Coke (coal byproduct) use in 50s Toronto?
June 19, 2013 1:43 PM   Subscribe

I have a vague memory from the early 50s of travelling along Front Street or Wellington Street in Toronto with my father. Looking south toward Union Station I can remember seeing small (two or three foot high) piles of black stuff on the road, and men with shovels . My father told me it was coke (the “solid carbonaceous residue derived from destructive distillation of coal” as Wikipedia defines it).

Can anyone provide me with a context here? For years I have imagined that they were making coke, but Wikipedia says coke production “poisoned the surrounding landscape.” So I guess they were using it. For what? Out in the middle of the road? In small piles? What might they have been doing? Or was it coal and not coke, and somehow related to the steam locomotives still in use?
posted by feelinggood to Technology (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It may have been coal. If so it was probably used in furnaces, for heating. If it was clinkers (burned coal) it may have been put there to spread on icy road surfaces. I can't think why coke would be put out like that.
posted by mule98J at 2:01 PM on June 19, 2013

Coke is not a coal byproduct, it is a product made out of coal. I don't know about Toronto, but in the UK at the time (mid 50s) there were regulations put in place to require the use of smokeless coal (i.e. coke) for heating in urban areas to decrease smog. So my guess would be burning it for heating or something similar.
posted by ssg at 2:17 PM on June 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe they were using it to patch potholes?
posted by Flashman at 2:19 PM on June 19, 2013

coke (the “solid carbonaceous residue derived from destructive distillation of coal” as Wikipedia defines it)

If you want a simpler version, charcoal:wood::coke:coal
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:43 PM on June 19, 2013

My guess is with mule98J. These were not coke but coal cinders which were commonly used, but less so now, on icy roads. Cinders are stony, glassy sand and gravel residue from the burning of coal that provides good traction. 60 years ago it would not have been unusual for cinders to be spread using manual labor. Was this in the winter? For example.
posted by JackFlash at 3:04 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Were they selling it, or receiving delivery of previously-purchased coke for home or commercial heating?

I swear, I can see the scene in my head as if I've seen a movie or read a book about a kid getting sent out to collect the dust and dregs of whatever was left after everyone else got theirs. No clue when or where or what that came from, though.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:04 PM on June 19, 2013

I'm from Southern Indiana - lots of coal power plants and lots of strip mines (at least there were in the early 1980s).

They used to use spent cinders everywhere. They were used for parking lots at both our little league baseball diamond and church, they were used for driveway paving instead of gravel, I can think of at least two pole-barns that have cinder floors, and some people even used them as a kind of black sandy mulch along fencerows &c.

I can distinctly remember them being used on country roads to fill holes and make temporary patches before the county came out to make a proper repair.
posted by Tchad at 3:38 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think Tchad has it. When you have a by product, people tend to use it.

Back in Sweden we had "kolstybb" on athletes' training areas, roads etc in the 60's.

Kolstybb being almost the same thing as spent cinders.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 11:22 PM on June 19, 2013

Tchad, you might be referring to "gatch", the rock and soil immediately adjacent to the coal and contaminated with tars and oils, formerly used in Southern Indiana as a road surface because it had low dust and there was tons of it removed in strip mining. It had an orangy-reddish color to it and it also made cars rust faster.

Coke is used as fuel, just as ROU_Xenophobe said above, it is coal that has just been heated enough to burn off some of the byproducts, like charcoal is to wood. Like charcoal it burns cleaner. Cinders and clinkers are the ashes left from burning coal and coke and it too was used as fill and surface (so maybe Tchad was right on that point), since in the coal age there was tons of it too.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:55 AM on June 20, 2013

The answers that suggest that whatever it was was being used to spread on the road make sense. I can't remember whether it was winter or not (Toronto gets a lot of freezes and thaws) but the site was at the bottom of a gentle slope -- the road at that point went under the railway tracks (what we call around here a subway).

(So my Dad was wrong??? !! :-) )
posted by feelinggood at 7:30 AM on June 20, 2013

Coke burns hotter than coal. Blacksmiths use it to heat metal to forging temperature. From a blacksmith forum:

Yes coke is made from coal. It is like charcoal and wood. Coke is what you get once you burn the volatiles out of the coal. I've heard 60 to 70 lbs of coal will make about 50 lbs of coke. You forge with the coke, by the way, not coal. You burn the coal around the outside (or off to one side) of your fire and rake it into the fire as it becomes coke.
posted by scose at 7:37 AM on June 20, 2013

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