Antebellum Iron Works; 2

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Antebellum Iron Works in Western Virginia; 
Part 2, Charcoal and Coal

By Dave Allen, Editor 
Note: West Virginia was not formed from Virginia until 1863.

The lack of good transportation in the Appalachian keyed the development of ironmaking west of the Alleghenies. Although iron products were first brought in on horseback, transporting farm goods to the eastern markets to pay for them was prohibitively expensive.

For example, the early settlers raised corn and rye. They soon learned that turning grain into whiskey was more economical. A horse could carry two whiskey kegs to eastern markets but hauling the grain used to make that same whiskey required ten horses.

charcoal hearth; (c) american iron; 1607-1900

To make charcoal, the collier leveled a circular area (hearth) and covered it with slabs of wood and bark. A chimney flue was erected using either poles or stacked logs. Then the cord wood was stacked around the flue. The woodpile was then covered with dirt and wet leaves, and then set afire.

By controlling the air flow, charcoaling (destructive distillation) took place and the wood was converted to almost pure carbon. As the pile smoldered, it reduced in volume. The collier would walk over the pile several times a day to tamp it down and close air leaks that would cause the wood to burn up completely.

Photo from American Iron, 1607-1900 (c)

The first iron made east of the Alleghenies was at Alliance in southwest Pennsylvania in 1789. In the following decade, more furnaces came into production with the Cheat River works at Morgantown beginning by 1800. The rivers in this area flow to the Ohio at Pittsburgh. The ironworks began shipping iron as far south as New Orleans and the boats returned with necessities such as salt and dry goods as payment. This barter exchange system was both efficient and sophisticated.

The ingredients needed to make iron were conveniently located in the valleys of the Appalachian area. There were several sources of iron in the form of nodules, hematite, and limonite. There was water power to run the furnace bellows and waterways to ship the iron. And there were acres and acres of hardwood forest to make the fuel.

In western Virginia, blast furnace fuel was charcoal. Bituminous coal use was mostly unsuccessful because of sulfur content and varying quality. In the late 1830’s, a few Pennsylvania furnaces began using coal as fuel and coke was introduced in 1849.

I could not find any references for coal or coke use in western VA before 1860. Since wood was abundant and the charcoal technique was perfected, this may have dispelled experimenting with coal and coke. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the Valley Furnace plant was built on a coal seam but the furnace was fueled with charcoal.

Anthracite coal had been used to fuel blast furnaces as early as 1821 but anthracite is found only in a limited area of eastern Pennsylvania.

The forest land surrounding a blast furnace was divided into wood lots and cut on a timetable, usually on a 20-year cycle. Total iron production determined the total acreage of wood needed. A typical furnace in this era would cut 400-600 acres of forest per year. For a 20-year cycle, that meant the furnace operator needed to own or lease 8,000 to 12,000 acres.

The preferred method of charcoaling was to build a hearth in the forest area and then haul charcoal to the furnace. A freight wagon could haul 200 bushels of charcoal but certainly not the 6-7 cords of wood used to make it. Thus, transportation cost was a major factor in deciding where to make charcoal.


A cord of wood is a stack that measures 
4’ wide x 4’ high x 8’ long.

The hearth method, at best, yielded 40 bushels of charcoal per cord of wood. And yields of 30 bushels or less were typical when softer wood such as pine and hemlock were burned. When colliers began using brick kilns later in the century, yields increased to 50+ bushels per cord. While the primitive hearth method was practical from a transportation point, it is obvious that thousands of cords of wood were burned each year with no result other than smoke.

The collier was one of the most skilled workers in the operation. He would start preparing in winter by hiring axemen (often farmers) to cut trees. The logs and limbs were then cut to length (4’). Any log over 6” thick had to be split and any wood less than 2” thick was not used. Laborers then stacked the wood so it would start drying.

Most colliers preferred charcoaling in the warmer months. The job was rigorous and could be quite dangerous. In sealing the hearth with dirt, he wanted to prevent extra air from flowing in and burning the woodpile. But if the earthen seal was too tight, the mound could explode as gases built up inside.

The collier also had to poke holes in the bottom of the mound to allow water to escape. This was critical during the ‘sweating’ stage when water evaporated from the green wood. If the water wasn’t released properly, then steam built up.

The collier usually had three or more hearths burning at once. He and his helper would live in a hut near the hearths and tend to them all day and night. During this time, he had to walk over the mound to tamp it down and also inspect for air leaks. If the wood inside started to blaze from too much air, then the whole stack was lost.

As mentioned by Mr. Thorp in the sidebar, the collier also had to be careful when removing the charcoal lest it catch fire when exposed to the air.

Colliers were well paid but sources indicate that they were often hired as contractors rather than employees of the ironworks. They would contract to provide a given amount of charcoal per day and they also bore the risk of failures. Given that they had to deal with the vagaries of the weather, their job was challenging to say the least.

How much charcoal did a furnace burn? Accurate production records from the late 1860’s indicate that a typical American blast furnace burned about 350,000 bushels annually. That’s 1,800 wagon loads if you’re counting! One citation said that 131bushels of charcoal were needed to smelt a ton of iron. Of course, all of these numbers will vary based on the ore quality and furnace efficiency. But you can see from these numbers that charcoaling was a bigger endeavor than the actual furnace operation.

Charcoal was expensive to make because it was so labor intensive. Records of a finery at Clifton Forge, VA from 1831 indicate that 4 slaves ran the finery furnace which converted pig iron to bar iron. On the other end of the operation, 32 slaves were needed to cut wood and make charcoal.

The high cost of manpower was charcoal’s eventual downfall as a blast furnace fuel.

Mr. Jack Thorp, a charcoal burner at the Capon Furnace in Hardy County, WV gives the following description of their method of burning or coaling:

A piece of ground was made level for about 90 feet across and sufficient size to hold 30 cords of wood. The lap wood was first placed around the level area and the cord wood piled on the space against it. A chimney was made in three-corner shape, out of cord wood, laid horizontal. The second tier of cord wood laid around it and covered with leaves so as to make the pile airtight and prevent dirt from coming in.

The whole pile was then covered with dirt, 2 or 3 inches thick at the bottom and 7 or 8 inches on the top.

In firing, small pieces of wood were placed in the chimney flue and a bed of hot coals thrown in on this wood. After the fire was well-started, the chimney was filled with wood and the rapidity controlled by a cover over the top of the chimney. When all of the wood was burned out in the flue, more was thrown in. Around the bottom of the coal heap, pipe holes were made and opened and closed so as to draw the fire to the different parts of the mass.

It required six full days of burning before any [char]coal could be drawn. If carefully burned, the yield should be 40 bushels of [char]coal to the cord of wood.

A pit holding more than 40 cords of wood, in Mr. Thorp’s experience, would not give good result in drawing; 400 bushels of [char]coal could be removed at a time, using great care that it did not take too much air and catch fire.

Morland, James R., The Early Cheat Mountain Ironworks, Pp. 110-11, 1940, Monongalia Historical Society

  Additional source: Gordon, Robert R., American Iron, 1607-1900, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, 344 pages.

American Iron, 1607-1900 is an excellent book. It is written for the interested reader and it is not full of technical jargon. You’ll enjoy owning your own copy!

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 ABA Newsletter

Up ] Antebellum Iron Works; Part One ] [ Antebellum Iron Works; Part Two ] Antebellum Ironworks, Part Three ] Antebellum Ironworks; Part Four ] Antebellum Ironworks; Part Four A ] Antebellum Ironworks; Part Five ] Antebellum Iron Works; Part Six ]

David G. Allen © 2004

 

   

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