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Connecticut's Charcoal Has Stories to Tell, if You Know Where to Look

Collection of Cornwall Historical Society, Cornwall, CT
Colliers would build a ladder on one side of the mound to access upper portions. When jumping the pit, some colliers would hold their shovels parallel to the ground. That way, in case they fell into the hole -- the pole would, hopefully, catch.

Although charcoal is now sold at your local supermarket, the unassuming briquette's story wasn't always confined to American grills and backyards. For a long time, charcoal was the lifeblood of Connecticut’s iron industry -- fueling furnaces creating everything from weapons of war to wheels that rolled across the country. 

Relics of Connecticut's industrial past are scattered all over Connecticut's forests, but that doesn't mean finding them is always easy.

"Unfortunately, it’s very subtle -- as you can tell, since I’m having a little harder time remembering where this is," said Emery Gluck, when we met up recently at Whitney Forest in Lebanon. Gluck volunteers there to help manage the space with the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association.

Gluck and I looked for charcoal. Basically it’s old wood, which gets burned in a controlled fire and transformed into purer form of carbon that can be used as fuel.

Up until the early 20th century, people called colliers made the stuff -- and the work wasn't glamorous. "They lived in hovels," Gluck said, "in the woods."

Credit Collection of Cornwall Historical Society, Cornwall, CT
Census records from the 1880s indicate colliers in Cornwall, Connecticut were often immigrants, with many coming from France.

Today, if you’re lucky, you can find relics of those hovels: old stone chimneys, islanded in the middle of the forest. But as Gluck and I stumbled off-trail, we needed a keener eye. Here, there aren't any old chimneys -- just less-obvious signs of charcoal mounds: subtle undulations in the land, about 30 feet in diameter, that are covered with soil that's black, not brown.

Eventually, we stumbled into one and found some charcoal. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Holding the small shards of black charcoal, you can't help but imagine what it was like to manage a charcoal pit in the 18th and 19th century.

Back then, Connecticut's forests would have looked a lot different. Hills were stripped of trees and wood was piled to make charcoal. 

Credit Collection of Cornwall Historical Society, Cornwall, CT
Collection of Cornwall Historical Society, Cornwall, CT
Each charcoal mound was about 20 to 30 feet in diameter and would use up to 30 cords of wood. Burn time could take weeks and charcoal was used mainly in iron furnaces, but also feed brass foundries and the tobacco industry.

To learn how colliers did this, I met up with Lance Hansen from the wildlife division at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Outside of work, he’s a bit of a charcoal obsessive. As we hiked at Goodwin State Forest in Hampton, I can see why.

"There’s a point where you’ll be like, Ahh! because it’s right there in the center of the view," Hansen said. "That's intentional to get people to come check out this architectural folly out in the woods."

Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
Lance Hansen constructed his charcoal mound with assistance from several other volunteers. Sticking out at the top is the fagan pole (marked "FP"), which would have been used to help control the burn. Normally charcoal mounds would be packed with wet leaves and covered in dirt while the wood inside (pictured above) would burn.

Out here in the forest, Hansen has actually built a replica charcoal mound. Wood is piled several feet high, a smaller-scale model of what colliers would have done centuries ago to make fuel.

There’s a chimney in the center and "it's basically stacked logs and you try to make it as tight as possible. This is where you don't want air coming in," Hansen said. "Then you fill the inside of it all with logs, smaller logs, that when you eventually are going to dump in the embers to light it, that’s what will catch."

The mound would burn down from the inside out -- with wood stacked in concentric rings falling inward as the center burned. Colliers tended to the embers with a big stick called a fagan pole.

"The collier could lift it out," Hansen said. "They can see from the charring how it’s going - as the pile shifts as it starts to burn, it helps them find the center."

To do this, the collier would actually climb on top of the mound -- and sometimes, have to “jump the pit,” leaping over what was essentially a smoldering hellmouth. One 1901 newspaper account describes a 16-year-old collier in West Cornwall who fell 20 feet into one mound -- his clothing ablaze as he climbed out of the pit, walked home and, eventually, died. 

Credit Collection of Cornwall Historical Society, Cornwall, CT
Charcoal-makers, also known as "colliers," would often tend several charcoal mounds at a time. The work could be dull, dangerous, and dirty.

But colliers seemed to think the risks were worth it. After all, Hansen said the nearby market for charcoal was huge.

"You think metal in that time -- you think Pennsylvania, Ohio, would have been the place," Hansen said. "No, it was Connecticut -- northwest corner of Connecticut, Berkshires, and Massachusetts and then eastern New York."

A place called the Salisbury Iron District hosted dozens of iron furnaces from the time ore was discovered there in 1731.

By a waterfall on the Blackberry River in East Canaan, notched into a side-hill, I looked at one of the places where, starting in 1847, charcoal from all over Connecticut, and later the nation, would be burned: the Beckley Iron Furnace.

Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
Ed Kirby and Dick Paddock are two volunteers who told me about the history of Beckley Furnace, which was built in 1847 and produced "pig iron" until 1919. Pig iron was so named for the way the molten metal looked when it was poured -- flowing into a crosswise channel called a "sow" and feeding into smaller attached ingot molds. "Because this looks like piglets on a sow, that's the nomenclature," Paddock said.

For nearly 200 years, iron ore from the Salisbury district turned up everywhere. Charcoal burned in the region's furnaces created cannons used during the American Revolution. Later on, Dick Paddock, a volunteer at the Beckley Furnace, said local iron was a hit in one other particular market.

"Railroad freight car wheels. Thirty-three inch freight car wheels. For reasons we don’t yet fully understand, iron from this portion of Connecticut was exceptionally strong and resistant to cracking," Paddock said. "The contemporary information we have from the period they manufactured them says that they usually would outlast the cars they were under."

But Paddock said the iron industry here had another lasting legacy: open space.

Here's what happened: Beckley and other furnaces consumed so much charcoal that acres and acres of land were bought up, trees taken down, burned, and made into charcoal. After a while, it was hard to keep up.

"Toward the end of operation here, charcoal -- and/or wood for charcoal -- was coming from Vermont and as far away as Michigan," Paddock said. "We had consumed our forests."

But the trees on that charcoal land kept growing, even after Beckley closed in 1919. "And therefore, that land never developed," Paddock said. "Because it was being used as a resource. And that’s where we get things like Peoples State Forest, Great Mountain Forest, and Housatonic Meadows. That’s all old iron company land that was being used as charcoal source."

Which today, is open space for us to enjoy: re-grown forest, pockmarked with shards of hidden charcoal -- that, if you know where to look, are subtle windows into our state's industrial past.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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