Notes from the Field: Tom Leytham Documents Coal Bunkers in Watercolor

12 Jun 2021 10:05 AM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

While researching structures to document for a show of watercolors celebrating the 200th anniversary of the construction of the Erie Canal, I discovered a building in Whitehall, N.Y. that I could not identify.  I asked the historian of the Erie Canal National Historic Corridor and he said – “It is a coal bunker.”

Initial internet references were directions to build coal bunkers for my electric train set. From further investigation, I learned that in the 19th and early 20th century coal bunkers were located on banks along the canals and beside railroads as storage and distribution depots.  The companies also stored, shipped or sold two other major commodities-- ice and grain.  A few of these large-scale, remnant vernacular buildings still dot the landscape.

The typical structure (Randolph Coal and Ice, Vermont, and West Seneca Coal and Ice, New York) was a silo built like a barrel with iron bands holding the wooden staves together.  In Whitehall, the iron bands were made of large timbers creating a compression ring – spaced closer at the bottom.  (The ice department was in an attached, thick-walled structure insulated with sawdust and capped with more sawdust.)

A conveyor from the canal boats or railroad cars loaded the coal into the silos.  Horse-drawn carts—and later trucks-- entered under the silo where chutes dumped the coal into the delivery vehicles.  The Brown Brothers Coal and Ice structure in Little Falls, N.Y. put the rail cars on top of the coal bunker and vertically integrated their facility – cutting down on the amount of handling of the coal by using gravity.

My investigation inspired me to paint several of these disappearing historic structures…since documenting the Randolph Coal and Ice Coal bunker, it has been torn down for parking.

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