Charcoal-iron, railroad car wheels and engine cylinder blocks

| January/February 1981

Beach Hill Road, New Ashford, Massachusetts 01237

Two well-known railroads, The Pennsylvania and the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul, used and highly praised the railroad car wheels cast by the Richmond Iron Works at Richmond, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, claiming they never had an accident traceable to a wheel cast by this company. Early steam, gas and auto engine manufacturers used Richmond iron for casting cylinder blocks claiming they outlasted blocks cast using other iron then available.

To most readers this may appear unusual as Massachusetts is not known as an iron producing state. In retrospect, for the first one hundred years of this country's history, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the leading iron producing section. Saugus, near the coast, had in 1643 what was then considered a large furnace fired by charcoal and a large foundry powered by three water wheels; then as other areas opened more and more small furnaces, some with foundries started producing what was called charcoal iron (actually pig iron and/or wrought iron). The ore may be available and plentiful but without charcoal it could not be converted to iron as the use of anthracite, the Bessmer system and the famous Pittsburgh area did not start until after 1860. So charcoal making became a large and  widely spread business from Colonial times up to 1900 then tapering off to or shortly after World War I.

I was raised in a charcoal-iron section of western Massachusetts. While the peak of activity was long before my time, I did witness the close-out and bits of history and hearsay were absorbed and are condensed in the following brief pictorial history. While strictly Berkshire County, they applied to similar areas and times through New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas, wherever the right combination of forest land, iron ore and limestone was found.

Photo #1. In our small town of New Ashford I know of the remains of four farm-type kilns as shown. I have one on my farm. Presently it is a circle in the forest, but if one kicks aside the vegetation, bits of charcoal may be found. The demand for coal was ever present. It took a cord of wood to make twenty to thirty bushels of coal and sixty to one hundred bushes to make one ton of iron. In the beginning it sold for five cents per bushel and the last for 30 cents per bushel.

Photo #2. About three miles from here the commercial charcoal kiln shown operated up to just before World War I. As a youngster I took this picture in the early twenties. Actually, there were two identical  kilns. While one was burning and cooling the other was being loaded; the cycle took about two weeks. Notice the iron band where the kiln starts to corbel inward. This was quite a casting and was necessary to control the expansion and contraction and the occasional small explosions of accumulated gases. The opening contained two heavy cast iron doors and a heavy cast iron frame. The frames and doors were removed soon after they were shut down and re-installed in lime kilns in a nearby town; both kilns were dismantled for the brick in 1934.