If you spent days, a week, perhaps a couple weeks laboriously creating something of value would you walk away and just leave it in the woods? Hidden beneath decades of leaf litter and hemmed in by growing trees in Connecticut’s Peoples State Forest is just such a treasure. Although long lasting, it’s not something sculpted of stone or a rusting antique piece of machinery. Most people tramping among the rocks and trees between the Greenwoods Road and Chaugham’s Lookout would hardly notice the somewhat circular mound about eight yards in diameter and about a yard-and-a-half high. Even if they did, it’s unlikely they would know what it is without digging into the lightweight, jet black fragments below the duff of many autumns. Under leaves, brush and sticks is a pile of charcoal perhaps a century old.
The Peoples Forest mound is a remnant of a once significant industry that has largely disappeared from memory. Charcoal was an essential fuel in blacksmithing, metal manufacturing, and iron making. Powdered charcoal was used in paints and printers’ inks, gunpowder and medicines. A product of high commercial value produced only with tedious, backbreaking work, this mound is both curious and unusual because rather than being carted off and sold, it was left to the elements.
Charcoal making was widespread in Connecticut’s uplands from early in the nineteenth century into the first decades of the twentieth. In hundreds of places and visible from many hiking trails there is evidence of long ago charcoaling in our woodlands. Look for a flattened, somewhat circular area about fifteen feet in diameter. Often called a hearth, this is where charcoal was created. A shallow trench usually runs along the circumference. Another telltale sign is the growth sometimes of different vegetation within the circle caused by charcoal’s low acidity. Scratching the ground reveals blackened soil and small chunks of coal. Stepping onto a hearth feels like entering a small room within a forest. These spots evidence not only a bygone industry in places now appearing remote, but an entire subculture of hardworking colliers (charcoal makers), rough outsiders often shunned by society.
Charcoal is a form of carbon made from charring, or baking wood in the absence of air. During Connecticut’s industrial revolution, colliers would clear and level these slightly raised areas in the woods on which they would build a conical stack of cut hardwood. The mounds ranged in size, but were typically about ten to fourteen feet high and thirty to forty feet in diameter and built around a central post. Logs were carefully stacked so as to avoid gaps, and then covered with sod, dirt, moss, and leaves to minimize air infiltration, keeping the burn at a smolder that did not ignite into flames.
Unseen for generations, such stacks were once common in the early spring woods. Like a ghostly apparition out of the past, one of these beehive-shaped structures has been recreated beside the Red/White Loop Trail in Goodwin State Forest in Hampton. It’s a small version with only two levels of four-foot vertically stacked logs surrounding an interior of smaller cross-laid pieces arranged horizontally. Nevertheless, it’s a startling sight.
Colliers fired their mounds by dropping live embers down an opening around the central pole which was then closed. Depending on size, the smoky burn might continue for a couple weeks or even longer. Colliers had to tend the hearth constantly to make sure it burned evenly, did not go out or burst into flame. The color of the smudgy smoke—white, black, bluish, yellowish or gray—revealed what was happening inside.
Charcoaling was poor man’s bull work. It “was not for any normal human being,” wrote artist and author Eric Sloane. “There were so many things to watch for in a ‘live mound’ that the man almost became part of it. By the end of each charring, his body had become completely black outside and exhausted inside.”
Colliers were a hard lot. In some places they were called “Raggies” for their tattered clothes and coarse manners. They slept little, built crude temporary shelters of sticks and bark, sometimes with tiny fireplaces of fieldstone for cooking and warmth. A collier might hunt or tend gardens to supplement food brought by family and friends. Some are said to have sat on one legged stools so they would awaken if they nodded off. Working in every kind of weather, they were dirty and unkempt outsiders on the far fringe of polite company. Sometimes near an old charcoal circle, a fireplace jumbled stones can be found as a reminder of the collier’s lifestyle.
In the nineteenth century charcoal was in high demand. A mound might contain ten to fifty cords of wood and yield about 40 bushels of coal per cord. An iron furnace could use 350,000 bushels a year. Even a large mound could supply such an operation for only about a couple days. As early as the 1830s, anthracite coal from Pennsylvania began replacing charcoal as trees became scarcer. Still, charcoal’s superior qualities kept old-timey colliers employed well into the twentieth century.
The People’s Forest charcoal mound is a living fossil, a gritty time capsule that has fired the interest of historians and archaeologists. But the mystery of why this valuable product was never raked out and carted away remains. Could there have been foul play? In 1826 a man in Norfolk was murdered over ownership of a charcoal hearth. Maybe the collier became ill or the buyer reneged. Some have speculated that there might have been defects in the coal caused by poor mound construction, burning technique, or using the wrong species of wood.
Charcoaling fueled the production of farm tools, military cannons, railcar wheels, horseshoes, and myriad other useful things that helped build today’s world. The industry’s repeated forest cutting continues to influence the woodlands we now experience. Remnants of charcoal making literally embed our landscape with a kind of cultural memory long after people have forgotten.
Charcoal hearths in the woods stretch the imagination with stories of industrial prowess in places now sleepy with trees. They offer cautionary tales about changing technology and the cultural dementia that often follows change. In these spaces live wild tales about an almost feral group of loners. Knowing how to look enables us to find ghosts.