PITTSFIELD The crucial stage in the charcoal-making process that took place on every Berkshire mountainside during the 19th century was the burning, as the woodlands were reduced to fuel the iron furnaces. In spring, hundreds of colliers, after perfecting their pits of partly seasoned, fall- and winter-cut wood, climbed their pole ladders with a pail of red-hot coals.
Like so many woodchucks cleaning spring burrows, they removed dirt and leaves and two "bridgen" billets from the wooden chimney opening at the center of the great covered pile made up of sometimes 50 cords of wood. The coals were dumped onto the timber and the opening, carefully sealed with wood and re-covered with leaves and dirt.
Before the long vigil commenced, the collier needed a good night’s rest, so he usually fired his pit at dusk, expecting that it would not burn through or need tending before the next afternoon. However, the last thing before taking to his slab shanty, crude lean-to, or earthen dugout, he took the precaution of checking over the entire pit to block out any last-minute air leak that might cause flame. For it was slow burning that caused the wood to char rather than ignite. A burning flame was fatal; a "dead fire" the absolute necessity.
Each night thereafter the skilled collier danced like Satan about his pit; for only at night did the tell-tale flickers and sparks show to best advantage where trouble spots might be developing.
Each night he climbed his pole ladder as cautiously as Blondin tightroping Niagara. The chances were good that he knew the story of the child who had disappeared forever in a charcoal inferno on Canaan Mountain.
He stepped gingerly around the "head" and "bridgen" seeking out any soft spots or "mulls" where the wood had shrunk or settled. When he found one, he stomped heavily on the firm part around it, working slowly toward the "mull," which he carefully opened, filled solid with new wood, and covered again. This dangerous job was called "jumping the pit." Only when it was done to his satisfaction could he catch a few more winks of sleep.
Each day at intervals, the catnapping collier climbed to his chimney, removed the bridgen and rammed the "fagan" up and down in the midst of the pile. By the feel he could gauge the location and extent of charring. Accordingly, to correct uneven burning, he opened the necessary drafts in the "foot."
When the pit burned uniformly, a puff of blue smoke smelling of pitch and tar occasionally backfired from the vents. It was said this blue smoke gave the colliers a ravenous appetite, so they fell with a will upon their diet of bush beef (smoked, corned or frozen venison). White smoke, on the other hand, meant too much draft or too dry wood.
The length of time needed to "burn off" a pit depended on the size of the hearth and the kind of wood and weather conditions. High winds and rain with both unfavorable for good charring. The average time for 30 cords of partly seasoned wood to char was from 10 days to two weeks.
It took still more time to cool and rake out the coal. The collier opened the pit where the covering earth was driest. He shoved out coal along the outer rim until he found signs of fire, whereupon he hurriedly threw back dry dust to reseal the pit for a waiting period.
Finally word reached the drivers that certain pits were cooled. One fine day just at sun-up, the wagons rolled in over the narrow, winding, steep but carefully graded woodroads. The size of the high-sided wagons varied according to the number of horses or mules that pulled them, but all were so high that the driver sitting out front could see only straight ahead.
Using the long rakes and shallow charcoal baskets, many hands pitched in to load the carts. It was the common practice to carry the laden baskets on the head so that an extension of the arms, neatly flipped the three bushels over the high side of the cart. This meant that all the coal workers were black from head to foot except for their gleaming white teeth what were constantly chewing charcoal.
As we picture the last of the charcoal wagons, top-heavy with a 200-pound bushel load, jouncing down a stripped mountainside toward the molten, setting sun of the last Richmond furnace, let us consider the price of the commodity.
Before the Revolution, it fetched an English halfpenny a bushel. Thereafter, for many years a penny a bushel was standard, though this gradually rose to 6 cents by the Civil War. The rise continued until the price was fixed at 20 cents during World War I. After that war, the price suddenly jumped to 31 cents, native coal no longer being available.
The charcoal grill has doubled that several times over. Now, for the kiln-produced briquettes you pay at least at the rate of $2.25 per bushel. Here we have shown you how to produce the same fuel in your own woodlot for half a cent.
Morgan Bulkeley III, who died last September at the age of 99, wrote an Our Berkshires column for The Eagle from 1960 through 1973. The Eagle is running periodic samples. This column is from February 15, 1973 and is Part II on the charcoal-making process (Part 1 was reprinted on August 4). The little-known history of Mount Washington’s charcoal industry is being illustrated at the Copake Iron Works site in Taconic State Park, adjacent to the recreational area of Bish Bash Falls, through August and September. The exhibit uses historical records, maps, photographs, sketches, and writings to reconstruct the story of how charcoal workers, or colliers, used the hardwoods in the mountaintop community to create charcoal. The museum is open daily and admission is free.