Charcoal, the black gold of early Leadville

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local history – December 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE REMNANTS of Leadville’s wild and woolly frontier mining boom days are evident throughout the “Cloud City,” from the weathered headframes and tailings piles of its historic mining district to the 1879 Silver Dollar Saloon on downtown Harrison Avenue.

About eight miles south of Leadville, plainly visible to the west of U.S. Highway 24, stands a relic of an equally important, albeit far less well-known industry.

It’s a large, beehive-shaped, brick charcoal kiln. To modern residents of Central Colorado, charcoal is little more than a prerequisite for a backyard barbecue. But when Leadville was founded, the lowly lump of charcoal fueled its blacksmith and machine shops, assay offices, and smelters. Charcoal was so essential to the processes used to recover and extract gold, silver, lead, and zinc that in 1879, Leadville’s charcoal industry employed an estimated 3,000 people–three times the number of those working in the mines.

Charcoal, which is made by distilling wood to its carbon content, has been known to man for more than 5,000 years. Superior to wood because it burns hotter and cleaner, charcoal was the fuel used in the Bronze and Iron ages to smelt ore, that is, to heat and separate metals from waste rock.

But charcoal was much more than an energy source. The ancient Egyptians utilized a form of charcoal in their embalming process. Native North Americans swore by charcoal as a remedy for digestive ailments. Even the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended charcoal for medicinal purposes.

Indeed, charcoal may have been the original wonder drug. Ingested or made into a poultice, natural charcoal served as an antidote to poisons, a purifier of food and water, a treatment for snake and spider bites, an aid to healing skin and intestinal infections, even a deodorant.

In early Leadville, charcoal had yet another admirable quality: It was, in a sense, worth its weight in gold.

According to the June 6, 1879 Leadville Evening Chronicle, forty cords of wood, costing from $1.15 per cord for green wood to $1.50 for dry, could yield more than 1,000 bushels of charcoal. The finished charcoal sold for eight to 10 cents per bushel, down from a high the previous winter of 30 cents.

Experienced colliers, or charcoal makers, were paid one hundred dollars per month (“working early and late, Sunday as well as the other days,” the Chronicle noted), while assistants took home $2.50 a day.

With per-pound prices of staples at four cents for corn meal, 14 cents for bacon, ham or sugar, and 25 cents for coffee, charcoal-makers could earn a fine living.

LEADVILLE WAS PRETTY MUCH MADE to order for aspiring charcoal entrepreneurs. The 19th-century charcoal industry thrived in the absence of alternative fuels like coal. Early Leadville, with a burgeoning mining district that consumed huge quantities of fuel, lacked both nearby coal sources and a rail line for shipping in coal.

Because demand was so great, previous charcoal-making experience, while certainly helpful, was not required. And the area’s seemingly endless expanses of forest, coupled with a lack of government regulation, meant that an individual could simply select a site and begin work, with no fees to pay or papers to file.

The basic process of making charcoal consisted of slowly burning cut, split, aged, dry wood in a restricted air supply. In the East, hardwood like oak, hickory and ash was the preferred wood source. In Leadville, it was the abundant pine. The burn took place either in a shallow pit covered with soil, on an earthen mound called a “hearth,” or in a brick kiln or oven fitted with ventilation holes around the base and near the top.

Charcoal from kilns was often of higher quality because the collier could better control the burn. Nevertheless, many Leadville charcoal makers, particularly those on shoestring budgets, produced their product in pits or hearths. Brick kilns were, after all, expensive and time-consuming to construct.

And time meant money in this year-old city where daily mine output had already soared to an astounding $35,000.

The June 6, 1879 Evening Chronicle contained the following description of typical Leadville charcoal operations:

“…The majority of charcoal pits are about three times as high as broad and shaped like a roof; the length of wood used being about twelve feet, and the pit contains on an average, about fifty cords. Including the time required in clearing off the ground it will take five men three and one-half days to erect the pit and prepare it to be lighted.”

It seemed like the entire city was making charcoal.

“In every wooded canon [sic] near Leadville the smoke from the … kiln is seen, and stacks of wood waiting its turn,” the Chronicle continued. “It is probable that 5,000 cords are already chopped, enough for 125,000 bushels of charcoal. Good judges estimate the charcoal on hand and burning at twice as many bushels . . . The number of men employed is hard to get at, some placing its number at 5,000, others at 3,000, and it is probable that the former is on the outside and the latter the minimum figure. This does not include the men and teams employed in hauling.

“The pay for the charcoal is sure, when it is measured at the furnace melter the hauler and burner have their money without waiting a minute. Besides the furnaces, a vast number of blacksmith shops, hotels, restaurants and assay offices increase the demand. Charcoal burning at present pays good wages, and has prospects of bigger ones in the future, as many irresponsible, inexperienced hands are going out of business.”

Several weeks later, the Chronicle issued a mid-year summary of the district’s mining and smelting activities.

“. . . Leadville smelters are each twenty-four hours taking the gold, silver and lead from five hundred tons of ore, and in doing it . . . using eight thousand five hundred bushels of charcoal. . .”

The same report noted that since May 14, a single furnace had been smelting 45 tons of ore per day for the Little Pittsburg, New Discovery, Pendery, Morning Star, Carboniferous, Vulture and Gallagher mines. The furnace owners, who planned to “blow in” a second furnace shortly, had 25,000 bushels of charcoal on hand, the newspaper added.

Leadville’s briefly-thriving charcoal industry collapsed when the arrival of the railroad in 1880 assured a steady supply of cheap coal from the mines of Frémont County.

While the hearths and pits have all but vanished, the remains of charcoal kilns scattered around Lake County stand as mute testimony to an industry that helped make Leadville’s early metals production possible.

Maybe Leadville really was built, not on gold nuggets and silver-lead carbonates, but on chunks of blackened wood. That may be something to think about if you find a lump of charcoal in your Christmas stocking this year.

Lynda La Rocca lives and writes near Leadville, and during the week or so of summer, she burns charcoal in the hibachi pot on her front porch.