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”