Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Did Pelhamites Aid and Abet Coal Thievery and Black Market Coal Sales During the Early 1880s?

During the early 1880s, coal was a principal means of heating Pelham homes and providing fuel for coal burning stoves used to cook Pelham meals.  As always, the cost of living in the New York City region was high.  Thus, coal was expensive.

Each day, however, vessels laden with many tons of coals sailed and steamed along Pelham shores, mostly east-bound, headed for sale and trade in the northeast.  Often such coal-laden vessels would anchor for the night off the shores of Pelham near City Island and Hart Island.  Occasionally, such vessels would anchor in advance of a storm in the same area, seeking shelter.

Invariably in such circumstances, one or more tiny vessels would scurry out to the coal-laden vessel and tie up alongside.  A "nominal consideration" would change hands with the small vessel owner paying the captain to take on board some of the coal that was bound for delivery to its owner in the northeast.  Such tiny vessels would be loaded to the water's edge with coal -- filled with coal that would never be missed from the massive amount carried by the cargo vessel.  

Occasionally, it was thought, those in charge of the cargoes of coal were in league with the thieves and provided them with coal in amounts not likely to be missed by the owner in exchange for a cut of the money made when the coal subsequently was sold on the black market.  

Also invariably, the tiny vessels laden with stolen coal would sail to the shores of Pelham or Long Island to unload and sell the coal at prices below even wholesale prices for coal in the region.  By 1883, many in the coal business were fed up.

Coal dealers on City Island and in the Pelham region could not compete with the price of black market coal.  Moreover, given the high volume of coal shipped in vessels that stopped near City Island and Hart Island each year, by 1883 up to 400 TONS of coal was stolen in this way and resold in the Pelham and New Rochelle area as well as in communities on the opposite shores of Long Island.  Indeed, the issue became so grave that on January 12, 1883, a local newspaper published an article about the thievery, urging locals to avoid buying the stolen coal.

Sadly, there is no evidence that the practice ended. . . . 

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Below is the text of an article published on January 12, 1883 that forms the basis for today's Historic Pelham article.  It is followed by a citation and link to its source.


On Thursday evening of this week, a party of young people gave a surprise to the Misses Scofield.

The collector of taxes has given notice that he will sit to receive taxes for thirty days, from January 13th, inst., from 9 A. M. to 4 P. M., as follows:  January 13th, 20th, 27th and February 3d, at the court-house, City Island; January 18th, 25th and February 1st and 8th, at the store of Robert Scott, Bartow Station.

It is stated that from three to four hundred tons of coal are stolen, annually, from eastward bound vessels, while in the vicinity of City Island.  Complaint has been made from time to time, of the shrinkage in the weight of consignments of coal to eastern merchants.  By careful estimate, it is calculated that in some seasons, during recent years, the shrinkage has been as high as 400 tons.  In many instances, those in charge of the cargoes permit small vessels to come along side and, for a nominal consideration, the visitor is sent away loaded to the water's edge with coal, paid for by some enterprising eastern merchant.  In other instances, it is thought that those in charge of the cargoes are in league with the thieves and deal out to them, coal in such an amount as is not likely to be missed by the owner.  A large part of this business goes on while the vessels are at anchor over night, or sheltered from approaching storms.  By this practice tons and tons of coal, it is alleged, are sold along the shore, both on the Long Island and Westchester side of the Sound, as far eastward as New Rochelle, for less per ton than its first cost.  City Island coal dealers feel most keenly the effect of this business.  The great anchorage for vessels being so conveniently near at hand, a little extra precaution would in a measure, check this wholesale robbery.

A serious accident, to the occupants of one of Vickery's stages was barely averted on Wednesday last.  Owing to the extreme high tide which overflowed the road across the flat, to the depth of about two feet, the driver Phlip Flood, was obliged to make a detour to the eastward through the seldom traveled streets of the King estate.  He had barely completed the detour, when, of a sudden, with the horses on a swinging trot, horses and stage were precipitated into a hole three or four feet deep, which had been left by commissioners Cochran last summer, after taking out a rock.  The driver was thrown from his seat down into the hole, between the horses, and the single occupant of the stage was hurled with great violence against the forward part of it, sustaining severe bruises.  One of the horses was considerably cut, and the stage was badly racked [sic].

Senator Covert has already introduced his bill of last year, abolishing compulsory pilotage through Hell Gate."

Source:  CITY ISLAND, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Jan. 12, 1883, Vol. XIV, No. 695, p. 3, cols. 2-3.

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