Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 310   June 9, 1984
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The use of charcoal is as old as the written history of mankind. There are many folk tales about the queer lonely men who lived in the forests, cutting wood and converting it into charcoal. In Europe it is still an important fuel for such purposes, for heating homes and, in some countries, for special motors on small automobiles. As late as our Civil War, gunpowder was made from a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur -- the charcoal being specifically prepared from the wood of such trees as willow, alder and soft maple.

Until 1337, when the hotblast process was discovered, using coke made from coal, charcoal was the only fuel that could be used in the smelting of iron ore. Charcoal burning was an important industry and the "colliers" who supervised the process were respected as craftsmen. Iron making flourished in early New England but by 1750, Pennsylvania, with its wealth of iron ore, limestone, water power and hardwood timber for charcoal. took the lead and became the richest of the thirteen colonies. It supplied most of the pig iron for the armies of General Washington, and rusting cannonballs are still to be found at the remains of some of those old charcoal-fired furnaces. In those days the woodlands of Pennsylvania were always covered with the thin blue haze of smoke from burning charcoal "pits" and the colliers' huts.

The best grade of charcoal was made from chestnut, oak and hickory. Pines and other conifers were not used. It took 5-1/4 cords of wood (672 cubic feet) to make one ton of charcoal. and two tons of charcoal to produce one ton of pig iron. Each of the many small coldblast iron furnaces consumed the equivalent of 50 to 75 acres of woodland per year and that went on for over 100 years.

The trunks and limbs of trees were cut and split into 4-foot lengths that ranged from 1-112 to 7 inches in diameter. After drying a few months, a circular layer of these "billets' and "lapwood" was carefully stacked. on end. over a clean level spot of ground. Other layers were stacked over the first and sloped inward to form a large compact rounded mound which had a chimney hole down through the center. The whole was covered with a layer of dead leaves, old charcoal dust and soil. After setting it afire at the top, the collier and his helper watched it day and night while the fire gnawed its way downward through the pile, regulating the draft so that it burned slowly, and repairing any breaks in the outer covering as it shrank and settled.

In southern Illinois, a little north of the Ohio River near Rosiclare, stands a ruin of one of those old iron furnaces; and north of Cairo, at the southern edge of the Shawnee National Forest, charcoal is now being produced in large brick kilns. Most modern charcoal, however, is made from sawdust, wood waste and timber unsuitable for other purposes, in big retorts which enable the recovery of by-products such as wood tar, acetone and wood alcohol. Nowadays, most folks think of charcoal as an expensive fuel to be purchased in paper bags for use on picnics and barbecues, or for broiling steaks in swanky restaurants. It makes a very hot clean fire with no smoke, fumes or ashes. and there is no better way of cooking a good steak nor of roasting sweet corn in its husks or "shucks", as they say in downstate Illinois. Just try that, this summer.

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