The Coal Shortage and WWI: How Clark County Fueled the War and its Homes in the Winter of 1918

By Sherri Goudy

As we in Ohio are experiencing a more severe winter than in recent years as well as government policy as it relates to energy and coal, it is easy to imagine these same conditions 100 years ago. The winter of 1917-1918 was severe, with blizzard conditions and extreme cold hitting Ohio and other parts of the US.  Homes, schools, businesses, and industries producing goods for war required coal for heat and energy, but a coal shortage made this resource a scarcity.  There was plenty of coal being mined, in fact Ohio saw its greatest level of coal mining during 1918, but railroads and ships carrying this resource were backed up dues to poor regulations, traffic jams in the railyards on the east coast, and frozen waterways. This was the beginning of a major crisis for the United States.

To combat these issues, 2 government administrations were formed.  In order to deal with the problems of the coal shortage, the Fuel Administration was created and headed by Harry Garfield, son of President James Garfield.   Since transporting these commodities was a significant part of the crisis, it was decided that the US should nationalize the railroad and control the railways. The Railroad Administration was created and led by the Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, who also happened to be President Wilson’s son-in-law. The goal of this administration was to clear up the congestion of the railway networks and get war goods and coal moving across the nation again.

Clark County experienced this crisis as hard as any city in America.  Headlines throughout the first few weeks of the new year were filled with news about the coal shortage, especially its impact on the schools.   This headline from January 1, 1918 read “Public Schools Will Not Open – Coal Does Not Arrive and Sessions Will Not Be Resumed.”

Photo 1 Jan 1 1918 pg 2

On that same date, another headline informed readers that the railroads were working diligently to free up the congested lines, but that passengers would have to forego their planned schedules to prioritize transportation of coal and other exported freight.

Photo 2 Jan 1 1918 pg 2

The lack of coal in Springfield, the surplus of coal in the northwest, and the congestion of the railways to transport it to places like Ohio gave way to heated debates and a general unpopular feeling towards the Fuel Administration.  Back to back days in the Springfield Daily News, articles were published blaming Garfield for the shortage.

Photo 3 Jan 9 1918 front

Even Ohio Governor James Cox was playing the blame game, arguing the delay in troop movement and supplies for American troops in France was because of Garfield’s inability to lead.  But in that same article, McAdoo and the Railroad Administration were hailed as heroes to “attend to” the situation and “keep [Garfield] out of the coal business.”

Photo 4 Jan 4 1918 front

Photo 5 Jan 4 1918 pg 3 cont from front

With McAdoo handling the railway situation, Garfield turned his attention to maximizing the coal already on hand.  The first plan was to close factories east of the Mississippi for certain periods, especially those industries not deemed “necessary.” Although during wartime, munitions factories and other facilities were closed for a period of 5 days in January 1918.  Only factories producing food and those requiring continuous operation were exempt from the order.

Photo 6 Jan 17 1918 front

At the same time, passenger trains continued to be annulled, including those in Columbus and Dayton, to make way for coal and other needed supplies in this part of the country.

Photo 7 Jan 10 1918 pg 16

The “coal famine” was taking its toll for both home life and with the war effort, but Garfield’s plan for closing factories was extremely unpopular. This political cartoon published in the Springfield Daily News on January 19, 1918 speaks for itself; the “Grim Dictator” called “Necessity” required a 5-day shut down in order to fill the empty coal bucket.

Photo 8 Jan 19 1918 pg 4

Yet another image on the front page of the Springfield paper showed Garfield seated and signing an order, while a crowd of “out-of-work” industrial laborers stand outside of a building.  Below, is another image of soldiers in France.  The headline read “This Man Throws These Workers Out of Work to Aid These Soldiers.” While the American people did support the war effort and wanted to ensure troops had the supplies they needed, citizens did not favor the sacrifice of being out of work.

Photo 9 Jan 20 1918 front

The opposition to the factory shutdowns was quickly replaced with a new plan that prioritize how the coal would be delivered from the west to the homes, factories, and waiting barges in New York Harbor to haul freight to the allies fighting in Europe.

Photo 10 Jan 15 1918 front

As mid-January approached and yet another cold front loomed, local industries went back to work and national “heatless Monday” was observed.

Photo 11 Jan 21 1918 front

Springfield, and the rest of the nation, continued to feel the stress of the coal shortage.  Garfield began to advocate for Daylight Savings Time, which would reduce energy consumption by scheduling more activities while the sun was shining.

Photo 12 Jan 11 1918 pg 7

DST was already in effect in Europe when the US finally passed legislation in March 18, 1918.  The next month, on April 1, the clocks would be set forward until October.

Photo 13 March 19 1918 front

This was the first of several times DST (also called “war time”) would be enacted.  It was unpopular and after the end of WWI it was repealed, then reinstated for WWII and then again in the 1960s, and finally the 1980s.  It has a long, confusing, and inconsistent history, being changed most recently in 2007.

Springfield and the nation survived the coal shortage, and although it was a critically harsh time in our nation’s history, development of railroad regulations and energy savings initiatives began out of this crisis.

Please let us know what you think!  Share your thoughts and ideas for upcoming blogs as we continue to explore Clark County during the Great War.