America’s energy crisis and SSP solution

Trains and coal saved America in the latter 1800s

wood winter harvesting horses source LOC 645
(Source: Library of Congress)

Starting around 1850, the populated areas of the United States experienced shortages of wood fuel. When using only unimproved roads, horse-drawn carts, and manual labor, providing wood fuel from any significant distance was very costly. (Note the driver in the photograph above.) Eastern cities, especially, began to experience wood fuel shortages and escalating prices.

While steamboats on the major inland rivers and lakes provided the initial steam-powered logistical lines of communication as America expanded westward, railroads began to become dominant in the 1850s. Needing fuel, the railroads established supplies of wood fuel and timber for construction as they moved west. Thus, wood fuel joined agriculture products and livestock in being shipped to cities along the rail lines. As wood fuel supplies became tight, the railroads switched to coal. Rail lines were built directly to mine entrances enabling coal to be shipped directly to wholesale customers very economically.

Fortunately, the populated eastern United States, where the rail lines then reached, had extensive coal fields along the Appalachian Mountains, as seen in the map below. These coal resources, combined with the logistics capabilities of a growing integrated railroad infrastructure, enabled coal to become a low-cost replacement for wood. Over the next two generations, the United States avoided a catastrophic energy shortage by switching to coal for heating and kerosene—distilled from oil to replace whale oil—for lighting.

Map of coal deposits in the eastern United States

Coal deposits estern US public domain
(Source: U.S. Government)

The chart below compares the production of wood fuel and coal in the United States from 1630-1930. (Note that a cord of seasoned wood and a short ton of coal yield about the same total energy in terms of BTUs.) Wood fuel production peaked in the 1870s. Coal production became the primary energy source a decade later.

US wood fuel and coal use 1630-1930 public domain 645