter burning fuel set many a house on fire. Coal was burning Batavia down, one house at a time. Homeowners had to re-brick their hearths and replace their tin stoves with cast iron. They had to plaster their flues and chimneys with fire clay to keep the hot coal fires at bay.

Despite these new dangers, the use of coal grew in Batavia. Coal-fired furnaces and central heating began to appear in the homes of Batavia around the turn of the century. Basements with coal bins and stokers could keep the modern home warm without anyone having to go outside to fetch wood.

By 1900 Batavia was becoming a thoroughly modern coal fired town, but according to some, it smelled like the fire and brimstone of Hell.