Visiting the South Jersey beach this summer, my son and I came across an occasional piece of coal in the sand. In all, we saw about 10-15 pieces. It looked like normal nut-sized anthracite except it lacked the usual very sharp edges, presumably from having spent some time eroding in the ocean—but not so much time that it was smooth or flat like a river rock or small beach stone. We were curious about the source of this coal, and I saved a few pieces to burn this fall. I figured it was probably bituminous but, upon burning, it behaved exactly like anthracite—except that it burned with a green flame. (I suppose this is from having absorbed salt from the ocean.) I have a few pounds of bituminous lying around and, for comparison, burned a small piece of bit at the same time. The beach coal burned nothing like it, with the bit almost immediately igniting with a tall, yellow, sooty flame, and the beach coal igniting more slowly with a smaller and gentler flame typical of anthracite.
I’ve been researching “sea coal” in recent days and thought I’d pass on what I found. Although the ancient Romans mined coal in the British Isles from about 50-400 A.D., coal mining there stopped for nearly 1000 years thereafter. But naturally-occurring coal was plentiful on the beaches and was used in the Dark and Middle Ages in the British Isles. Charcoal, made from wood, was used in metallurgy but with deforestation there, people turned to coal for metallurgy and heating. The term ‘sea-coal’ (or ‘secol’ or ‘sacolle’) was used to differentiate real coal from charcoal, as being that coal which comes from the sea. Sea coal was collected on the beaches in the northern Isles and transported by ship to coastal cities in the South. In fact, sea coal was brought to an area in London still known as Seacoal Lane.
Here is a YouTube documentary of the “last” sea coal collector in England, filmed in 2006:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02AzWORkMBM
This coal is almost certainly bituminous (or even lower rank), judging by the ease with which it was burned in fireplaces, and judging from the dark smoke emanating from the chimney of this collector’s mobile home stove (apparently no laws there against having a coal stove in a mobile home!).
Here are some fine reminiscences of an old Scotsman collecting and burning sea coal as a teen:http://home.bendbroadband.com/scottishh ... acoal.html
Here is a picture of seacoal being loaded into a fireplace:http://www.google.com/imgres?q=sea-coal&um=1&hl=en&safe=off&rlz=1R2TSHA_enUS335&biw=1280&bih=603&tbm=isch&tbnid=ntaIOQvulTmJOM:&imgrefurl=http://withinthewalledgarden.blogspot.com/2010/11/sea-coalfree-coal.html&docid=ezQwMcm3nOkfWM&imgurl=http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_NY-izSdO12U/TM8UgY22HVI/AAAAAAAABQo/MGjRZWXBW-U/s1600/001.JPG&w=1594&h=1600&ei=GryoTteHNajf0QHfuYyJDg&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=1009&vpy=258&dur=141&hovh=225&hovw=224&tx=130&ty=149&sig=103233334001376400297&page=2&tbnh=114&tbnw=125&start=18&ndsp=19&ved=1t:429,r:5,s:18
The YouTube collector’s source of coal appears to be refuse from a local mine that was disposed of in the ocean, but clearly there are natural sources of sea coal having nothing to do with human activity: sea coal was plentiful in England before mining resumed, and was also plentiful on some Long Island, NY beaches, in the 1600’s, well before any mining occurred in North America. There are known exposed coal seams undersea, and at least near some land masses these are/were mined undersea, such as in Nova Scotia (http://www.ccgs.ednet.ns.ca/cumb/joggins.htm
) and the British Isles (http://www.maden.org.tr/resimler/ekler/2b15c75c0c389b4_ek.pdf
). These exposed undersea seams are likely the source of traditional sea coal, but I don’t think that exposed coal seams are the source of my Jersey “sea coal”, for several reasons:
1) Unlike other areas with a lot of sea coal, like Great Britain, where there are also visible coal seams in cliffs along the sea and it would thus be easy to imagine similar veins extending out into the ocean, New Jersey land has no significant coal deposits.
2) There was far too little erosion of my beach coal to have a natural ocean origin, given the large ocean distances these pieces of coal must have traversed to get to South Jersey.
The same observed lack of much erosion would also seem to rule out two other sources: accidental natural (or as a result of mining activities) coal transport down anthracite region rivers/canals (Schuykill, Lehigh) into the Delaware River and then into the Bay. If my coal had spent any significant amount of time in the water, I’d expect that it would have had more erosion/smoothing. Similarly, if that coal had gone overboard from a ship many decades ago, I’d likewise expect more erosion/smoothing of the surface over the years.
With the stories/rumors of the Chinese importing large quantities of Pennsylvania anthracite, I suppose it’s possible that there is a recent ocean shipping source of my beach coal.
However, despite my long and interesting detour into the history of sea coal, I think the likeliest explanation is that the source is ash disposal—perhaps from a local cache of ash from hard coal burning, maybe many decades old, that ultimately washed into the ocean from a recent storm. Much less dramatic than real sea coal, but nonetheless interesting to ponder the origin of my beach coal.