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Bill Anderson

Well-Known Member
Back in the days of coal fired steam locomotives; some railroads, such as the Northern Pacific, owned their own coal mines. Other railroads, such as the Norfolk & Western, used coal from on-line coal mines they serviced. Both types of railroads used steam locomotives well into the diesel era due to their relatively inexpensive sources of coal.

Much of the design of a given steam locomotive model was based on the type of coal it burned. For example, the Northern Pacific used low grade Rosebud coal from its own mines in Montana. The NP's steam locomotives had very large fireboxes to compensate for the low BTU's of Rosebud coal.

So much for the long intro. Here is my question:
Did the coal burned by steam locomotives have to be processed in any way before it could fed into the firebox? Assuming it was of the proper grade for the particular engine, did the coal first have to be washed, crushed, graded, etc. Or, could it be mined and fed directly to a steam locomotive? I have never seen this topic addressed in any articles on steam locomotives.
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Possibly, if a mechanical coal feeder was used--and most large locomotives could have enormous appetites--coal had to be of a uniform size and free of debris. Material below a certain size would probably be lifted off in the draft and blown out the stack as half-burned cinders, wasting fuel and setting fires. Moisture content, as mined and exposed to rain and snow during transportation probably was an issue.

Even a hand-fired locomotive wouldn't like it if the fireman just tossed in the biggest chunks he could shovel through the door. Raising enough steam means burning fuel fast enough to meet the energy demand, so that means getting a large enough burning surface area inside the firebox to do so.

So, yeah, probably there were definite standards and processing to meet those standards. Unlike power plants, which do their own processing (coal is dried and ground to a fine powder in modern systems).


Likely made a difference where the coal came from, too. NP got most of the coal for the west end divisions from their operations in the Cle Elum/Roslyn area of Washington, which was bituminous at best. I can't imagine that it wasn't at least sorted and sized to meet their needs before being shipped to the fuel loading areas.
Interestingly, in spite of their owned mining operations, NP wasn't exactly slow about phasing out steam. (I only remember seeing one steamer in revenue service, probably in the late 1940's, as a very small boy, on the long abandoned Cowiche/Tieton branch). By the early1950's steam was a memory. Even if you essentially had free coal, the costs of maintaining and crewing coal fired engines is horrendous, and if the driverrs were not properly balanced, havoc was wreaked on the rail, too... That's why they had roundhouses every hundred miles or so.
This might come from a bit of my British rail knowledge, but the coal may have been sprayed a little with water to keep the coal dust to a minimum.


Active Member
There was a movie produced in the 1950's, commissioned by the Norfolk & Western Railway entitled The Power Behind the Nation. If you can find this on DVD, this will give a concise explanation on the mining & preparation of coal, as well as it's many uses. I was fortunate to have viewed this short after purchasing the DVD set "Railroads- Tracks Across America". It is also available for viewing on YouTube. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to - An online railroad bookstore featuring a curated selection of new and used railroad books. Railroad pictorials, railroad history, steam locomotives, passenger trains, modern railroading. Hundreds of titles available, most at discount prices! We also have a video and children's book section. - An online model railroad bookstore featuring a curated selection of new and used books. Layout design, track plans, scenery and structure building, wiring, DCC, Tinplate, Toy Trains, Price Guides and more.

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