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History In The Schools

Summer 1996 | Volume 12 |  Issue 1

John Carlsen, the fireman for P.S. 73 in Brooklyn, New York, stands on a sloping mountain of anthracite in the coal bunker in the school’s basement and shovels 650 pounds of coal into a bucket suspended from an overhead rail. “I do this at least ten times a day,” he says. He pulls a link chain to raise the filled bucket and pushes it out through the bunker doorway and across to an area in front of one of four big boilers, where he tips the bucket to dump the coal onto the floor. Then, after opening the doors to the boiler, he starts shoveling again, throwing coal onto the fire inside.

P.S. 73 was built in 1889; these boilers, made by the Titusville Iron Works, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, were installed when a new wing was added in 1921. They’ve heated the school ever since. They are hardly a rarity. No fewer than 322 of New York City’s 1,200-odd public schools are heated by coal. The coal fires warm the water that makes the steam that bangs in the radiators upstairs.

“Shoveling coal is like a piece of art,” Carlsen says, taking a break to catch his breath. “You get heat blasting in your face, and you have to learn to stand it; you have to wear a long-sleeved shirt just so your arm hairs don’t burn. You have to know how to keep a good draft going and how to spread fresh coal over the fire so it will burn right.

“You lay it on the front first, to block the heat from you, and then reach the back. You don’t want the fire too high, but you also can’t let it get too low, or you’ll get clinkers.”

Are the days long? “I’m here at five each morning. First you have to breeze the fires up; then you dump all the ashes from the front part of the boiler; then you roll the fire to the front and dump the ashes from the back. Then you just have to spread the fire very evenly and keep covering it every twenty minutes until you can start shutting down in the afternoon.”

But at least, I suggest, being in the business of heating a school, you get the summer off. He shakes his head. “Nope. In the spring you break the boilers down, clean the chimneys, punch each of the ninety-two tubes in each boiler to get the soot out, take all the covers off, flush everything with water, and replace all the gaskets. That takes until June, when the inspector comes. In July you start putting it all back together again.”

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