Building Coal Pits; “A Thing Of The Past”.
Sometime ago Dr. Jack Buchanan told me that someone had asked him if anyone on Saba built coalpits any more. He said he told the person:” You will probably not believe this, but the last I heard of anyone building a coalpit was when I saw Will Johnson and his son Chris showing off a coalpit they had built. It was in The Daily Herald newspaper, and I thought to myself that a politician will go to any length to get publicity.”
I told Jack it was only sort of, but since I had built it, why not get a few political points out of the effort. Chris was a young boy then and we had some redwood branches and he asked if I knew how to build a coal pit. I grew up with coalpits. I remember sort of helping Joe Maxwell (Mrs. Alfreda Caines-Maxwell’s father) with his coal pits in back of where the Chinese restaurant is up above “The Alley” in the Windwardside.He used to do this for a living so they were relatively large. Large would be anywhere from 100 barrels and up.
Once Clinton “Boes” Cranston made one over in “Cow Pasture” of around six hundred barrels. A barrel was five kerosene oil cans of five gallons each and the price of a tin was around three guilders. It later became five guilders a tin.
The first thing to do was to collect the wood and the fresher the wood was the better. Some of the better woods for making coals are the wood of the sea grape tree, the tamarind, the guava and the cashaw and redwood trees. The last one I made was from the redwood trees in my backyard which I had trimmed for the purpose of making the coal pit. This part of the job involved much of the labour as there were no chain saws back then, only an old axe and a cutlass. Here on Saba we still call a “machete” a cutlass, a throwback to the pirate days when cutlasses were used for other purposes than the building of coal pits. The wood had to be cut up in an orderly way to fit inside the coal pit. In between the cutting of the wood the pit was dug. It was perhaps close to two feet deep and the length of the planned coal pit. It would be several feet wide. Coal pit builders would usually use the same spot over and over again but always in a location where the wood was close by as else you would have to bring the wood from a large distance. Cranston and others like the late Vincent Simmons from The Bottom would build over in “Cow Pasture” and “Middle Island” as that area has a lot of mahogony trees which is also a very good wood for the making of charcoal.
In the pit would go first of all dry wood and some leaves. After that large pieces of wood would be laid across the pit and then the rest of the green wood would be laid down in the opposite direction until all of the wood was in place. Then you would start to cover the wood with “chinney” leaves (the leaf of the plant called the elephants ear). As much as possible would be covered with these leaves. Then the soil would be placed on top of that until there was a thick layer of soil. Three holes were left, two at the bottom, one to the front and one to the rear, and a chimney on top. This was a crucial part of the whole task and had to have your attention. Then you lit the dry bush and leaves and after a good fire was going, you would close off the back opening to encourage the “chimney” at the top of the coal pit to start drawing the fire upwards towards the green wood. After some time when you were sure the green wood had started to catch fire you would close off the front opening with chinney leaves and a good portion of soil and you would go all over the pit and cover it with soil to make sure that the pit was completly closed off and only the chimney at the top was open so that the smoke could escape and the fire would not go out. Depending on the size of the pit it would take a number of days even more than a week before you could take further action. During that period you had to constantly monitor the pit.If any smoke was leaking around the sides you had to cover it up with soil so that the pit did not run away from you.
My coal-pit was doing fine. I had followed all the rules. Lucky for me however was that I had a meeting one night with Mr. Clinton Cranston, Mr. Elmer Linzey and Mr. Max Nicholson at the Antique Inn and I brought up the coal pit with Clinton. He was not a man of quick answers. He would carefully contemplate your question and then give you the answer slowly. His answer alarmed me as he said that when you checked the chimney and inside was all red you had to close off the chimney immediately as all you would reap would be ashes. I hastened home as before I left the house I had checked and the coal pit was already all red inside.
As much as I did not want to do midnight work on a coal pit I decided to go and dig up dirt and seal off the whole pit thoroughly chimney and all. The next morning the whole thing had collpased and I feared for the worst. Also I had to wait several days before I could open up the pit to see if I had coal or only ash. Lo and behold there were nice coals, enough to fill six kerosene tins . I was satisfied!!
When there is a coal pit or rather when there used to be one, some people would complain about the smell. Perhaps it is because I grew up with them and now I wish that I could smell a coal pit again.
On St. Maarten they are called a coal keel and were built like a wigwam, so there was not much room for expansion like here on Saba where people used to build large ones.
In an interview with Alice Scraders in Dr. Julia Crane’s book “Saba Silhouettes” she had the following to say:” Well, I’m here with Bobby. He came back. He been here five years, five years and a few months. They won’t give him no pension till he make six years, and that will be in February. He burned a coal pit in Troy since you been, and he burned up there by Rebecca’s mother’s house.” (Rebecca Woods that is).
Were there any women who built coal pits? Who else but Rebecca Levenstone? I once suggested to a camera crew from Holland to interview Rebecca. It was a rainy day. They told me aftwerwards that they had been told that she was down in the woods above the Ladder Bay building a coal pit. They went down through the woods in the rain and t
hen they saw this person dressed like a man coming through the woods with a cutlass and with a load of freshly cut wood on her head. Rebecca was well into her eighties then. They said it was surreal and it turned out to be the best part of their film.
Talking about Levenstone’s. Sometime back Dave Levenstone put the question on facebook as to whether anyone knew how to build a coal pit. Now you know Dave. And next time if you have a question on how to build a coal pit or who you should cast your vote on give Uncle Will a call first.
And so we remember. The coal pit pictured in this article was the one Alice Scraders refers to up in “Troy” and most of the photo’s were taken in 1964 by Dr. Julia Crane while she was here on Saba doing research for her book: “Educated to Emigrate“.