Setting up the Burn Watching the Fire Charcoal Pit
Setting up the Burn Watching the Fire Charcoal Pit
Colliers House The Last Collier at Hopewell Charcoal Ovens Remains of the Charcoal Ovens
Colliers House The Last Collier at Hopewell Charcoal Ovens Remains of the Charcoal Ovens


The cold blast furnaces of the early industrial age utilized charcoal as fuel to melt the furnace. Iron furnaces utilized vast amounts of timber to support their requirements. A typical iron furnace would utilize 400 bushels of charcoal per ton of iron, or about 10-12 cords of wood. An acre of 20-25 year old trees will produce 20-22 cords of wood = 800-850 bushels of charcoal = 2 tons of iron. At a production rate of 12 tons (iron), a furnace would consume nearly 6 acres of trees per day, or approximately 1700-1800 acres of trees per year. Since the furnace did not normally operate all year (for maintenance, operating problems, or lack of business), most furnaces consumed about 1 acre of trees per day.

Charcoal was produced by burning wood in a controlled burn. This generated charcoal rather than ash. The trees themselves were cut by woodcutters. These individuals typically accounted for nearly half of all furnace employees. For example, in the blast period of 1851-53, Hopewell employed 225 individuals, and 116 of them were involved cutting wood. Wages for these individuals ran from $0.25 to $0.35 per cord - a stack of wood four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Individuals who cut trees on their own land (usually neighboring farmers) were paid an addition dollar per cord. Hopewell used about 4000 cords of wood from company lands and about 3000 cords from other woodland owners. Wood was cut into two general types - lapwood, measuring under 4 inches in diameter, and billets, measuring 4-7 inches in diameter. Both lapwood and billets had one end cut at a bias to facilitate covering the stack in preparation for burning.

Depending on the time of year, wood was either stacked for future burning, or hauled to a charcoal pit. The term pit is a misnomer - the site of a charcoal burn did not require a hole in the ground. Instead, the collier (an individual responsible for making charcoal) cleared a flat area 30-40 feet in diameter. A great deal of care was taken to remove all brush, roots, and stumps. The area was hard and smooth to permit easy shoveling and raking of the charcoal after a burn. Most importantly, the site was completely level - a critical requirement to achieve uniform burning of the wood.

The collier and one or two helpers "coaled" as a team, running 8-10 "pits" at any one time. They lived near the pits in colliers houses - simple conical huts covered with dirt and leaves. A colliers hut was normally about 8 feet in diameter and 10 feet tall. Coaling was a dirty job, and no amount of washing could remove the charcoal dust from the clothes, body, and hair of the workers. In fact, a clean collier was the sign of an inexperienced collier - experienced colliers never bothered with the futile effort of washing. Infested with bugs, most collier huts were burned at the end of each season. Coaling was avoided in winter due to rain, fog, and snow, each which reduced the effectivity of the burning process. During the spring time, the presence of high winds also made coaling difficult. As such, many colliers became woodcutters during the "off-season" and then returned to coaling between May and October.

Once the pit was prepared and the wood made handy, the collier began the process of building the pit. To start, a green pole, known as a "fagan", was driven into the ground at the center of the hearth. This pole was approximately 18 feet long and 3-4 inches in diameter. Around the fagan, the collier constructed a triangular shaped chimney approximately 8 inches in size using lap wood. Once the chimney was about 5 feet tall, concentric rings of billets were leaned against the chimney, each ring extending outward until the edge of the pit was reached. The resulting slope would be sufficient to enable the stack to be covered with a layer of dirt and leaves without sliding off. Each piece of wood was placed so that the biased cut of the woodchopper sloped towards the chimney.

When the initial tier of billets and lapwood was set (known as the foot), the collier climbed on it and extended the height of the chimney by an additional 4 feet. A second tier of billets was placed, known as the "waist". Once this second tier was in place, lapwood was used to construct the "shoulders" and the "head" for the charcoal pit. This created a rounded structure when finished. Throughout the construction of the pit, each piece was placed with care to prevent "reeling" or twisting of the pile. Remaining lapwood was then used to fill in all possible air spaces and cracks in the sides. Once completed, a crude ladder was constructed and the chimney was filled with chips and kindling. The pit was now ready for "leafing and dusting".

A crude rake was used to gather forest leaves into a collier's basket. The leaves were then spread across the stack to a depth of several inches. The collier's basket was made during the winter months out of thin strips of lath or reeds around an oval hoop. Once covered with leaves, several inches of dirt were spread uniformally over the pit. A shovel of coals was then placed carefully into the chimney to start the fire.

The pit would then be watched continuously for 10-14 days. First, the collier had to watch for fire breaking through the covering, resulting in an open flame and creating ash instead of charcoal. Secondly, the collier to engage in the dangerous activity known as "jumping the pit". With the aid of a long shovel, the collier would step carefully around the head and shoulders of the pit to find any soft spots, known as "mulls". These spots were created by the shrinkage of charred wood. By leaping up and down on the firmer areas of the structure, he would close the air spaces in the pits. Some soft spots would have to be dug out and filled with new wood, leaves, and dirt.

Since the pit was ignited from the top, the wood would char downward. By ramming the fagan down through the loose charcoal, the collier would eventually reach a hard surface - either the ground, or uncharred billets. An experienced collier could "read" the pit, determining the direction of the charring activity. He would then provide drafts or foot holes at strategic places around the pit to enable even charring. This process was known as "give'er the fire".

When the pit was completely charred, the collier and his helpers would begin the slow and tedious job of raking out the pit. At the point where the dust was the driest, a shovel of charcoal was removed until signs of fire were present. The pit would then be covered again to seal the pit and allow it to cool. The pile of charcoal removed was then spread out around the pile. Sparks remaining in the coals would ignite the entire ring and would be put out with dirt. When the coals were fully extinguished, they were placed into the collier's basket (holding 2-3 bushels) and loaded into the charcoal wagon. A wagon would hold 100-300 bushels of charcoal. Extreme care was required - any live coals could ignite an entire wagon charcoal, wasting the entire load. In later years, wagons were designed with "bottom boards", enabling the teamster to dump the load and at least save the wagon from the fire. A good collier would obtain 30-40 bushels of charcoal per cord of wood.

Some information noted above was drawn from the following resources:

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