West of Woolwich: So, just what is a coal pocket, anyway?

Posted Wednesday, May 18, 2011 in Opinion

West of Woolwich: So, just what is a coal pocket, anyway?

The Berwindvale aground just south of Fort Popham. Here she is fully burdened with coal destined for Bath. Ships transiting the river often timed their movements to run against the tide, and thus maintain better steerage at slow speeds. Here the tide has changed while the collier waits for a tug to come down from Bath. The famed Kennebec River tug "Seguin" can be seen in the distance astern of the collier, arriving to resolve the embarrassing episode. (Used with permission - Maine Maritime Museum photo)

by Fred Kahrl

So, just what is a coal pocket anyway, and why does Bath have one?

Coal was exciting and a bit mysterious when I was a pre-schooler.

In 1948. The coal delivery truck didn’t have a ”back-up beeper”, but I still knew when it arrived at our city house in the Southern Tier of New York State.

The truck would grumble backwards up the driveway from the street, and stop right under my bedroom window. From my second-story perch I could look straight down onto the load of pea coal, marveling as the truck body lifted straight up in the air towards me to give gravity a boost for pouring the coal into the cellar.

With chutes in place, the coal hissed loudly down through the cellar window, into the coal bin in our dark and dingy cellar. For some reason, the sound made the little hairs on the back of my neck tickle. Perhaps because I had once sat on the cellar stairs during a delivery and marveled at how fast the black cascade filled the bin.

There in the semi-darkness, I imagined the coal  … like the unstoppable overflowing well in Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”* … spilling out of the bin as it poured on-and-on, filling the entire cellar and burying me with it … sitting paralyzed with fatal fascination on the wobbly wooden stairs.

No less curious were two voluble “ash men” whose truck was even more grumbly, who heaved the heavy ash cans over the sides of their truck body, spilling the coal residue there in a great cloud of dust and clamor. Ash cans were built much heavier than the metal “garbage cans” of today, and they were very noisy as they were banged on the truck and back down onto the concrete driveway.

Did it ever occur to you that there is an entire generation of homes in the northeast that had those little driveways made of two strips on concrete that ran from the street right along the side of the house? Most were built before most folks even had cars.

But they had coal furnaces down there in the cellar. And the coal truck needed firm footing.


Coal looms large in the national debate about our fuel future and climate change. We are surrounded here in Bath by small artifacts of our dependence on coal in the not-so-distant past. It fueled both our industrial growth through two World Wars and more than a century of our domestic comfort through bitter New England winters.

In fact, Bath was a minor distribution point for coal destined for inland Maine.

There were consequences, then as now, for being coal dependent.

Last summer a corner of our so-called Coal Pocket on the waterfront, where a coal gas plant once stood, was rehabilitated as part of a national clean-up of sites polluted by industrial wastes. Bath was probably one of the first cities in Maine to have its streetlights converted from oil lanterns to coal gas. The same gas then went on to illuminate Bath homes and was later adapted for cooking, far in advance of the arrival of residential electricity.

Today when some downtown city streets are dug up for modern utility work, under the asphalt, under the old trolley tracks, under the paving stones, there are still remnants of the iron gas lines that at one time defined Bath as a thoroughly modern municipality.

Ships loaded coal from vast railway piers in Chesapeake Bay, and unloaded at Bath’s “Coal Pocket” for the gas plant and, later, when rails were put down, for transshipping to other Maine points.

Coal gasification has byproducts. Baking the source coal drove out the useable gas, which contains moisture and coal tar. Both were removed to avoid plugging the distribution piping. I did a science project in high school about getting gas from soft coal and, while it led to a good grade, I alienated most of my classmates by generating dreadful sulfurous odors. I also spent a lot of time cleaning up lab equipment befouled with coal tar.

Although, later, a secondary industry developed that bought coal tar for refining into useful products, there was still waste and spillage that polluted the ground at Gas Plants. Hence, last year several hundred cubic yards of soil had to be removed from the Coal Pocket and disposed of in an environmentally secure site.

And then one wonders where all the coal ash was taken for less sophisticated disposal “in the day.”

(Coal-fired steam engines were used to pump water from Nequasset Lake to Bath when the first pumping station was put into operation by the Bath Water District. There is an interesting historical picture hanging in the modern pumphouse that suggests that at one time the ash was simply pushed into the lake [!].)

All of Bath’s modest “smokestack industries” burned coal, from the foundries at Hyde Windlass and Torrey Roller Bearing Works to Bath Iron Works. Some large homes on Washington Street still have coal bins and remnants of coal-fired steam boilers too large and heavy to haul out of their cellars

The two faint lines in the asphalt on Commercial Street are reminders that coal was still being transshipped out of the Coal Pocket long after the gas plant closed and was torn down … in fact, right up to the early 1950s. The trade was so well-established by that time that two colliers had been purpose-built (or converted) to supply the Bath depot … the Berwindglen and the Berwindvale.

These two ships ran in steady rotation between their loading pier on the Chesapeake and Bath, often passing each other in the Cape Cod Canal. When one was unloading in Bath, its sister was taking on coal in Virginia … coal that had come by rail from the Indianhead #4 Mine in West Virginia, if memory serves.

I vividly recall having to wait to do errands on Commercial Street with my father in our faithful ‘48 Ford “woody” while a consist of full coal cars was pulled away from the Coal Pocket by a steam locomotive, heading out to the main line by the station.

The coming and going of the colliers was also exciting for us at home, as we could clearly see the mouth of the river from our summer home.

In fact, we could see the colliers coming in from the southeast long before they made the hard turn to port at the entrance buoy to head up the river past Fort Popham. This once precipitated some REAL excitement for me.

Seeing the collier in the distance, my much older brother Tom decided to meet it as it passed Bay Point. He and I jumped into our 11-foot wooden rowboat, he lit off our normally very cranky Scott-Atwater outboard, and we headed down the bay for a memorable rendezvous.

The 7.5 hp motor didn’t make the skiff a speedster by any means, but we reached North Sugarloaf Island (across from Spinney’s) just ahead of the ship. Inexplicably, Tom decided to cross in front of the collier, which now looked VERY big to me and seemed to be rushing at us with evil intent.

And then the outboard died.

Tom knew better than to try and get it re-started, having lost many such debates with the motor in the past and wound up having to row home. So, he literally leapt to the oars and began to pull for Popham Beach as if his life depended upon it. Well …

I was still sitting with my 7-year-old body wedged into the bow, my life preserver squeezed up under my chin as I clutched the gunwales. I could clearly hear the rush of the collier’s bow wave getting closer and closer, drowning out Tom’s fevered grunting.

Even loaded, the collier stood high enough in the water to show some of its bright orange hull paint below the waterline, which seemed ever more ominous to me as the distance closed.

High above us now, leaning on the bow rail, one of the ship’s crew watched with apparent indifference the little drama unfolding far below. He might even have been smoking a pipe … calmly. I am sure he could see my eyes, because they were as big around as quahog shells.

Of course, we cleared the bow, but not by very much. Tom had the presence of mind to spin the skiff around to meet the ship’s wake, which was almost as scary as the near miss. We still shipped a proper dose of water … most of which broke over me.

We burned off some the adrenaline by bailing the boat out for next 15 minutes or so. Tom swore me to secrecy on pain of torture and death, which made it tricky to later explain to Mother why I was soaking wet.

At least the motor started again after the usual 10-15 pulls on the starter rope, so we didn’t have to row home.

Epilogue …

I got to relive that experience 15 years later as I traveled to my Coast Guard assignment in Alaska.

I was aboard the state ferry Tustamena, having boarded with my truckload of worldly possessions at Seward for the overnight trip to Kodiak.

Curious and impertinent as usual, I wandered up to the bridge and knocked on the locked door … that is the door covered with warnings not to bother the crew on pain of federal prosecution, etc. A kindly gent with a maritime cape opened the door, and when I said I was a curious Coastie, he invited me in.

He was the First Mate, and there was just a helmsman on the watch with him. As the sun set in magnificent splendor ahead of us behind the Kenai Range, we all got acquainted and, LO!, the First Mate was the then-Ablebodied Seaman that had watched us from the bow of the Berwindglen that almost-fateful day in Maine.

“Well”, he opined, pulling thoughtfully on his pipe, and with a smile, “I suppose that now you’re a Coastie, you won’t be pulling fool stunts like that in the shipping channel to Kodiak. We won’t slow down now neither!”

He chuckled. I smiled faintly.           

* Coal Pocketdef. - Any location where coal is stored for transshipment and further distribution. 

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