What's a ''Clinker?''

by Bill Monson

I wonder why young people today think when they hear the word ''clinker.'' Most of them, I suspect, associate the word with ''serious mistake or error'' -- a flop or something of poor quality. Few would associate it with ''slag'' or ''stony matter fused together,'' as my Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary puts it.

But as a boy growing up in Galesburg during the 1940s, it has a specific meaning to me. A clinker was a big chunk of fused, ashy rock you often found in your furnace when you burned bituminous (or soft) coal. Soft coal contained materials like slate which under heat fused into a rock-like mass ranging in size from about six inches to nearly two feet across. Illinois was an important source of soft coal. Mineable beds of it, sometimes fifteen feet thick, underlie about two-thirds of the state. A government surveyor working west of Peoria found a bed of it as early as 1817. Within five years, boatloads of Peoria area coal were being shipped to New Orleans. By 1823, St. Louis was using coal from the bluffs back of the American Bottom; and coal would be one of the crucial aspects of development of Chicago. Illinois coal also spurred the development of railroads. Trains ran on wood in their early days; coal changed all that. A railroad could both burn and transport coal; and railroads like the Illinois Central--the state's first big railroad--began leasing mining rights along their rights-of-way. Mines were sunk in both Stark and Knox counties along the early Burlington Route.

The availability of soft coal led to its use as the main fuel of the Midwest. Cleaner-burning anthracite was available east of the Alleghenies; but shipping it increased the cost. As a result, we burned bituminous, which produced dirty, sulfurous smoke and clinkers. Handling clinkers was a twice-a-day job. The last thing at night and the first thing in the morning, you worked on your furnace. Some clinkers might retain enough fuel for re-ignition if broken up. To do this, you used a long iron pike, being careful not to pierce the furnace wall. The absolutely dead clinkers would have to be removed. For this, you had a three-pronged claw. These implements hung on the wall near the furnace. Also nearby was a large galvanized tub to hold the hot clinkers and irritating ash the soft coal produced. The latter was removed with your regular coal shovel.

The coal still burning inside the furnace was then spread out and new coal laid over it to produce a good fire for the day--or banked to provide a slower, longer-lasting fire all night. Once the clinkers and ash in the tub cooled, they were carried out to a cinder pile near your property line. The autumn rains and frost would usually break the clinkers into cinders which could be spread on your sidewalks when the winter snows or freezing rains arrived. Often it was the job of the sons in the family to carry the clinkers and assist their decomposition with a shovel.

Because most of the industries in a town like Galesburg also used soft coal, there were plenty of cinders to spread on city streets at intersections. By the time the snow melted, curbs nearby were be clogged with fine, powdery cinder ash--hard on the eyes and lungs.

Eventually, rain would wash them into the sewers, and in spring, Cedar Fork would be gray with the stuff. I was too small to carry a bucket of clinkers, cinders and ash to the cinder pile--but Dad got them there; and it was my job to break them up into pieces usable on our walks and driveway. In summer, the cinder pile was a place to play with my toy soldiers and toy trucks and tractors. Later, we Blaine Avenue Bulldogs would use coal ash to coat the basketball court we built in Rex Dobey's back yard to give it an all-year surface. In our prime years there, none of us had real fingerprints because the grit rubbed them away. Do I miss clinkers and cinders? No way. They're part of the past--like buggy whips and chamber pots. And while I remember them, it's not with any kind of nostalgia. Good-bye and good riddance to them--and the soft coal which begrimed my boyhood.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website February 5, 2003

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