The case of the missing coal furnaceFree Access

When I was six years old my family moved from Chicago to Montrose, Colorado, a nice town of about 4,000 people on the Western Slope of the Continental Divide, about 64 miles from Grand Junction. It is difficult to think of any American town as being isolated, but in 1947 Montrose could have been on the edge of the earth and it was not the easiest place to get to.

There was a railroad–the Denver and Rio Grande Western–with a daily passenger train from Grand Junction, and there was an airport with DC-3 airline service several times a day– Frontier Airlines–and there was also Continental Trailways bus service, but the highways were largely unpaved once you got out of town a ways and the town lacked such amenities as a natural gas pipeline. 

Our telephone service was the old fashioned kind where you picked up the phone and the operator asked you for your number and then patched you in. But it was 1947 and World War II had ended just two years earlier, so the town had some catching up to do, as did much of the rest of the nation.

That same year I started school at Northside Elementary, about a four block walk from our home. Like much of the town, the school was heated by coal, in this case a coal burning furnace. Homes relied on coal stoves or furnaces, or in some cases heating oil stoves and a few people used propane for cooking and heating.

About the time I finished third grade the school’s furnace was determined to be unsafe and it was decided to replace it, so the school district contacted a manufacturer of coal furnaces and ordered a new one to be delivered by the beginning of my fourth grade year.

Montrose gets typical winter weather for a town in the mountains of Colorado—cold days with snow interspersed with warmer days that can be pretty comfortable. School pretty much runs regardless of weather. In fact I don’t remember any times when we didn’t have school because of snow or cold.

But the school year came and there was no furnace. Not too much of a problem. We wouldn’t really need it until about October or November. But those months came and there still was no furnace. The school district improvised, buying up a dozen or so coal-burning pot-bellied stoves and installing them in the classrooms, and this was our source of heat for the winter of 1950. 

What had happened to the furnace? Nobody was quite sure.

Well, we survived that winter, with many cold days when we didn’t bother to take off our warm coats when we were in class. The stoves were great if you were pretty close to them, but they didn’t do much for the rest of us who were further from them.

Around springtime we found out what had happened to the furnace. The company that built it shipped it to Montrose, California. Right town, wrong state. La Crescenta-Montrose is in Los Angeles County, by the way, in Southern California. I suspect the schools there must have wondered why a coal furnace was sent to that location.

The furnace eventually reached our school, but I never got to enjoy it. I was transferred to a different elementary school the next year.  It was a long time ago, but I have had more than a few laughs over the year our new furnace got lost on the way to school.

WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.

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