My three-year-old grandson is fascinated by trains, at least his toy ones and the ones he sees in books. Real ones are still too scary. I explained that the car behind the old steam engines were for coal that was shoveled into the fire that powered it. Of course, he never saw coal and I had to explain it was a shiny black rock that burned. Maybe he believed me.
Coal was a big item in my East Lansdowne house, and the coal bin took up a good part of the cellar (never a “basement”). All of the houses were heated by coal and a delivery anywhere in the neighborhood always brought children running.
At our house, a dump truck filled with Blue-Dot anthracite backed into our driveway on what in my memories was always a summer afternoon. (Anthracite, the hardest form of coal, was also called “blue coal” from the clean blue flame it produced. “Blue-Dot” was a brand.) The driver and his assistant knew exactly what to do, moving efficiently as a team and getting everything right the first time. They opened the small cellar window near the foundation and hitched together two pieces of a metal slide that fitted into the bottom of a trap door on the back of the truck and made a right turn into the open window. A metal barrier on the outside of the turn kept the coal on the slide. The driver went back to the cab and tilted the truck bed just a little. With everything set, the helper pulled down on a lever that lifted the sliding trap door, and the coal shot out with a roar. We children, about four or five of us, would cover our ears and squeal in delight. As the delivery progressed, the driver would further tilt the bed that could also be entirely raised up by a scissors mechanism. At the finish, the front end had amazingly risen to our second story. The bright rod of the piston that did all of this now gleamed like polished silver inside the greasy black supports.
With the last piece of coal, the noise suddenly stopped and we uncovered our ears in the unnatural silence. The men quickly lowered the bed, dismantled and stowed the slide, and rode off like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Hi-O Silver! Awayyy!
Not a single lump of coal was on the driveway. We ran down to the cellar and saw the empty bin transformed and now brimming with an immense pile of shinning coal, occasional pieces with a blue dot of paint assuring it was the very best, the very hardest, anthracite.