The picture above is an old photograph of the Calumet Coke Ovens, date uncertain, but probably taken sometime in the 1940s. The large mound in the background – the “slag heap” – is properly called a “slate dump”, and this particular edifice was an iconic landmark of my youth, and the inspiration for the old title of this blog (The Big Slag Heap of Knowledge). Calumet was a little company town just down the hill from the family home of my father, Lou Kritz; most of the story that follows are his recollections, in his own words.
Both my parents grew up in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, a Depression-era Homestead settlement with an interesting history in its own right; the Kritz family lived in D Section (on the map on the website accessible from that link, Calumet is located to the east of D Section, bounded by the Calumet Road and Sewickley Creek), and my mother’s family, the McKulas and the Sobleskys, lived in A and B Sections.
The basic idea behind the homestead program was to provide affordable housing, subsistence, and where possible, employment for impoverished families in some of the areas of the country that were worst-hit by the Depression, which included the Connellsville Coal Belt region – Westmoreland and Fayette Counties – in Western Pennsylvania:
Both the Soblesky and the McKula grandparents [i.e., my great-grandparents] were original Norvelt residents. My mom and dad applied to be original residents, but didn’t make the cut, probably because of numbers. 250 houses were available, and several thousand families applied. The first residents in my old home were a family named Johnson. I don’t know anything about them, other than their name.
For some reason, in 1943, these folks decided to leave, and the house was still under the control of the government program (subsistence homesteads). So, my parents were next on the list, drawn by lottery, or something, and were offered the house. They took it, then went into the rental program, and bought it when it was available. So, technically, they were not the original residents, but were there early in the program.
Every little town around Norvelt was built by the coal and coke industry. I remember the mines all working and the ovens belching. The air was polluted, and good water was scarce. We used to play in the creek over the hill from home (Sewickley Creek), and the edges of the stream were coated in yellow sulfur from mine water runoff. Maybe that’s why I never had a problem with warts. I also remember the semi-yearly chore of washing all the walls in the house. We’d wipe them all down with a soap solution, which would turn black, then rinse them with clean, clear water. Both the atmosphere outside, which carried tons of dust, and the in-house air, moved by our coal furnace, contributed to the dirt.
If you look at a map of Mt. Pleasant Township, and start at Norvelt, you can see the following towns that all were built around a coal mine and a coke yard: Calumet, United, Mammoth (2 mines), Hecla, Carpentertown, Carpentertown No. 2, 2 Mile South, Standard, Standard Shaft, Whitney, Mutual, Marguerite, Baggaley, St. Vincent Shaft, Trauger. I haven’t even scratched the surface.
Towns were named for the mines. [In fact, almost all of these little towns were company towns, actually owned by the mining companies, although that era had long passed by the time I was born.] For example, Southwest, Pennsylvania, was then called Hecla. Hecla Mining Company owned the mine. Standard and Standard Shaft were actually part of Mt. Pleasant [i.e., the town of Mt. Pleasant], but were named for the company names. Standard, by the way, had the largest number of ovens in the country, 999. This was the result of the tax structure. At 1,000 ovens, it was said that the tax rate went up dramatically, so they got as close as they could without going over.
I was born in Latrobe, an industrial town a few miles north of Norvelt, in 1967, at the very end of Westmoreland County’s coal age. Latrobe, incidentally, is best known for being the hometown of golfing legend Arnold Palmer. My family moved around a lot when I was young, and eventually settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the eastern part of the state. Nevertheless, my brother and sister and I spent a large part of every summer in Norvelt almost from the time I was born until my junior year in high school, when we moved to the Chicago area.
By the time I was old enough to remember my surroundings, the coal and coke industry was in ruins, but still very much evident; the old coke ovens, the slate dump, the remains of the old trolley line and viaduct that ran along the lower edge of the Kritz property were all fascinating (although subject to stern parental and even sterner grandparents’ warnings to stay away) places to play and explore. Norvelt at that time was already becoming a bedroom community of Pittsburgh (about an hour to the west) and the surrounding area; while in my parent’s youth many of the inhabitants of Norvelt still worked in the mines or coke yards, by my generation they worked in the mills in Pittsburgh, or Westinghouse, or the Chrysler (later Volkswagen) auto plant.
In its heyday, however, the coke industry in Westmoreland County was apparently something to behold. What made the Connellsville Coal Belt valuable was that it was the richest known deposit of bituminous coking coal in the world – a fairly shallow seam nearly 60 miles long from north to south, and between two and three miles wide. Coke, of course, is a key ingredient in steelmaking, and it was the proximity of such a rich resource that helped turn the city of Pittsburgh into the world’s biggest producer of steel.
Coke ovens were about 20 to 30 feet in diameter. (I don’t think there was one standard). The walls, made of yellow fire brick to about 4 or 4 1/2 feet were straight. Then they domed over into a rounded vault ceiling. There was a hole at the top, about 24” in diameter. The oven was filled with soft (bituminous) coal to a depth of about 5 feet. The first charge was lit by building a wood fire on top of the coal to start it burning. Then, the front entrance was bricked up solid, leaving an arc at the top of 2 or 3 inches wide. The coal would begin to “gas”, or begin slow burning, giving out much white smoke. Then the smoke turned to black (coal tar) and eventually clear, as the entire bed was burning. After the first firing and clean out, the walls retained enough heat that a starter fire was unnecessary. The coal was dumped in, the oven was sealed, and spontaneous combustion did the rest.
The air inlet, the arch over the door brick, and the outlet, the chimney hole, were carefully controlled so that the coal burned out all of the by-products, without burning up the carbon. The top hole had a metal cover that restricted the air. At the proper time, a water pipe on the end of the hose would be inserted, and they’d water the oven. Basically, they were putting the fire out quickly to preserve all the carbon, or coke, that they could. Once it was out, the brick door was taken down, and the coke puller arrived.
This was a guy who wielded a 20 to 30 foot long giant hoe, with a blade about 3 feet long, and one foot wide, kind of rounded down to almost a point. He’d hang a metal device with pulley wheels on a hook at the door, set the rod in the pulley, and begin scooping out the coke. As it piled up in front of the oven, other laborers would shovel it into wheelbarrows, and dump it in the railroad cars. Dirty, hot, back-breaking work. When this was done, they’d fill the oven again for a new batch. The cycle usually took from 4 to 7 days, depending on the size of the oven and the load put in. Eventually, they tried to mechanize the whole process somewhat, but because the beehive ovens were declining, mechanization never took too much of a hold.
The coal-coke era in the US began about 1880 or 1890, and continued until about 1955, so about 60-70 years. I remember the coke ovens burning in full production, when I was very young, 6 or 7. That would put it around ‘49 or ‘50. They then began to decline, and gradually disappeared by 1960. In the ‘50s, I worked with Dad as he repaired ovens. Since he could do masonry, he would be hired to rebuild the firebrick lining of the oven. The deterioration was caused by age, heavy use, and incredibly high temperatures. In the declining period, there were fits and starts as owners tried to bring production back, and this really ruined the ovens. After burning several fills, the oven would lie idle, get rained on or snow would get in, and the bricks would crumble.
The slate dump behind the ovens was in a way a monument to progress while the mines and ovens were still operating:
The slate dumps, which are all gone now, were made up of “red dog.” The slag from the mine was basically the orange shale that was common in Western PA mines. It had to be moved out of the way to get to the coal. It was piled up with a lot of coal dust in the huge piles. The weight and heat caused a slow combustion that turned the shale red, thus “red dog”. For many years, I remember the dumps smoking until the fuel was consumed. The slag was crushed and used for road base filler, and other such projects. If a farmer wanted to shore up his lane, he bought a couple of loads of red dog and spread it out.
The industrial boom that began with the onset of World War II and lasted through the 1960s finally put an end to the small-stake coal and coke industry:
The problem with the coal and coke industry that I knew, and Dad and Granddad worked in, was too many small, very local operations. Changing technology killed the mines and coke yards. The local mines were small and outdated, and had no economies of scale. As larger, machine operated mines were opened, the little local ones couldn’t compete. Then, the by-product coke oven was developed. This was basically a big metal box that allowed collection of the “smoke” as the ovens gassed before burning. This provided coal tar, which was then used to produce many things, most notably vinyl. Plus, these new ovens were built next to the blast furnaces to cut down on shipping the coke. The air was controllable with fans to speed the process. In the brick ovens, natural airflow was used.
Plus, the small mines had water problems, and being small, couldn’t afford the pump capacity needed to keep them dry. Then, there had to be rail lines to all of these. As the world changed, steam engines disappeared and transportation became an issue. Hundreds of small mines dotting the geography were just not efficient. When the by-product ovens, based at the steel mills came on the scene, the steel companies opened new mines, some as long as four or five miles. They had several portals and concentrated all activities in one location. One rail line could now haul massive lengths of coal cars to Pittsburgh or Johnstown. Then, the steel industry changed with northwest Indiana, Gary, Hammond, etc., becoming better options as ore could be brought right to their docks by lake boats.
And that is the story behind the slag heap.