Charcoal Making

Man stands in earthen hut.
Lafayette Houck, Hopewell's last known collier, demonstrated charcoal making to the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936.

NPS Photo/HOFU Photographic Archives

Charcoal is one of the three resources that go into making iron; the other two are iron ore and a flux, usually limestone. Of the three, it is the only renewable resource, but also the most expensive one to acquire. It cannot simply be mined, but must be created through a time-consuming, delicate process. An immense amount of charcoal was required to keep a furnace the size of Hopewell’s running. When it was “in blast,” the furnace would consume 800 bushels of charcoal per day.

Fueling the Furnace
Using charcoal to make iron is a process that came to the colonies from England. In the 1770s, when Hopewell Furnace first began making iron, charcoal was the only fuel available. The 19th century, however, brought experiments in the process through the use of hard anthracite coal in place of the softer charcoal. In 1837 iron furnaces were successful in producing iron using anthracite coal with the use of a hot air blast.

Though anthracite coal was briefly tried at Hopewell, it never caught on as well here as it did in other places due to the expense of hauling the coal to Hopewell. The furnace hung on as a charcoal furnace for over four decades after most of the iron industry shifted from charcoal to anthracite coal, but in 1883 Hopewell Furnace “blew out” for the final time, losing in business to the cheaper anthracite furnaces.


The Rise of Axes and the Smell of Charcoal
Throughout the furnace’s history, woodcutters were the largest group of furnace employees. Of the nearly 250 workers on the payroll from 1835 to 1837, more than 100 were wood- cutters. Since most woodcutting was done in the winter, many of them were part-time employees; neighboring farmers with time on their hands, unemployed boys, and even women hoping to earn a few dollars. Using only axes, woodcutters averaged two cords per day.

While this may appear to be a large quantity of wood, when converted to charcoal this was only enough to keep the furnace operating for about 2 1⁄2 hours. The average charcoal hearth consumed 30 cords of wood to produce around 1100 bushels of charcoal, enough to keep the furnace operating for 1 1⁄2 days. The annual requirement for charcoal at Hopewell consumed 5000 to 6000 cords of wood, or more than 200 acres of woodlands each year.

Despite popular myths, charcoal making did not lead to the deforestation of the area. The best kind of wood for making charcoal was hardwood trees that were 20-25 years old. A furnace with about 6,000 acres of forest could create a system in which woodcutters would cut what they needed from a specific area, then take measures to prevent livestock from eating the new “shoots,” and 20 years later, woodcutters would work their way back around to this area and cut again.


Making Chacoal
Making charcoal requires constant attention to the charcoal pits, or hearths, which averaged in size from 30-40 feet in diameter. For this purpose a collier would live in a makeshift hut with one or two helpers who would tend up to 8 or 9 pits at one time. There can be no break in the vigilant watching of the pits from the moment they are lit until the moment the teamster drives away with the final load of charcoal. The process includes numerous steps:

  • The pit, or hearth, is cleared of vegetation and made as level as possible.

  • An 18-foot green pole of wood, called a “fagan” is driven into the ground at the center of the hearth.

  • A three-cornered chimney with an 8-inch opening is built around the fagan.

  • Wood is added around this chimney in three layered tiers that spread out around the chimney to the edge of the hearth. The bottom tier is referred to as the “foot”, followed by the “waist,” and then the “head” at the top.

  • All possible air holes and spaces are filled in with the remaining pieces of wood.

  • The pit is covered with a layer of leaves and dust.

  • The chimney is filled to within a foot of the top with kindling.

  • Red coals from the collier’s cooking fire are shoveled into the kindling- filled chimney.

  • The pit is carefully monitored for air holes in the surface, which were filled by “jumping the pit,” or stepping around, finding soft spots, and adjusting the wood to fill them in. Also, vents can be made on purpose to draw the fire in certain directions to be sure that all of the wood is turned into charcoal.

  • In about 10 days to 2 weeks, the pit “comes to foot” meaning that the wood has been turned into charcoal.

  • The pit is then raked out slowly and carefully starting at the foot in the place where the dust is driest.

  • The charcoal that is separated from the pit is carefully watched until all signs of fire have gone out of it.

  • Charcoal is loaded onto the teamster’s wagon and brought to the furnace charcoal house.

  • Pieces of wood that failed to be turned into charcoal were placed in smaller pits and burned into charcoal over the course of a few days. This is called “foxing the brands.”


Keeping the Tradition Alive
To keep the charcoal-making process alive at Hopewell, a program was put together in 1936 during which 82-year-old Lafayette Houck, one of Hopewell’s last colliers, and his son, William, gave a living demonstration of the life of a collier. To this day we continue to have charcoal-making demonstrations, which produce charcoal using traditional methods with the support of numerous dedicated volunteers.

Last updated: August 19, 2020

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