What a 70th Street coal hole cover has to say

New York streets are still dotted with 19th century manhole covers—decorative, sometimes artistic portals that lead to the gritty underground city of electrical wires, gas lines, and water pipes.

But you’re less likely to stumble upon coal hole covers. By popping the lid, a coal delivery company could easily get coal for heating into the basement of a home, then be on its way to the next house on the block.

This cover, by the former M.J. Dempsey Iron Foundry in the far West 50s on 11th Avenue, is embedded into the sidewalk on East 70th Street, a pristine monument to Manhattan’s departed foundries and how houses were heated before steam.

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13 Responses to “What a 70th Street coal hole cover has to say”

  1. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    Curious what a new one must look like, must be very bland.

  2. What a 70th Street coal hole cover has to say | News for New Yorkers Says:

    […] Source: FS – NYC Real Estate What a 70th Street coal hole cover has to say […]

  3. Nancy Anderson Says:

    Love the post, but note, coal was not replaced by steam. For many years, Con Ed steam for heating buildings was created by burning coal as a by product of generating electricity. Also, Con Ed steam only reached relatively limited parts of Manhattan. For the rest of the borough + NYC, coal powered heating furnaces for decades — although that’s long gone now. Would love to see Ephemera NY honor today’s most climate friendly buildings!

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you for clarifying! I do recall hearing about some public schools that were still using coal in the 1990s.

  5. Henry Gifford Says:

    There was a time when coal was burned in stoves in apartments, which is why so many tenements have “fireplaces” in many rooms. Really, those were places for a small stove to be installed – the fire wasn’t built on the floor. Many more rooms have plugged-up chimney connections from stoves that had legs.
    But the building owner didn’t buy coal for the tenants. The coal dumped into basements was used to fire central water heaters first,(the reason why many older buildings from the 1800s have chimneys that are too small for a heating boiler) then later it was used to fire steam boilers that made steam that was piped to each room.
    Furnaces, which blow hot air around a building with ducts, have never caught on in NYC apartment houses.
    Yes, when the huddling masses described on The Statue of Liberty escaped from the kings in Europe, a few NYC buildings had steam from the city steam grid of underground pipes described above (pre-dates electricity) but many more had steam heat in each room while the kings still had a coal stove in each room of the castle.

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks for this information, Henry. How New Yorkers kept warm over the centuries is a fascinating idea for a future post in a cooler time of the year.

  7. Bill Wolfe Says:

    My family’s home in northeast Ohio, built around 1959, had small windows at the top of the basement wall which opened outward at a slanting angle. These were used to dump coal down into the basement to be burned in the original furnace. Thankfully, that was soon replaced by a gas burning furnace. I hate to imagine my father wrestling with a coal furnace!

  8. Richard Kenyon Says:

    At the turn of the last century, the house I grew up in Kearny, N.J. and one to the east of it were identical twins, with both having a coal fired furnace in the basement, with wooden bins for coal storage. These bins could hold two to three tons of coal each. The furnaces did not have blowers to move the heated air around, it moved strictly by convection, so the upper floors were the warmest. My parents had the old furnace replaced with a coal burning, steam generating unit into which I shoveled many a ton of coal, then removed the ashes, which we kept for traction when it snowed. Our house had a driveway on one side, so the coal truck could dump directly thru a tiny hinged window into the bins, but the next door house had to have the coal men fill up a huge canvas bucket from their truck and lug it to the window where they dumped it onto a slide they brought with them. Due to the war rationing, we could never get all the coal we wanted, so the job of keeping the house warm with as little coal usage fell to me, providing me with lots of opportunities to chastise my older siblings when I caught them leaving doors or windows open for longer than I deemed necessary

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you Richard for sharing this…most of us have no idea what it was like to depend on coal, and also do without so many things during WWII rationing.

  9. bo Says:

    The link below has more information on the M. J. Dempsey Iron Foundry and where other Dempsey coal hole covers can be found:

  10. The "We Can't Stop The Ratpocalypse or Rising Sea Levels" Edition Says:

    […] steam, NYC homes were heated with coal. If you look carefully on some sidewalks you can still find “coal holes,” which allowed for easy delivery. (Ephemeral New […]

  11. David H Lippman Says:

    Wow….great cover. Anybody know what happened to this company?

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