George B. Newton Coal Company

Coal Stock Photo

801 Wright Avenue, Camden, NJ

Note: See also, “Heating your House with Coal

Of all the staple products entering into general consumption none was of greater interest or importance than coal, and in this respect nature has been especially bounteous in bestowing her gifts to the United States. Among the old-established and well-know firms in Camden engaged in this line was Newton Coal on Wright Avenue.

George B. Newton & Co, established in 1874, was an agent for the Lehigh Valley Coal Co. The trade, which was wholesale and retail, had four retail yards in different parts of Philadelphia and the shipping pier was Newton Coal located on Wright Avenue in Camden, NJ across from the Armory. It had an office in New York under the charge of Mr. Newton himself. William Hill and Frank T. Patterson became co-partners and helped conduct the business. It became a flourishing large business and was conducted with the highest integrity. It maintained a high reputation as an upright business and was considered one of Philadelphia’s leading industries.

Coalfields near Hazelton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania were tapped as anthracite coal lay close to the surface and could be mined by hand with pick and shovels. The nearby Lehigh River offered transportation downstream to the markets of New York City and Philadelphia. In the early 1800’s, coal was transported by barges and through the canals that linked the Susquehanna to the Philadelphia and Delaware area. By the end of the 19th century canal use was declining throughout the country. With the development of a good regional network of coal companies, canals and the Lehigh Valley Railroad deliveries to retail yards became much faster. The speed, power and expansion of the railroad quickly overtook the romance of the canal era.

Before and during the war, the coal deliveryman used Clydesdale horses and carts to delivery coal in the Philadelphia area. The man would arrive in a wagon with sacks of coal neatly stacked on top. He would climb onto the wagon and move the sacks to the edge ready for unloading. His face and hands would be completely black from coal dust and he wore a cap or head cloth, which hung down his back. He would grab hold of a sack at the top, turn round, bend forward and pull it onto his back. He then had to walk quite a few yards to the coal cellar, maybe down some steps and then ‘pour’ the coal out of the bag.

Coal was delivered to Newton Coal, a coal supply and delivery service, in Camden, NJ by railroad cars. The manager of Newton Coal was Newton MacNichol. He was a state certified scale master who not only managed the business but also was the only one authorized to certify truck/coal weight and stamp its authenticity for each truck delivery. Periodically scales were checked by the state of New Jersey for accuracy. The heavy weight of all railroad items, the speed of the trains, the force of coal flowing out of railroad cars created an atmosphere where all employees had to be alert at all times. Employees worked at all kinds of jobs and physical and mental skills were certainly needed.

George B. Newton was a generous employer. In the lazy days of summer he would take his employees by a special excursion train to Wildwood to celebrate in the great outdoors at the shore. There they had a day full of activities with a parade, horses, food and games.

Newton MacNichol lived in Merchantville, NJ with his wife Florence and three children. On occasion Newton would bring his sons, Burton and Newton to his office to help out. Burton recalls a childhood memory vividly in his mind of such an occasion. It was a cold winter and the coal had become frozen in the railroad cars so Burton had to climb up onto the cars, chip away at the coal until it became free and ran down the shoots into waiting trucks. Otherwise there would have been no home deliveries that day. In later years, Newton MacNichol often had his grandchildren (Judith and Suzanne MacNichol, William 5udell, Scott and Barbara MacNichol) visit the shipping pier where they have fond memories of how the coal supply business was conducted in the 40’s & 50’s, the adding machine that totaled the coal cost, and how the huge scales were operated to calculate coal weight. All things pertaining to a transaction in those days had to be written by hand in a book that handled the volume and complexity of all transactions. It described with such detail and clarity all the transactions—which was the standard system for keeping accounts at that time.

The end of WWII brought the area’s housing boom. And, as natural gas took hold of the heating market, area coal yards either folded their tents or scrambled to develop new product markets. Newton Coal Company closed its doors in 50’s when it was sold.

— Judith MacNichol Malone, October 6, 2006



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