Industrial capacity ranks high on the list of differences between the Northern and Southern states at the beginning
of hostilities in the 1860s. The north had a much greater ability to produce the items needed to wage war or defend their homes. Due
in part to the available quantity of the iron ore, limestone, and trees needed to run an iron furnace, many such establishments dotted
the northern landscape. The Hopewell Furnace in Elverson, Pennsylvania is one such example. Now a National Historic Site, the United
States National Park Service has preserved or restored much of the original furnace and the surrounding buildings. A walk among these
structures, first built prior to the American Revolution, offers a glimpse of how early Americans produced iron items for the new
country prior to and during the American Civil War.
To produce pig iron or iron products, early furnace workers
relied on charcoal for fuel. Rugged, hardworking men called Colliers would produce this valuable resource for the furnace.
The process proved difficult, laborious, and often dangerous. Colliers and their assistants would first locate a site to
establish several open-air charcoal hearths. To do so, they needed good, flat ground with an abundance of trees and available
leaves for cover. Once they cleared the identified sites and leveled the ground, the Collier and his assistants cut down trees
and then chopped the logs into the sizes needed to produce the charcoal. They would then create a triangular chimney
at the center of the hearth from some of the gathered wood. Next, they would stack the remaining logs around the chimney,
being careful to create a sturdy pile that was both safe to walk on and as tightly packed as possible.
Once the Collier completed the stack, he would cover it with leaves and
then soil to limit the amount of oxygen accessible to the logs. Wood placed in the chimney would be lit and then covered to
avoid open, burning flames. The Collier and his assistant(s) would monitor the stacks 24 hours a day for about 10 to 14 days,
ensuring the process continued as planned without an open burn destroying all of their hard work. They would monitor
the leaf and soil cover crucial to depriving the pile of the amount of oxygen required for an open burn, and fix any openings
that allowed too much air to enter into the pile. This sometimes involved walking on the smoldering pile which could prove
hazardous should the construction prove to be less sturdy than desired. If all proceeded as planned, the result was the removal
of water, creosote, and other impurities leaving the carbon necessary to fuel the furnace. Click
here for a series of images showing the primary steps in this process.
Collier's often lived in very primitive huts (above) near to their hearths to allow
for constant observation and tending. The Collier could rebuild their huts as needed as they moved from location to location, a
necessity given the large volume of trees harvested to produce the charcoal.
After the ten to fourteen days needed to cure the charcoal, the Collier
would rake off the carefully packed soil and leaves, being ever watchful for any potential flare ups. He and his assistants
would rake the charcoal into piles surrounding the hearth, separating them to avoid the potential loss of his entire stock
from any unanticipated sudden fires. Once he was satisfied that the danger of any fire was past, he would load a wagon
and take the often still warm charcoal to a cooling building. Once sufficiently cool, the charcoal would be poured into
a storage shed for later use. A portion of the Hopewell storage building can bee seen to the right
in the image here or to the left
of the connecting shed (covered walkway) in the image below.
A worker called a "Filler" would haul the
iron ore, limestone, and charcoal from the storage shed, through the covered connecting shed, to the awaiting iron furnace. He would
then pour the contents into the furnace chimney in the combination and amounts as dictated by the Founder. The Founder supervised all
of the workers employed at the furnace and answered only to the Ironmaster who often owned the foundry. The task of the Filler was
grueling, back-breaking work given the furnace's ravenous appetite for the raw ingredients needed to produce the desired molten iron.
Except for any possible needed repairs or necessary maintenance, the furnace usually remained fired 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
According to the United States National Park Service, Fillers fed on average about "400 to 500 pounds of iron ore, 30 to 40 pounds
of limestone, and about 15 bushels of charcoal" into the furnace every 30 minutes.
To the left you can see a current image of the base of the Hopewell
Furnace. (Click here for some NPS diagrams of the inside of a working furnace and
a working foundry.) In the early to mid 20th century, the National Park Service reconstructed much of the current structure surrounding
the furnace since the foundry itself was closed in 1883 and fell into a serious state of disrepair. In 1938, the Federal Government
established Hopewell as a National Historic Site.
As mentioned, the Founder monitored the entire process and determined when the iron was ready for tapping for use in molds or to
produce pig iron, crude rods of iron which would be shipped to other locations to be again melted down and used for other products.
At the bottom middle of this image, you can see the dam stone which the Founder used to hold back the molten iron until ready
to be tapped.
Not yet mentioned is one remaining crucial element needed to fan the
sometimes 3,000 degree temperatures inside the furnace. Water channeled from the surrounding hills flowed into a flume
which powered a large water wheel (pictured). Pistons connected to the wheel pumped a steady supply of air into the base of the
furnace. In the 1950s, the Park Service reconstructed and restored to working order the foundry's massive water wheel
which still runs today. Click here
for a brief video clip of the Hopewell Furnace Water Wheel and here for
a diagram showing how this wheel fed air into the iron furnace.
** Web author's note. As indicated above, this page is intended to offer a glimpse of how some lived prior to and during
the American Civil War. NPS staff state that the Hopewell Iron Furnace did not produce weaponry or ordinance for the American
Civil War. It did however produce both cannon and cannon balls for the American Revolution. For more information about the
Hopewell Iron Furnace National Historic Site, please visit their web site at