Of horses and coal

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Ray­mond Male­witz

In March, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump vowed that he would put an end to what he char­ac­ter­ized as the “war on coal” by rolling back Oba­maera reg­u­la­tions on the in­dus­try. He blithely as­sured his au­di­ence that such changes would present no prob­lems for the health and safety of the coun­try: “We’re go­ing to have clean coal, re­ally clean coal . . . And we’re go­ing to have safety, we’re go­ing to have clean wa­ter, and we’re go­ing to have clean air.”

This pledge, how­ever, de­pends upon a du­bi­ous premise. For car­bon-based power sources to be­come “clean,” their gaseous waste prod­uct, car­bon diox­ide, must be cap­tured and stored cheaply, safely and per­ma­nently. This is an enor­mous, dif­fi­cult, po­lit­i­cally fraught task — one with­out prece­dent in the mod­ern era.

In­deed, the last time Amer­i­cans con­fronted a sim­i­lar chal­lenge of large-scale en­ergy waste man­age­ment, they rethought their en­tire trans­porta­tion sys­tem to avoid deal­ing with it. Amer­i­cans gave up on horse­power — the en­ergy source that pro­pelled 19th-cen­tury travel — be­cause it is far eas­ier to de­com­mis­sion dirty power sources than to clean up af­ter them, some­thing Pres­i­dent Trump would be wise to keep in mind.

Pop­u­lar his­tory frames the 19th cen­tury as the era of steam power. But dur­ing this pe­riod, North Amer­i­can cities ac­tu­ally re­lied al­most ex­clu­sively upon horses to move peo­ple and freight from place to place. For this rea­son, equine pop­u­la­tions could ex­ceed 600 per square mile in large cities, lead­ing to streets strewn with urine, ex­cre­ment and the car­casses of aban­doned horses – over a thou­sand of which died an­nu­ally in New York City alone dur­ing the 1870s.

Amer­i­can ef­forts to store horse waste on a mam­moth scale were dis­or­ga­nized and dan­ger­ous. Cities paid “dirt carters” — mostly new im­mi­grants — to trans­port horse car­casses and ma­nure to garbage dumps, where they were pro­cessed into fer­til­izer. But this work was ex­pen­sive and in­ef­fi­cient, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the cheap com­mer­cial­iza­tion of chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers made such pro­cess­ing un­prof­itable. Faced with such in­aus­pi­cious head winds, busi­nesses and cities of­ten sim­ply left horses and their ma­nure on the streets.

Snarky 19th-cen­tury com­men­tary pro­vides rich, if un­pleas­ant, ac­counts of this man­ner of waste dis­posal. One pa­per in Fort Worth, re­ported that the buildup of 25 years worth of horse ex­cre­ment in city thor­ough­fares meant that “when these streets are dry­ing up, there is a sick­en­ing smell, which in­vari­ably brings on ty­phoid fever and diph­the­ria.”

This claim of ad­verse health ef­fects was far from hy­per­bolic. A 1909 Bu­reau of La­bor re­port re­vealed that work­ers in the horse­power in­dus­try suf­fered dis­pro­por­tion­ately from lung dis­eases such as con­sump­tion (what we now call tu­ber­cu­lo­sis) and asthma. These ill­nesses caused 25 per­cent of all deaths in the four key horse­power oc­cu­pa­tions — nearly dou­ble the rate of the nor­mal pop­u­la­tion.

Sick work­ers were one thing, but when the horses them­selves fell ill, it could par­a­lyze com­merce and

snarl travel. A lit­tle less than 150 years ago, what came to be known as the “Great Epi­zootic” (epi­zootic be­ing a wide­spread an­i­mal dis­ease) shut down trans­porta­tion net­works across North Amer­ica. Ini­tially, the need for con­tin­u­ous city tran­sit op­tions forced many sick horses into ser­vice, but when these ex­hausted an­i­mals be­gan to die, wagon and om­nibus own­ers sus­pended their work. Des­per­ate for an al­ter­na­tive power source, busi­nesses scram­bled to en­list teams of oxen, bulls and even hu­man work­ers to pull om­nibuses and wag­ons around cities.

Cou­pled with the ris­ing hu­man health cri­sis gen­er­ated by horse­power, the “Great Epi­zootic” sparked wide­spread de­bate con­cern­ing its ter­ri­ble costs. As The New York Times re­ported on Nov. 1, 1872: “What will be the ef­fect of even a tem­po­rary with­drawal of the horse­power from the na­tion is a se­ri­ous ques­tion to con­tem­plate.” Be­cause horses were nec­es­sary to trans­port coal to lo­co­mo­tives and farm pro­duce to cities, the pa­per feared that “anic will seize the com­mu­nity.”

De­bates about the eco­nomic and epi­demi­o­log­i­cal dan­gers of the “Great Epi­zootic” sug­gest that it slowly, but in­ex­orably, cat­alyzed re­think­ing the Amer­i­can trans­porta­tion sys­tem so that it pro­duced fewer waste man­age­ment prob­lems. On Oct. 31, 1872, the ed­i­tors of The Na­tion wrote that “in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial de­pen­dence on the horse” had been so nat­u­ral­ized that “lit­tle or no thought ha been be­stowed on its dan­gers.” They there­fore sug­gested that “we ought to be thank­ful that the present epi­demic has brought us face to face with the star­tling fact, that the sud­den loss of horse la­bor would to­tally dis­or­ga­nize our in­dus­try and our com­merce, . . . would plunge so­cial life into dis­or­der, would threaten the lives of hun­dreds of thou­sands of hu­man be­ings.”

A few decades later, al­ter­na­tives to horse­power emerged and were quickly adopted, end­ing this per­ilous over-re­liance on one en­ergy source. The shift to re­li­able steam-driven cable cars, elec­tric trol­leys, elec­tric sub­way sys­tems and gaso­line-driven au­to­mo­biles had be­gun, lead­ing to steep de­clines in the em­ploy­ment of an­i­mal driv­ers and the con­ver­sion of most sta­bles into garages.

In the 21st cen­tury, the tan­gi­ble waste prod­ucts of a horse-pow­ered trans­porta­tion sys­tem have dis­ap­peared from our streets. But the prob­lems of en­ergy waste stor­age con­tinue as we con­front the chal­lenge of how to make coal clean. How we power not only our cars but also, in the case of coal, our homes and busi­nesses pro­duces thou­sands of met­ric tons of car­bon diox­ide ev­ery year.

A year af­ter the “Great Epi­zootic,” a New York Her­ald ed­i­to­rial com­plained that the streets of the city were “so deeply cov­ered with a com­post of ashes, garbage, ma­nure, and other de­cay­ing an­i­mal mat­ter that the ques­tion will not be, can we pur­sue our or­di­nary vo­ca­tions? but, can we live?” As we con­sider Pres­i­dent Trump’s plans to ex­pand “clean” coal and to roll back fuel econ­omy stan­dards for au­to­mo­biles, the ques­tions posed in the ed­i­to­rial re­main: Can we not only work but also live in an en­vi­ron­ment suf­fused with the waste prod­ucts of dirty en­ergy? And if we can­not, should we go about try­ing to store our waste or should we in­stead re­tire coal as we once re­tired horses for the ben­e­fit of our­selves and our planet? Ray­mond Male­witz di­rects the grad­u­ate pro­gram in the School of Writ­ing, Literature, and Film at Ore­gon State Univer­sity.

Photo cour­tesy Den­ver Pub­lic Li­brary Western His­tory/ge­neal­ogy De­part­ment

A horse pulls the Cher­re­lyn Grav­ity and Bron­cho Street Rail­way horse car in Den­ver in this photo taken be­tween 1905 and 1910.

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