Colliers of New Hartford
By: Walter Landgraf & James Monroe Smith
Colliers or charcoal makers were in great demand in Litchfield County, including New Hartford, from the mid-1700s to the mid-1930s. Colliers were also referred to as wood-cutters or coal makers.
Colliers were prominent in the region because charcoal was needed to support:
• the iron making industry in the Canaan & Salisbury (note: charcoal was used for the smelting of iron for railroad wheels; ship’s anchors, nails, and other products);
• the tobacco industry throughout the area (which used charcoal to cure tobacco);
• the brass industry in Waterbury; and
• the gun powder industry (note: there was a large powder mill in Canton, CT)
The iron industry had the greatest demand for charcoal. Circa (year) Northwest Connecticut, for example, had 20 furnaces for the smelting of iron ore. The average furnace used 7-14,000 cords of wood/year in the form of charcoal. Thus, 20 furnaces would have used upwards of 280,000 cords of wood/year.
Both blast and puddling furnaces were used to purify iron. The furnaces mentioned above were all blast furnaces, which released iron from the iron ore. They produced finished pigs of cast iron (called pig iron or cast iron) that was further purified in puddling furnaces, several of which were located in the area. The area between Pine Meadow and Satan’s Kingdom was known as Puddletown because of the puddling furnace there and the community of workers located there to man the furnace. The writings of Sam Collins, who founded the Collins Company in (year), indicate that he encouraged the development of the puddling works in New Hartford because he would use the iron refined there for his own business.
Most of the colliers in New Hartford worked hearths in the area of Nepaug/Satan’s Kingdom and in Bakerville (the Cotton Hill area). Although colliers comprised all ethnicities, a large percentage were African-American. Litchfield County had more African Americans than any other Connecticut county in the early 1800s.
The Region’s Contribution to the Revolutionary War
In the early 1700s there was a forge in Collinsville (where the site of the Collins Company was later built). After this was destroyed by a flood in January 1770, Richard Smith built another one in what is now Colebrook (in a section of Colebrook known as Robertsville). These forges would become significant during the Revolutionary War, the time period for their first period of peak production. In fact, people working in forges were granted deferments from revolutionary war service.
The Process of Making Charcoal
Colliers lived in huts out in the woods near the hearths they operated (author’s note: many readers have undoubtedly heard of the charcoal pit. Although charcoal pits existed in Africa, they were not used in the United States.
The hearth was a flat area cleared in the woods about thirty feet wide that was surrounded by a depression or barrow. The barrow drained moisture from the area (more). The hearths that the colliers operated are easily identifiable in the woods today because the area is free of any trees or vegetation. Because charcoal absorbs minerals, the soil has been depleted of minerals needed to support vegetation. Additionally, vegetation would not grow in these areas because of the high alkalinity of the soil due to the presence of ash.
Colliers made charcoal on three hearths at a time: while one hearth was burning a wood “pile” to make charcoal, a second pile was built. While the first pile was cooling, the second pile would burn, and the third pile would be built. Colliers would repeat this process five times in a season. During the winter, colliers would cut wood. As already suggested, an enormous amount of wood was cut. For example, the pile on one hearth contained 30 cords of wood. Therefore, since the collier operated three piles at a time (90 cords of wood) five times per season, he would burn 450 cords of wood per season. Because each acre yielded about 30 cords of wood, 15 acres would provide the 450 cords of wood burned in one season by one collier. The 450 cords of wood burned yielded 15,750-18,000 bushels of charcoal per season. In order to put this amount in perspective, relative to the amount of charcoal that was used by large industries, it is interesting to note that Barnam & Richardson’s operations in Salisbury used 1 million bushels of charcoal per year!
Making the Pile
The pile on each hearth was built in a methodical way. After the hearth was cleared, wood was delivered and organized. Two different dimensions of wood was used: billets (4 feet long and 4-7 inches in diameter) and lapwood (4 feet long and 1.5-4 inches in diameter). A fagan pole, 18 feet high, was set in the center of the hearth to guide pile formation. Then, a three-sided chimney was made out of lapwood and built to the height of the pile. The pile was then constructed of billets and lapwood. It measured 28 foot in diameter at the base and 14 feet high. The pile was then covered with leaves or ferns and dusted with fine dirt to a depth of one foot on the head (note: this allowed control of air entering the pile). The chimney was then filled with small wood and fired with coals from the campfire.
Burning Wood in the Pile
Firing the pile required 10 to 14 days to reach post or foot, meaning all chemicals except carbon had been driven out of the wood and charcoal had been formed. The ability to control the burning of the wood in a pile was an art. There were several practical challenges. First, a fire naturally burns upward and outward—but the collier’s fire needed to burn downward and it needed to remain inward. Further, the gas produced in burning the wood (mainly methyl alcohol and carbon monoxide) provided most of the fuel that enabled the fire to continue to burn. The collier controlled the fire with vents on the outside of the pile.
More on the Charcoal Industry in New Hartford
The existence of the charcoal industry in New Hartford is evidenced by various references in New Hartford’s land records, aerial photos of New Hartford as late as 1934, and the presence of a staging area (or collection area) for local charcoal that was produced.
References to the Charcoal Industry in New Hartford’s Land Records
Many deeds in New Hartford’s Land Records contain references to coal land or sprout land. Sprout land contained predominantly oak and chestnut trees of sufficient diameter for production of billets and lapwood (note: the charcoal used by the power industry was made from willow and buckhorn). After land was cleared it took another 30 years for the sprouts to reach the required 6 to 8 inches diameter needed for billets). After colliers cleared the land, which they would not be need for another 30 years, they often failed to pay taxes on the land.
Who Were the Colliers of New Hartford
Because of the labor involved in making charcoal, colliers could not work independently. They often worked with other family members. Children hauled wood and later, after the charcoal was made, to haul it to wagons. The charcoal was then transported along “charcoal roads” to staging areas. Actual names of many colliers are lost to history.