Iron and Charcoal: Part Two

Every fire needs fuel, but ore-melting fires required a particular fuel: charcoal. On my desk I keep several examples that I’ve found in the Taconics, black, almost weightless little chunks.

This charcoal is a kind of condensed lumber. By intensely heating it while using as little oxygen as possible, all moisture is removed, and the resulting fuel is lighter, gives off little smoke, and burns hotter. It was the ideal fuel for blast furnaces. But transforming trees into charcoal is a dirty, artful, demanding, lonely, and sometimes dangerous task. By the 1880s, the fuel was often made in tall, red-brick kilns near furnaces, but for most of the century, the charring took place on isolated mountainsides. If you were a 19th century collier, here’s how you’d go about it.

Begin, of course, by cutting down trees. Tools: axes and saws. It’s a winter job — cold keeps sap in the roots, leaving less pitch to burn off, and snow allows use of a sleigh. So you, the collier, might do all your own cutting, or might buy some cords from an off-season farmer. (Early on most choppers were the owners of the woodland.) You need about thirty cords for each round of charring, but this varied according to the size of the “charcoal pit,” the type of wood, and the weather. The Journal of the US Association of Charcoal Iron Workers in 1880 described the “wood chopper with his cord tally kept on a piece of sapling.” A good chopper could produce three cords a day, green wood only. Hardwoods were best, but any type of tree would do, except hemlock, which no doubt contributes to its prevalence in today’s forest. Trim off small branches; four foot logs are needed. If you’re a chopper selling to furnaces or to colliers, expect about 25 cents per four by eight foot cord. If you’re a man without honor — or maybe just desperate for a quarter? — you might try to sell a short cord, by setting the wood in hard to measure rows, cutting logs a little short, stacking on a hidden stump or stone.

Once you’ve got sufficient wood, build your “charcoal pit” — which, by the way, is not a pit at all (unclear where that term arose, but it may be that long-ago Europeans used pits). 

Charcoal “pit” in progress

First: choose a spot a reasonable distance from the furnace you plan to sell to, but also close enough to timber supplies. Clear a flat circular area, about thirty feet in diameter, digging out mountainsides and levelling with fill where needed. This might require moving quite a bit of dirt, hauled in wheelbarrows whose wheels boasted a four foot diameter to cope with the rough ground. These charcoal pits dot the Taconics in great numbers today and are still pretty easy to detect if you know what to look for: flat circles in the woods, of the above-mentioned diameter. They resemble long-forgotten putting greens, and because of the intense burning inflicted on them, are still often free of much vegetation, except perhaps aspens. Dig along the edges, and you can find pieces of charcoal, left behind for a hundred some years.

Second: build a “chimney,” a mound of chopped wood, about ten feet tall. (There’s a recreated example near the Copake Iron Works.) Begin with a kind of teepee of logs; lean another layer against this, and again until you reach the edge of your flat circle. You’ll need an opening at the top, in which to insert a pole to mark the center and also help you gauge how far charring has progressed. (You can pull it out and re-insert as needed.) 

Third: Stack “billets” — hardwood logs or boards — all around your mound. Be careful to plug as many gaps as possible with dirt, leaves, or scrap wood.

Fourth: “Leaf the pit.” Scatter leaves or straw over the billets.

Fifth: Add layers of dirt over the leaves, again with an eye to seal the mound as much as possible.

Sixth: Use a notched board to climb atop the mound and clear dirt and boards from the opening. Drop in coals — “fire the pit” — and replace the dirt and boards. 

Seventh: By now you’ve probably worked a very long day or two, and you might get some sleep. But the mound must be checked overnight! You want an “earthy” odor. If the smoke smells like a campfire, too much oxygen might be getting inside. Plug any holes with dirt. Beware of contact between the heated charcoal and fresh air: potential explosion. Beware of air pockets forming. You might have to “jump the pit” — climb atop and leap up and down to jam the mass tighter. Don’t think about what might happen if you’ve failed to build a firm mound. If one side of the pit isn’t charring enough, open a hole to draw oxygen that way. This might blast you with smoke and you might look (according to one observer) “black as the devil.” If blue smoke is escaping, be satisfied. Dark smoke means some part is not charring, but burning up! 

Eighth: By now you’ve been at this for about three days with little sleep. But the upper part of your mound is probably starting to contain good charcoal. Keep watch, through a fourth …. fifth …. sixth … seventh … eighth … day.

Most of the smoke should be down by now. Maintain your vigil through day nine ….

Next day — harvest — although, depending on type of wood, size of pile, and weather, your “burn” could take a full two weeks. Open the mound and rake the charcoal out towards the edges of your circle. Keep water handy in case a blaze breaks out.

Then haul your product to market — whatever furnace is nearest and paying best — in a specially designed wagon with a broad bed and sides sloping outwards. Make sure your charcoal is entirely cooled! There’s one story of a cart on its way down a mountainside that suddenly burst into flames and, unhitched, sped on like a blazing meteor until it crashed.

A load of charcoal about to be carted away

Oh, and, by the way — any good collier and his crew maintains several pits at once, trudging from one spot to the next to make sure all is charring well.

Maintain this work pace through spring, summer and fall. Live in a log hut; subsist on salt pork, potatoes, beans, bread, onions, and likely much liquor. (Gum opium was also apparently common with colliers.) Don’t expect to see friends or family except on the occasional Sunday. Don’t expect much respect for your trade, however skilled it might be. One daughter of a collier recalled: “This occupation was considered a lowly one by the boiled shirt citizens.” 

Yet you could have visitors, curious souls who might request a charcoal chunk to drop down a well and “sweeten the water.” Or healthy-minded folks might want to stand downwind of the supposedly “purifying” smoke.

Charcoal pit — “fired”

All this begs the question: who would want to do this job? And why?

One simple answer to the “why” might be — pay. Uneducated, landless workers in a rural area like the Taconics didn’t have a host of choices when it came to earning a living. Farm labor? Furnace labor? Each burn usually produced over 1,000 bushels of charcoal. Industry records show that in 1884 the various furnaces paid around eight cents per bushel of charcoal. That would mean each burn was worth roughly $80 to the collier. Granted, this was seasonal work, and the time needed per burn could stretch up to two weeks; don’t forget site preparation and hauling. Also, you might need to pay a wood chopper if you didn’t do the cutting yourself. But a skillful collier could doubtless handle more than one burn at a time. Couldn’t they do better than the $105 per month even the best paid furnace workers earned?

Skilled workers who may have drawn decent pay, colliers still lived on the margins of society. So it’s hard to be certain what part of the population worked the charcoal mounds. Some may have been immigrants who moved from one area to another and left little trace in written records. The prevailing opinion, in the secondary sources, is that European colliers migrated to America to practice their trade here — Frenchmen, Germans, men from the Baltic states, Scottish indentured servants, even Schagticoke Indians. (There’s apparently some evidence that Jacob Konkapot, a leader of the Stockbridge band, delivered charcoal.) The Journal of Charcoal Iron Workers in 1884 mentioned that one Connecticut furnace employed “mostly French” colliers. 

But there’s evidence that many colliers were simply local people who worked the charcoal pits for a time, and moved on. An 1850 “Products of Industry” census for Mount Washington lists seven men with familiar local names like Spross, Wright, and Race who ran charcoal businesses, each employing several more men. A total of 26 workers produced, in that year, 84,200 bushels of charcoal, worth $5724.

Charcoal “pit” above Copake Iron Works, 2022 — the enbankment in the background is a clue

Census records suggest that collier was a temporary status for many. J. Shook from Ancram in 1850 worked as a collier, but in 1860 as a laborer, and in 1875 and 1880 in a paper mill. Salisbury resident Hiram Sardam, a collier in 1850, was a basket maker in 1860. A decade after “coaling,” Samuel Fields had moved from Mount Washington to Dalton and become a teamster. Christian Winters left charcoaling behind and farmed in Chenango County. Several Mount Washington residents were listed in the 1850 census as “farmer,” while, in the same year, the Products of Industry document has them making charcoal.

A search through the 1850 census for Copake, Ancram, Salisbury, Sheffield, and Mount Washington yields thirty-eight names working as colliers or “coalers.” Salisbury had more colliers than any other town, but only one was foreign born, an Irishman.

So the truism that most colliers were immigrants seems a bit of a myth. Instead, it may have been an occupation that young men from local families worked at until they could move on to something—more respectable? Cleaner? 

But I met with the granddaughter of one of the last of the Taconics colliers, Lynne Reifsnyder of Salisbury. She explained that Ernest Rebillard emigrated from a French village called Cheve Bier, and after a time in Buffalo and a return to France, settled in Mount Washington as a collier. He was only one of many emigrants from the same village who made this area their home. He lived with his family on the mountain, in a cabin where his daughter was born in 1889. By the turn of the century, with the iron industry failing, he moved to the Salisbury area and found other work. But Lynne remembers her father taking his children and grandchildren for a walk near Bear Mountain on his eightieth birthday, and pointing out spots where his father had once made charcoal.

A riddle: how was the iron industry similar to the spongy moth caterpillars that, as I write, are chewing up the leaves of entire mountainsides? Answer: left unchecked, they both tend to eat themselves out of house and home. For the iron industry, of course, that meant chopping down forests faster than they can regrow, thus choking off the industry’s fuel supply.  

Charcoal, a hundred-some years old, dug out of old Taconic “pits”

Charcoal and Iron / Part One

Could a woodchuck be responsible for the most transformative event in the history of the South Taconics? There’s a story that surveyors laying out the town of Salisbury in 1728 noticed bits of iron in the diggings around a woodchuck hole. If that critter hadn’t opened a hole there, then, could the entire history of the mountains …

No. No chance the iron veins running through these mountains could have gone undiscovered. Those early surveyors were likely looking for it. In 1686 Robert Livingston extended his manor holdings into a “spur’ thrust into Connecticut land. Why claim land whose title, predictably, sparked a struggle? A good guess is that even in the 17th century, a notion was abroad that the Taconics might contain extensive iron. (Iron rust is visible in some of the schist that forms the base of the mountains.)

Iron, of course, has always been a raw material that industrial civilization depends on. For early Americans, everything from nails to horseshoes to plows to weapons was iron made. But it wasn’t practical to ship great amounts of heavy iron objects from Europe to the New World, so the search for ore began almost as soon as settlement.

What those Salisbury surveyors stumbled on wasn’t just any common sort of iron, however. High in manganese, low in phosphorus, Taconics iron was peculiarly strong — someone at the Smithsonian even described it as “perhaps unexcelled in the world.” Its durability under repeated shock allowed cannons, high grade plows, ship anchors, and locomotive wheels to be fashioned from it. Those flecks found by that woodchuck hole led, in time, to forty blast furnaces within reach of the mountains, a thriving town built on the crest of the mountains (Mount Riga). an industry-fueled population boom, and the steady depletion of the Taconics forest.

In the 21st century the deafening, hammering noise, around the clock flames and smoke, worker villages, open pit mines, railroad sidings and towering stone stacks have vanished. I love to swim in the “ore pit” in Copake Falls, but without the name (and a historical marker) I might not realize that for over a century this deep spring-fed swimming hole once was an ever-widening opening in the earth, swarmed by miners. To the south lies Weed Mines Pond, where forgotten machinery can be found if you’re willing to thrash through some brush. South of this, by Belgo Road, lies another deep water-filled ore pit, and the ruins of a blast furnace concealed by sumac and blackberry. Traces of iron are everywhere — maybe modern day woodchucks still dig up bits.

Remains of Weed Mine operations — built 1870s?
Copake Iron Works — late 19th century

At first the iron was worked in forges. One 1731 source describes the ore from Ore Hill in Lakeville “carried in leather bags to Ousatonic [sic], MA to be worked in forges.” But the Livingstons had an Ancram furnace in blast (producing pig iron) by 1743. By 1762 a furnace in Lakeville (then known as Furnace Village) produced two and a half tons of iron every 24 hours. This operation was partially owned by Ethan Allen, of Revolutionary War fame, and became so important to the rebel cause that a Council of Safety took over management, making sure a steady supply of cannons and guns was churned out. A furnace opened in Lenox in 1780, and the unique Mount Riga furnace began operations in 1810.

In 1820 an engineer named Benjamin Silliman travelled through northwest Connecticut and left behind a vivid description of the industry he found. Ore Hill (probably the area’s largest and oldest mine) had been worked for seventy years at the time, but there was “no indication of the ore being exhausted.” It resembled a stone quarry, open to the sky, without shafts or galleries, with “carts and wagons driven freely in and out.” (By 1904, when its useful life ended, underground shafts had reached 247 feet below the surface. Today it’s a very deep pond surrounded by homes.) At Falls Village, Silliman saw a “vast bellows, rising and falling alternately to the action of the water” which “threw in torrents of air, at the bottom, while at top, the workmen were almost constantly occupied by putting in the ore, with charcoal and limestone in successive layers.”

Silliman watched the demanding, dirty, and ferociously hot process of ridding iron oxide of its impurities, and producing usable iron. A blast furnace looked like an enormous stone chimney with a vast fireplace opening at the base. The iron ore, charcoal, and limestone dumped into the top of the chimney met a blaze, bolstered by pumped air, near the bottom. Oxygen is the number one impurity, so, in temperatures reaching up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the oxygen in the ore combines with carbon monoxide in the fuel, and is expelled as CO2. The height—typically around sixty feet—of the stone stack allowed more time to entirely melt the ore. The limestone combined with other impurities and drew them off. What flowed out through runnels at the base was — once guttermen had skimmed off the slag — iron, pure as it could be made. Connecticut resident Fred Hull remembered a furnace from his childhood: “When the iron flowed out it was white hot, almost terrifying to me. It was dazzling, just like looking at the sun.”

Around the clock, for most of the year, the furnace roared and blazed. Every half hour, into the top of the furnace, workers dumped four to five hundred pounds of ore, thirty to forty pounds of limestone, and fifteen bushels of charcoal. With no gauge, it was up to the iron master to judge whether the temperature and mix of ingredients was proper. Twice a day the molten iron would be “tapped off,” flowing into a channel in sand, and then into side channels at right angles to the main. These side channels reminded someone of suckling piglets, hence “pig iron.” Poisonous gases were drawn off through a vent, where they burned in the air, according to one observer “like a mystical oriflamme…serving at night like a beacon, lighting up the countryside.”

Copake Iron Works 2022

Imagine the workers, usually immigrants, watching over these rivulets of molten metal, directing them with long poles, doubtless praying that their feet wouldn’t slip. Imagine the intense heat, potential explosions (too much water in the mixture?) dust and carbon monoxide from the smelting. Inside the casting house, where the iron was shaped into “pigs”, temperatures could hit 140 degrees in the summer. Backs were strained and injured from lifting the heavy iron pigs. What if the flow of molten material slowed or got stuck? Would you want to be the one who had to poke it from above? Heavy use of beer, rum, brandy and cider helped make this life more tolerable. Often, a barrel of beer with a dipper waited near the furnace. Pay? In the 1860s, supervisors and skilled workers in Copake Falls made $1.50 to $1.65 for a ten hour day. Laborers might earn $1.00 – $1.25 for their ten hours. In an era when flour was about four cents a pound, and a company house might rent for $3.00 a month, these seem respectable wages. Perhaps the working conditions explain why many of the workers were refugees from the Irish famine.

Iron pigs, Copake Iron Works museum

The waste, or slag, was oddly pretty. Silliman thought it showed “often very gay and beautiful colors” and wondered that it had “the strangest resemblance to the glass produced in volcanoes.” When they were small, my children gathered bright blue slag from Bash Bish brook, where it washes down from a long-closed furnace dump.

Iron slag, collected from Bash Bish Creek.

Company towns grew up around the furnaces. Franklin Ellis’ History of Columbia County, New York states that in 1845, just before the establishment of the Copake Iron Works, there was “not a dwelling house” in Copake Falls, and “two old shanties were the only buildings.” But “now” —- in 1878 — the town held forty dwellings, two stores, one hotel, a train depot, two churches, and two hundred people. A railroad 3/4 of a mile long connected the works to the depot; another train brought ore across Bash Bish Creek from the nearby pit. Each year the furnace consumed 8,000 tons of ore, 1200 tons of limestone, and 450,000 bushels of charcoal. Each year, it produced 3,750 tons of iron.

Maybe the most remarkable of all the furnaces around the Taconic mountains was the one built on top. Mount Riga furnace operated for thirty seven years and produced everything from iron cauldrons to ship anchors, but sparks the question: why there? Why build an elaborate blast furnace a thousand feet above and five miles away from the nearest sources of ore and limestone?

Restored Mt Riga furnace 2020

The answer is that ore and limestone were only two of the necessary ingredients for iron production; just as important are timber and water power, and Riga offered the abundant Taconic forests, as well as a steady flow from South Pond.

A forge was built at the pond outlet in 1781. An 1801 attempt at a furnace went bankrupt a year later. But in 1810, Joseph and Seneca Pettee, along with Luther Holley, put a successful operation into blast. Ore was hauled up from Ore Hill by pack horses; limestone from quarries to the east. When the furnace was rebuilt in 1845, the mountain boasted a thirty foot tall stack and a bosh with a sixteen foot diameter. Water rushing over the South Pond dam powered a water wheel and bellows and, downstream, two forges, one making tools such as hinges and kitchen ware, the other turning out cauldrons, plows, even ship anchors. The story goes that the anchor for the USS Constitution was fashioned at Mount Riga. It weighed twenty tons, was dropped from a hundred foot tower to test its strength, and had to be hauled off the mountain into Copake by a dozen oxen.

At its peak, Mount Riga was a village of 700-1000 citizens. They grew wheat, flax, rye, potatoes, and garden vegetables around their homes, and supported a school that in 1821 had 71 students. (It was also the school at the highest elevation in Connecticut.) The largest department store in northwest Connecticut had a $150,000 inventory and four clerks. It enticed ladies to travel up from Salisbury to shop for items including silk dresses. Luminaries such as Governor Morris and John Jay were visitors to the furnace on the mountain.

In 1847 molten metal was mistakenly allowed to cool inside the stack and “froze,” creating a blockage known as a salamander. At this point the mountains were already getting logged out. The school closed when the teacher and students came down with measles, never to reopen.

By 1890 the village had entirely vanished, leaving behind only a few “raggies” who scratched out a living with small farms and lumbering. But a Mrs. Thurston, interviewed in the early 1900s, could remember looking out her window as a girl and seeing “two hundred men on their way to work.”