The History of Wood and Coal in Industrial Transport

Prior to the easy availability of coal, rail and ship transport in North America was powered largely by chopped wood. Up until 1870 most railway locomotives in the United States ran on wood. Sternwheelers also ran on wood when and where coal was not (yet) available. Sternwheelers on Kootenay lake for instance, burned wood until the B.C. Southern Railway was extended to Kootenay Landing, connecting the lake with the coalfields of Crowsnest Pass. The 19th century consumption of wood by steamboat was described vividly by Basil Hall in his 1828 “Travels in North America”:

“As the steam-boats on this river [the Mississippi], and indeed all over America, burn nothing but wood, and as their engines are mostly high pressure, the consumption of this bulky description of fuel is so considerable, that they are obliged to call at least twice a day at the wooding stations on the banks of the stream. The Philelphia [a sternwheeler] used about a cord of wood an hour, or 128 cubic feet. A cord consists of a pile eight feet long by four high, and four in thickness, each billet being four feet in length. Sometimes, when we were pushing hard, we burnt 30 cords in a day.” (Vol. 3 page 348)

At this rate of wood consumption, one can imagine that the impact on the forest by even one sternwheeler would be obvious to passengers. John H. White’s book on 19th century American Railroading cites a peak wood consumption by U.S. railroads of 3.6 million cords per year.  Using the average “one cord per acre per year” rule, sustainable production of that amount of fuel would require more than 14 thousand square kilometres of forest. At a time when America had only 30,000 miles of trackage, whereas the current U.S. trackage is over 230,000 miles. Tonnage shipped has likely increased by a much greater ratio than that due to the increases in the power, weight and frequency of freight trains. Suffice it to say, it is unlikely that it would be possible to run the contemporary American rail network on wood powered steam locomotives today. In fact, we can probably attribute the continued growth of rail in the 19th century after the 1860s to developments in coal extraction – by 1880 trackage had increased to 90 thousand miles, while consumption of wood was cut to a third of the 1860s numbers.

The bitter truth, however, is that while superficially the forest powered infrastructure was much more environmentally destructive than the current coal and oil powered fleet,  the current system is  in reality worse by an order of magnitude. Deforestation is a real problem, but forests can grow back in the matter of a few generations, or at worst, centuries. Deforestation alone likely can not cause run away climate change. On the other hand, while the carbon spilled into the atmosphere by coal and oil based transportation systems has no obvious immediate effect,  in the medium to long term it has the disastrous effects of climate change, and if not mitigated, run-away climate change.

The implication of this contrast to me is the following: environmentalism as appreciation for our life-world in lived experience is insufficient for the problem of fossil fuel caused climate change. If all U.S. forests had been cut down to run trains, this would be an environmental disaster – but one which would likely precipitate a populist environmental response out of people’s experience of seeing the forests retreat. Analogous experiences of climate change are comparatively rare and murky (i.e. observations of glacier retreat), and have not yet been sufficient to garner the political will necessary to stop climate change. The connection between an engine spewing CO2 and a retreating glacier is infinitely less obvious than the connection between a chugging train and a retreating forest.

27 thoughts on “The History of Wood and Coal in Industrial Transport

  1. Milan

    Trains and coal have a deep historical relationship. The expansion of the rail network in England allowed for more coal to be transported. Meanwhile, the availability of coal spurred iron production, which in turn allowed railroad construction.

    Coal use, iron production, and railroad development all went hand-in-hand with one another, and accelerated together.

  2. Milan

    Oh, and the steam engine didn’t just power locomotives and factories. One major use was for draining water out of coal mines. Indeed, that is what James Watt initially built them for.

  3. Tristan Post author

    “Coal use, iron production, and railroad development all went hand-in-hand with one another, and accelerated together.”

    In England, sure. And in America after the 1860s. My point is that in North America there was a period where wood dominated as the transportation fuel source because of its easy availability – and that it’s exploitation would have been immediately visible, and obviously limited (depending on region of course – isn’t it crazy that the Moyie was still burning wood in 1957?!) Coal, on the other hand, has its environmental impacts hidden both underground and in the sky.

    My point is roughly the same as one I believe Milan has made before – that without non-renewables, the industrial revolutionizing process would have looked very different. My more specific point in this post is that we would have come to terms with the real scale of devastation we created much more quickly.

  4. Tristan Post author

    “The Philelphia [a sternwheeler] used about a cord of wood an hour”

    A cord of wood – per hour! That means you need an acre of wood for every hour of the year you want to run the thing. If it ran an average of 12 hours per day, it would require over 6 square miles of wood to run it sustainably. In the highly populated midwest, it’s easy to see how this consumption would get out of control.

    On the other hand, these calculations show that in relatively unpopulated regions, a wood powered sternwheeler would not pose a problem for the environment. Take the Moyie for instance – if she were the only, or one of only a few sternwheelers working the large West Kootenays, it might be very possible to devote enough forest specifically to sternwheeler fuel production to run it sustainably.

  5. Milan

    All this points to the broader problems that worry neo-Malthusians.

    It may be that fossil fuels provided the energy for a massive one-off spurt in human population and biophysical activity. When they run out (or we choose to stop using them), it may be impossible to sustain humanity at the density it has established for itself.

    Contrarywise, it could be that the barriers to a renewably based society can be overcome, and we will have all the energy we need forever (without the toxins and other problems with fossil fuels).

  6. Tristan Post author

    The real question, to me, is always “what is humanity for”? To dismiss this as a category error (there is no “for which” outside of humanity, so it can’t have a purpose) ignores that purposes can be inherent to practices. I.e. baseball can have a purpose without looking outside the game itself (although any form of life which has an outside can always have external purposes of that sort as well).

    I think the purpose of humanity is expressed best by thinkers like Rousseau, or better Marx and Rawls (who does not actually dismiss Marx, if you check the text) – who tell a kind of story where being a serious moral person in a society means (or requires) having society set up in a such a way to give everyone a fair shake at life. This is the reason why I think global warming mitigation is required – because otherwise we are not giving future generations a fair shake.

    At the same time, future generations are only quantitatively, not qualitatively, more valuable than the groups shit out by our current political apparatuses, who are not given a fair shake now – either by poverty, racial exclusion, class war, or as in the case of the Indian Act and Residential School program (which continues in the form of child services removing far more first nations children from homes now than the rez schools ever did), genocide.

    So, sure, we need to switch to renewables – but not for a different reason than we need to stop committing genocide, having structurally re-enforced poverty, etc… The extent to which we should concentrate on these various issues is limited by our finitude, but the important thing is the same value motivates the need for change in the different cases.

  7. oleh


    I have enjoyed following your entries regarding trains as above and in the Northern Song. Do you see a renewable fuel for the running of trains? What about nuclear powered trains?

  8. Tristan Post author

    While I’m sure Zandara will pipe in speaking the virtues of nuclear powered trains, they are simply not required. What is required is electrifying the main lines of the Canadian rail system so that it can run on any kind of renewable generation. This will not cost much more than the Olympics (7.5 billion versus 6 billion).

    I’ve written about this here:

    Non-mainline tracks can either be electrified in the long run, or run by locomotives burning bio gas, or perhaps fuel cell powered locomotives.

  9. Milan


    I expect it to be a lot easier to build a safe and reliable nuclear reactor, then transmit the electricity to trains than it is to deploy a fleet of safe fission-driven locomotives.

    Also, the same transmission system could be used for electricity from renewable options. Indeed, electricity corridors running along transcontinental train lines could be useful for integrating wind and geothermal projects in areas that are otherwise remote.

  10. .

    “Visitors to the British Museum’s Montezuma exhibition are being vividly reminded what happens when you put too much strain on the ecosystem. The city of Teotihuacan had a population of 200,000 in the seventh century A.D. and then, quite suddenly, it collapsed. The historian Tom Holland, author of “Millenium”, came away from the exhibition shivering with “a sense of unexpected kinship”. The Aztecs had lost touch with some basic geographical facts and their needs had outstripped the natural resources that were available. “Are we in the West,” he asks, “the Aztecs of our time?” It’s one reason why the geography department has become the most compelling one on the campus. Geography is the new history. We’re living it now.”

    -Robert Butler

  11. Sarah

    This is a bit nitpicky, but deforestation is rather more complex than you suggest. One an area is deforested there can be other changes, including shifts in the soil composition (including nutrients and micro-organisms), invasive species takeover, erosion of soil, increased salinity (especially if the area is being irrigated for agriculture) and changing weather patterns, which mean that the area cannot be immediately reforested by the same types of trees & possibly not at all. IMHO the risks of deforestation are still being under-estimated by the general public.

  12. Tristan


    Is the rule of thumb correct for ares not being used for agriculture?

    And also, who said anything about “deforested” – what I said was people often say a rule of thumb is an acre can produce an cord per year sustainably – that means the acre is not “deforested” but a cord of wood is cut out of it every year. If it were deforested, it’s obvious that no wood (or close to none) could be harvested the following year.

  13. Sarah

    I was responding to Milan’s claim that: “Deforestation is a real problem, but forests can grow back in the matter of a few generations, or at worst, centuries” which substantially understates the long-term risks of deforestation in my view. I don’t know enough about how ‘sustainable’ forestry would be practiced to comment on whether it is possible to eliminate all the problems of deforestation in terms of soil erosion, soil content, invasive species etc. However, what I gather from folks studying forestry & biology is that sustainability of forests is much more complex than matching the rate at which one cuts down trees to the rate at which trees grow. I’ve been told by friends in forestry that claims about the sustainability of forests are quite often misleading, not least because there is so much we don’t yet understand about microorganisms in soil & their role in tree growth.

  14. Tristan

    That was my claim actually.

    Fair enough, I may have underestimated the dangers of de-forestation. How about “at worst, millennia”? It’s still significantly better than what burning fossil fuels might (probably) do to our habitat.

  15. Milan

    I was responding to Milan’s claim that: “Deforestation is a real problem, but forests can grow back in the matter of a few generations, or at worst, centuries” which substantially understates the long-term risks of deforestation in my view.

    Not my claim. This is a group blog, and contributors are responsible for their contributions.

  16. Milan

    Like other highly complex ecosystems, forests that are destroyed may well never come back as they were before. Topsoil is lost, along with the unicellular and fungal organisms that inhabit it.

    Just relationships between trees and mycorrhizal fungi can take centuries to be established.

    That said, forest ecosystems that hold as much carbon as the forests that came before might emerge in many circumstances in the course of hundreds or thousands of years.

  17. Sarah

    Ah, sorry, I should pay more attention to the poster.

    I think even saying “millenia” misrepresents the situation – sometimes areas that were forested are quickly and permanently degraded to the point where you can’t grow trees on them again because the topsoil is lost and/or the cycling of water inland changes, rainfall stops & they become deserts. In other cases the micro-organisms needed for trees to grow are lost when you cut the trees down, although there is ongoing research about how to deal with that (e.g. by planting transitional plant species that alter the soil composition such that trees will later be able to grow there again). There are moorland areas in the UK that used to be forests and now have no trees, even though they aren’t developed or farmed, because the ecosystem was permanently changed by cutting the trees down.

  18. Tristan Post author

    Look, my point is not that deforestation is not nasty. My point is that at least some of the devastation of deforestation is much more obvious than the effects of coal – despite the fact that man made climate change could hurt our habitat a lot more than deforestation. There is then the somewhat separate Malthusian issue that without fossil fuels, we simply would not have developed as quickly as we have.

  19. Peter Laing

    The Moyie and most of the other CPR sternwheelers burnt Crowsnest coal, not wood. I suspect that she and others in the CPR’s lake service were converted to oil later in their careers.

  20. Tristan Post author

    Also from virtualmuseum:

    “The first sternwheeler, the SS Nelson, was built in Nelson in 1891 and like the other vessels on the lake at that time; its boilers were fired with wood heat. Vessels at this time were usually laden with cords of wood on their bow, allowing for easy access by the deckhands. Following the completion in 1898 of the BC Southern Railway to Kootenay Landing from the East, coal from the Crowsnest Pass became available. From that point on, the steam-powered vessels on Kootenay Lake no longer used wood.”

  21. Milan

    The truly sustainable forestry option is to abandon clearcutting entirely. Instead, you can do what Merve Wilkinson does and sustain a forest with a mix of tree types. Every year, you cut down a number of scattered mature trees, at a rate equal to the rate at which mature trees are forming.

    Of course, getting enough wood to power ships or trains this way would require a lot of land.

  22. Tristan

    It might be more feasible than we think. The ACE 3000 steam engine reportedly might have achieved 15-18% efficiency, compared to 7% efficiency of steam locomotives when they were in use. There is no obvious reason to dismiss the idea that steam engines could be made more efficient – insulation could be employed more extensively around the boiler, and exhaust steam condensation and re-circulation, as well as perhaps double or triple expansion piston set ups, are all ways efficiency could be increased. While electric seems the much better option (existing technology), maybe bio-fuelled steam could be a sustainable option for short and branch line railways which can not be viably electrified.

    There is obviously an advantage to a locomotive that can burn fuel that does not need to be processed to the highly refined grade of diesel fuel as could run in cars – since such processing is energy intensive.

  23. Milan

    More on Merve Wilkinson:

    Merve began logging his property in 1945, cutting selectively. Since then he has logged 2.1 million board feet. There are lots of stumps, but there are also plenty of big trees. A 1996 timber cruise estimated the standing volume at 1.65 million board feet, 10 percent more than in 1938.

    He manages for a multiage, multiheight, multispecies forest—in sharp contrast to the even-age, industrial model that has prevailed in British Columbia, against which Merve is outspoken. “Rows of trees are not forests. They represent blind stupidity and a one-track mind.”

    I visited his tree farm as part of one of the LIFEboat flotillas.

  24. .

    “Coal production was by 1700 perhaps ten times greater than it had been in 1550. Coal was a critically important domestic fuel in the cities, and, with some notable exceptions, it fueled the nation’s industries as well. It is thought that England was at this time getting far more energy from coal than it could possibly have obtained from its woodlands – even if every woodland in the nation had been managed for optimum fuel production and no wood had been used for building or manufacturing.”

    Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. p.56 (hardcover)

  25. Gabriel Atega

    The writer (TRISTAN) evidently do not understand the climate function of the forest. He is misled simply by the CO2 argument. In fact, this CO2 attribution to climate change is the main reason why climate scientists are not getting it right in their conclusions. Climate has more to do with the hydrologic cycle than with the carbon cycle. To be able to really determine the impact of deforestation is to follow both the water vapor cycle and the CO2 cycles. One must realize that water vapor absorbs heat twice as much as CO2 and water vapor is some 50,000 ppm in the atmosphere as against CO2 at only 350 ppm. And gauging by the amount of snowfall and flooding that goes with storms and typhoons in recent weather events, one should suspect that the amount of vapor in the atmosphere is now much more than historically considered.

    The forests keep both water and CO2 on the ground instead of in the atmosphere.

    Anyway, If properly managed, production of biofuels and electricity from wood is indeed a better alternative with economic benefits spread out more evenly to many people.

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