Wednesday, February 2, 2011

James N. Ryan - The Life of a "Coal Passer"

Jim Ryan (standing on right)
The Department of the Navy has a website on the "Cruise of the Great White Fleet." I was surprised that the site included a great description of the role of a "coal passer."
The good times were earned by these sailors. There was the seemingly endless round of cleaning chores, watches and drills. But even for the hard-working deck force, life at sea wasn't quite so bad, not when compared to the jobs of the so-called "black gang" in the fire room below decks. At least topside, the deck force had the benefit of sunlight and breezes; below decks, the engineers' world was dominated by searing heat and coal dust.
Coal, commonly referred as "black diamonds," was the ship's sole source of power. Ships would normally go into port and take on coal every two weeks. "Coaling ship" was an all hands evolution and a dirty job. It would take several days to coal a ship. Afterward, the crew would spend several more days cleaning the ship, inside and out, fore and aft, since coal dust settled everywhere.

 Members of the "Black Gang", stoke the coal burning power plants of the Battleships of the Great White Fleet. C. 1907-1908. NH 101721.
Members of the "Black Gang", stoke the coal burning power plants of the Battleships of the Great White Fleet. C. 1907-1908. NH 101721.
A member of the "black gang" on the battleship Connecticut described coaling day. "Our ship held about 2,000 tons of the stuff. All the deckhands would go down into the collier (coal supply ship) and fill these big bags with about 500 pounds. Then they'd hoist 'em over to us down in the coal bunkers and we'd spread out the coal with shovels until all the bunkers - about 20 - were full to the top."
The Navy published a booklet called "The Making of a Man o' Warsman."  (Note cover in previous post). Each day 2 1/2 hours was devoted to practicing drills.  Drills might include signaling, collision avoidance, fire prevention, etc.  On p. 14, there is a description of the Coaling Drill.
Coaling Ship.--The most arduous work the men must perform on board a man-o -war is coaling ship. Strictly speaking, "coaling ship" is not a drill, but for convenience in explaining this work we will call it so. Lighters filled with coal are brought alongside and the men are stationed in them to fill bags, and also stationed aboard ship to receive and send the bags below, the bags being carried from barge to ship by means of electric hoists. The men of the engineer's force stow the coal in the bunkers. Signals are hoisted each hour on each ship of the fleet to show the amount of coal taken, which causes keen rivalry among the ships. Coaling is not a thing of great frequency. It may take place once a month, or once in three months, depending upon the amount of cruising the ship is doing.
This is how Jim initially made his living.  When he enlisted as an apprentice seaman, he was paid $17.60.  On January 1, 1910, Jim was promoted to Fireman, 2nd Class.  This promotion put him on a new career path with a corresponding increase in pay.  According to the manual cited above:

The fire-room force on board a man-of-war consists of chief water tenders, at $55 and $77 a month; water tenders, $44; oilers, $40.70; firemen, first-class, $38.50; firemen, second-class, $33; and coal passers, $24.20. After serving one enlistment (4 years) in any of these capacities a man may take a course at the Machinists' School, in Norfolk, as previously stated, and, if he graduates, may enter the machinists' branch, and is eligible to the promotion of a machinist's mate as explained in the previous chapter. p. 18
This promotion took place about two weeks after the fleet left on its round-the-world tour.  Two more promotions would follow.  Life had to be looking up.  In the next post, we'll discuss the third leg of the tour.

1 comment:

  1. What a great picture. You are lucky to have that little treasure.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)


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