A Richland County Tale


| January/February 1995



735 Riddle Road Cincinnati, Ohio 45220

I am an atom of carbon. The tale I am about to unfold for you contains mystery and excitement. Before I begin to relate my story, may I describe myself. I was lying at my ease in a bed of coal. About 280 million years ago, during the Pennsylvanian Period within the Paleozoic Era, I helped in the formation of this coal. In all humility, I might say the birth of coal was a most 'carboniferous' time! By the Middle Pennsylvanian Period, swamps bordered a vast but shallow inland pond stretching across most of what later would become the United States of America. In those warm days, the plants growing in the bogs and mires across eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania were buried in muck even before they decayed. By sinking in such stagnant water, this plant material did not rot, but slowly changed to peat. With more and more weight from more and more layers on top, the peat compacted into lignite, then into bituminous coal. Where I was located, the peat became compressed into a layer only 1/25 of its initial thickness.

I was part of a kind of coal about seventy percent of which was carbon like me. Five percent was hydrogen, six percent oxygen. The rest was incombustible, made up largely of the earthy matter on which the plants once grew. This moderately dense and fairly black coal glistened with a waxy luster.

Recently, workers mined the coal and me from the ground where we had been resting for a quarter of a billion years or so. Trucks hauled us for miles. An engineer loaded 820 pounds of this coal in what he called 'fuel bunkers,' and I found myself near a riveted seam. Naturally, I felt disoriented but that was nothing, compared to what I was soon to feel.

A few taps of the engineer's hammer struck off an egg-sized lump of the chunk of coal including me. He lifted this lump and several others on a scoop, swung open a small door, and scattered the coal just inside. The piece of coal which I was in dropped onto a thin layer of burning embers! The door clanged shut. Wow! Was it ever hot in there!

From my vantage point, I could see the engineer had spread the fresh coal over the thinnest part of the fire; where I was, the embers were only about three to four inches in depth. The engineer's quick but dexterous action had dropped the new coal precisely where holes were about to burn through, which would leave unwanted dead spaces in the fiery layer. Just beneath the embers were grates which the engineer could rock to remove ash and clinkers (pasty coal and ashes melted together in a fairly incombustible mass). The walls of the furnace were made of a special metal called 'firebox steel' and were 11/32 of an inch thick. The ceiling of the chamber was known as the crown-sheet; from above, stay bolts made of double-refined iron supported it. The height from the grates to the crown-sheet was thirty inches. Thirteen inches below the grates was an ash-pan. The length of the furnace was 39 inches, width 25 inches. The area of the grates was 6.9 square feet. I was sweltering inside of the firebox of an antique steam traction engine.