A Landscape of Energy Abundance: Anthracite Coal Canals and the Roots of American Fossil Fuel Dependence, 1820–1860

Jones, Christopher F.
Environmental History

Between 1820 and 1860, the construction of a network of coal-carrying canals transformed the society, economy, and environment of the eastern mid-Atlantic. Artificial waterways created a new built environment for the region, an energy landscape in which anthracite coal could be transported cheaply, reliably, and in ever-increasing quantities. Flush with fossil fuel energy for the first time, mid-Atlantic residents experimented with new uses of coal in homes, iron forges, steam engines, and factories. Their efforts exceeded practically all expectations. Over the course of four decades, shipments of anthracite coal increased exponentially, helping turn a rural and commercial economy into an urban and industrial one. This article examines the development of coal canals in the antebellum period to provide new insights into how and why Americans came to adopt fossil fuels, when and where this happened, and the social consequences of these developments.