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Working with Coal

“Coaling Ship”

One of the most significant advances of the New Steel Navy was the move to coal power. While coal had been in use for decades, it was only at the end of the 19th century that the Navy fully committed to this new source of fuel. One of the most grueling tasks for men of the New Steel Navy was refueling, otherwise know as coaling ship. It was a dirty, backbreaking job, accomplished by hand.

Mountains of Coal

The concept of coaling ship was simple: move enormous piles of coal from heaps on a dock, into coal bunkers below deck on a warship. The challenge was the sheer volume of coal to be moved. The battleship USS Massachusetts burned 8-12 tons of coal per hour at full power. In order to fully stock for a deployment at sea, a warship would load thousands of tons of coal on board ship, all of it moved by hand. All hands participated in this brutal marathon of hauling. The photo at right is a good example of coaling ship. Sailors at left swarm over a hill of coal, loading it into canvas bags. These bags are then swung up and over, onto the deck of the cruiser USS Tennessee. The last step was to pour the coal through holes on deck, down into bunkers, where it was kept until needed. A good crew could move perhaps 100 tons of coal per hour.

Coal Passers

A new rating was established to accommodate the ranks of men assigned the rugged task of shoveling coal on board ship: the coal passer. Sailor Frederick Wilson, a former coal passer, commented on their lot in life in his diary:

that most humble, but necessary, evil, the lowest rating in the service, an object that isn't supposed to be human at all, but has to delve wherever dirt and grime is thickest, in back connection, in bilge, in mucky feed tank, in boiler, and in [coal] bunker. Poor coal passer! Cursed and damned by all parts of the ship, whose very foot prints are watched as he crosses spotless deck[s], who is blamed for every spot of dirt on deck and paint work as a matter of course. He is even looked askance by landsmen and marine, poor non-combatant that he is. Like many others of humble rating, his necessity and worth goes unrecognized.

At right, a group of sailors shovel coal on board the USS Isla de Luzon, a Spanish gunboat captured during the 1898 war. Shoveling coal and maintaining steam was a constant chore at sea.

A Filthy Crew

Coaling ship continued night and day until finished. If the ship had a band, it would often play music to accompany the brutal work. When finished coaling, sailors and ship alike were covered with a thick layer of coal dust. Shown here are grimy sailors on board the battleship USS Rhode Island, who have just finished coaling ship. Note that several of them are enjoying slices of watermelon.

Dirty Sailors

Cleanup was essential after coaling ship. The ship itself was hosed down and scrubbed clean. At right, sailors on board an unidentified warship hose down the deck after coaling. Their uniforms are still filthy from coaling. Enlisted sailors washed as best they could, but they did not have the luxury of showers or bathtubs. They scrubbed off with buckets of water, or perhaps enjoyed swim call when permitted.

Warships Powered with Shovels

Even with coal safely stowed, and the ship underway, coal passers continued the thankless job of shoveling. Steel Navy warships look impressive from the outside, but the reality is that their speed and power was derived from hand shoveled coal. This photo of the fire room of the cruiser USS Brooklyn shows sailors at work stoking boilers with coal.

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