A Cold Dose of Reality
Jan. 8, 1907
Perhaps Mayor Arthur C. Harper and the incoming slate of officials are focused on how they will divide the spoils of the city and assign patronage jobs, although the mayor says the “last seat at the pie counter” was taken days ago.
The average Angeleno is more worried about getting even a bit of coal for the furnace. Conditions in Pasadena have been so dire that people are going to the coal yards with wheelbarrows in hopes of getting enough to scrape by. The Times notes that throughout the city, people are rummaging through attics and basements looking for anything that might be burned for a little heat.
Today, an anonymous writer provides a humorous look at trying to get some coal.
“I am a prominent citizen of Los Angeles,” he says. “I state the bald fact because my book of press notices has gone. We threw it into the dying stove immediately following the burning of the family photograph album. Unless we get fuel today, the baby’s cradle follows the book of press notices.”
“We breakfasted in furs. We had cold milk and doctor somebody’s breakfast food, which latter is a poor substitute for sofa stuffing.”
Coal was apparently being rationed in Los Angeles, five sacks to a customer, and the buyers had to go down to the coal yard and get it themselves. “Sixty cents a sack and 5 cents apiece for the sacks, and you do your delivering. Best we can do,” says a clerk.
In the rain, the writer says, he found an express man willing to get the coal and bring it to the house. Normally, the deliveryman might charge $1 ($20.52 USD 2005) for a four-hour job, but now he wanted 75 cents an hour.
“I gave him the money to buy the coal and saw him disappear in the drizzle,” the writer says. “I hurried off home as fast as I could to revive the flagging spirits of my family....
“In just a little while, I told them, we would be sitting by the side of a cheery, crackling blaze.”
Hour after hour, and no coal.
Finally the deliveryman arrived. With an empty wagon.
“Say mister,” he said. “Honest I didn’t have the nerve to stay there any longer and use up your money. You won’t never get no coal.”
“No coal,” I echoed.
“Sure not. When I went down there I found nearly 30 wagons lined up there at the yard waiting to get coal. And the fellows shoveling it out weren’t in any hurry, either. When I came away, there were at least 30 or 40 more wagons waiting behind me. The coal yard looked like a country fair.
“I waited four hours and I didn’t seem much nearer the coal than when I started. I thought you might need a little of your money yourself. So I gave it up and came back.”
The writer concludes: “I have paid $3; I have wasted a day telephoning to people who laughed at me. I have probably sacrificed my immortal soul.
“But I haven’t got any coal.”
The precise reasons for the “coal famine” would take a bit too long to track down for today’s post. From late 1906 to early 1907, The Times is full of stories about coal shortages throughout the U.S., complicated by allegations of price fixing, trusts, trade restriction and diversion of coal shipments to other cities, such as San Francisco, that were also out of fuel.
One news story sums it up nicely: “Has the coal famine become widespread? Listen to an old-timer on the market: ‘The only place that hasn’t complained for the lack of coal is hell.’ ”
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