Goodnight Raleigh - a look at the art, architecture, history, and people of the city at night

Denizens of the Coal Yard

Not long ago I wrote about the Boylan wye, and described what remains of that former downtown train switchyard and industrial district. Today the most prominent relic there can be easily seen from the Boylan Ave bridge — a rusted cement plant gravel hopper towering over the site. But virtually invisible to most observers today is the weed-choked and debris-strewn sunken area that is the footprint of the former Smith Coal and Oil Co. coal yard.

This is a view of a portion of the Boylan wye from the bridge in 1970. The concrete plant is on the left and the coal yard is just right of center, below the two box cars. The present-day photo at the top shows the tracks the boxcars were parked on in 1970. The remnants of the coal yard are just to the right of these tracks.

In the winter of 1972-73 I drove a delivery truck at the coal yard, which was then owned and operated by Mr. Norwood Smith. I had dropped out of college after my sophomore year and worked a series of blue-collar jobs until I decided to return to school a couple years later. I must say working in the coal yard was the most memorable experience of them all.

The coal yard was about 10-15 feet below track level and encompassed an area of probably a quarter acre or so. It was located across Hargett St. from an abandoned ice plant, and a gravel driveway led down into the site. The office and weigh station were near the entrance gate.

In the yard itself was a Civil War era brick structure where the trucks were parked and coal was bagged and stored. Jutting into the yard was the trestle of an overshot loading system.

The trains would back a coal car in from the main track and position it above the bins located below the trestle. Coal was graded according to its intended use (e.g. stoves, fireplace or furnace, etc.) and the particular grade was released into the bin. From there it was shoveled onto delivery trucks or into 50 pound bags.

This is the ruin of the overshot coal loading trestle.

I made my deliveries in a 2-ton pickup, the bed of which was divided into three half-ton sections. Most often my shotgun was Leroy, a grizzled, one-eyed black man of about 60 years or so. Some of the workers in the coal yard shied away from me, suspicious probably, of why a young white kid would want to engage in such gritty work. But for some reason Leroy liked me.

As we drove around the city delivering coal, he would occasionally reminisce about what Raleigh was like when he was young. Sometimes while making deliveries in Raleigh’s ‘Southside’ neighborhood we’d drop in on friends of his and stand around a radiant coal stove, taking swigs from a pint bottle of MD 20-20.

As a rule, Leroy didn’t talk much, so I was kind of surprised one day as we drove over the Boylan Ave. bridge when out of the blue he announced: “See over yonder,” motioning to the now demolished state penitentiary. “I done time there.” Before I could think, I blurted out “What did you do?” “Killed my wife; caught her in bed with another man.”

I don’t know why Leroy chose to share that bit of information with me; but he never mentioned it again, and I sure wasn’t going to bring it up. I never did find out how he lost his eye.

This is a view of the state penitentiary as it appeared from the Boylan Ave. bridge in 1970. All the structures seen here are gone.

Another denizen of the coal yard was Jimmy. Tall and dignified, he wore black-rimmed glasses and was always smoking a pipe (which never seemed to be lit). Jimmy was the go-to man if anyone among the crew ever needed advice on anything. He also served as arbiter in any dispute that might arise among the other workers.

Jimmy had worked for Mr. Smith for many years; by this time in his career, though, he didn’t drive a truck anymore, and he didn’t shovel coal. Jimmy was just Jimmy — the stabilizing force in the yard.

He would accompany me on service calls to the handful of customers who still heated their homes with coal furnaces. He was the stoker. Jimmy knew I wasn’t experienced enough to handle that job, so he would stoke the glowing fire pit and I would shovel in the coal.

I admired and respected Jimmy, for by his example I learned the dignity of work.

Then there was Junior. He was a short, wiry man, probably about 30 years old, and had worked in the coal yard since he was a teenager. Junior didn’t have a driver’s license, so his main job was shoveling. Jimmy also assigned him various tasks around the yard to keep him busy, as he was somewhat of a lay-about.

Unfortunately, Junior was also a drinker, and it was not uncommon that he would reek of alcohol at nine o’clock in the morning. One time he showed up for work intoxicated, and was causing a ruckus among the other workers. Mr. Smith came down into the yard and confronted him: “What’s going on here?”, whereupon Junior, swaying unsteadily back and forth, protested: “I ain’t drunk Mr. Smith!” He was sent home and told to sober up and come back to work. As far as I know, Mr. Smith never fired anyone.

I believe Mr. Smith had “married into” the coal business, but I was never quite sure. Before it became Smith Coal and Oil Co. in the mid-1950s, the company had operated for decades as Merritt Coal Co. The motto “Coals and Oils of Merit” was emblazoned on all the company trucks.

Mr. Smith was of the “old style” brand of Raleigh businessman: paternalistic, yet genuinely benevolent toward his employees. I know — for he helped me out of a jam or two during the time I worked for him.

His son, who handled the fuel oil end of the business, was in his late-twenties. He had just recently been discharged from the army after a tour in Vietnam. He didn’t really associate with the coal workers and seemed to keep pretty much to himself. He was a nice guy, though. And I know for a fact he didn’t want to take over the coal business from his father.

I think Smith Coal and Oil went out of business 25 or more years ago. I really don’t know: the coal business seemed to just sort of fade into oblivion.

Nowadays, when something sparks a memory of my stint at the coal yard, I always think of Leroy, Jimmy, Junior and Mr. Smith, and his son the Vietnam vet, and wonder what ever happened to them.

Even though the old Boylan Ave bridge and the old state pen are long gone, whenever I drive across the current bridge there now, I never fail to recall the denizens of the coal yard, and Leroy’s confession to me that day so long ago — And I still wonder to this day how he lost that eye.

Once bustling with activity, this is how the coal yard looks today.

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