Charcoal pits, measuring 30 to 40 feet in diameter, were generally located in cleared areas, often near where the wood had been cut. Four-foot lengths of wood were stacked on end around a wooden chimney in the center of the pit. It took about 25 to 50 cords for each pit (a cord is a stack of four-foot logs measuring eight feet long by four feet high). The mound was then covered with leaves and dirt and set on fire at the center. A collier carefully tended the smoldering wood 24 hours a day for 10 to 14 days until it had "come to foot" or was completely charred. The temperature of the interior of a charcoal pit was generally from 700-800 degrees Fahrenheit, with some parts reaching more than 2000 degrees. During the coaling, the master collier and his helpers lived in primitive huts near the pits.
This photo shows Lafayette Houck, the last of the Hopewell colliers, on the first day of a 1936 demonstration of charcoal-making at Hopewell Furnace. Mr. Houck is walking on the burning pile to find soft spots, which had to be dug out and filled in to maintain even burning.
Questions for Photo 1
1. What were some of the challenges associated with being a collier?
2. During the 1830s, the furnace paid approximately 20 colliers, each tending eight or nine pits. In most years additional wood for charcoal had to be bought from outside suppliers. What inferences can you make about the appearance of the landscape around the furnace?
3. A good woodcutter could cut about two cords a day. How many days did a woodcutter need to work to provide enough wood for a charcoal pit?
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